Newsletter 29 November 2023: Fakery vs authenticity; nonfiction author ripoff; invest like a Munger

This person does not exist

Newsletter 20. Merriam-Webster’s word of the year; suing Microsoft and OpenAI; stop checking your grades; plus three people to follow, three books to read, and the perfect gift for the author in your life.


I always thought the advice and books on how to be authentic were a little silly. Who wants to be fake? As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”

Except, dammit, he didn’t actually say that. And that’s the problem.

This is the perfect moment for “authentic” to be Merriam-Webster’s word of the year because, with a little help from neural networks and AI, the fakes are spreading like kudzu and turning the Web into a wasteland.

Fake travel books full of bad advice by nonexistent writers.

Fake product reviews that undo our faith in our fellow consumers.

Fake writers on mainstream media sites like Sports Illustrated. As Maggie Harrison describes in “Futurism,” some of the magazine’s writers have turned out to be nonexistent AI constructions, and there’s pretty good evidence some of the articles were, too.

Fake influencers with 150,000 Instagram followers, attracting offers to go on a date from well-known actors.

And worst of all, fake conference speakers. At the DevTernity developer conference, some of the women speakers weren’t real people, according to Skift. The conference’s web site disappeared and the conference has been cancelled. They could have just browed a resource like Innovation Women, but its faster to live out the nerd clichè and create a fake woman because you couldn’t approach a real one.

It’s not the death of authenticity that has me worried. It’s the death of shame. DevTernity’s organizer Eduards Sizovs tweeted “I won’t defend myself because I don’t feel guilty. I did nothing terrible that I need to apologize for.”

This is a pivotal moment. The Web is going to fill up with crap, and we need to make clear the separation between that crap and reality. We must defend human-to-human creative interactions and elevate them above the fakery.


First: call out, demonize, shame, and boycott any media site, conference, or online bookstore with unlabelled AI content or fake authors. Legit media sites need to get the message now that it’s a priority to ban this bushwah. Publishing raw AI output is morally equivalent to publishing plagiarized content. Sites will make it a priority to ban fakery, but only if we flame them for posting imaginary things from imaginary people.

Second: patronize only social networks that offer real verification of users. I’m not saying that anonymous users mustn’t be allowed. I’m saying that you should easily be able to tell the difference. LinkedIn and Meta (Facebook, Instagram, Threads) verify. The “verification” on X is a meaningless, pernicious joke.

Third: write like a person, not like a machine. We can tell the difference. And what real humans write is always better.

News for authors and others who think

Julian Sancton and other nonfiction authors have sued OpenAI and Microsoft for copyright infringement. We are finally going to get to the heart of the question, to wit: Is it a copyright violation for machines to “ingest” nonfiction content for training purposes? There’s precedent on both sides. These decisions, once they come to the Supreme Court, will prove as pivotal as the original Napster decision was.

From the New York Times: Online grade tracking with parental access is mangling the relationships of teachers, students, and parents (gift link). Parents, leave your kids to their own, er, devices. The earlier you reinforce the primacy of the numbers-driven grade-happy hyper-competitive world, the more you’ll squash their creativity — and the more likely they’ll be to develop anxiety or depression.

Charlie Munger, the investment wizard behind Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, died at age 99 (gift link). His good advice: “Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices; instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.” Replace “businesses” with every other thing you buy and you’ll see he’s exactly right.

Three people to follow

Laura Fitton, smart, clever, and experienced marketer and writer, ex-Hubspot. She’s looking now so you really should hire her before somebody else does.

Brenda Meller, the wizard of LinkedIn. I learned a lot from her. Just do whatever she says and you’ll be better off.

Cory Munchbach, Blueconic CEO and master of self-reflection and insight about startup life.

Three books to read

Low-Code/No-Code: Citizen Developers and the Surprising Future of Business Applications by Phil Simon (Racket Publishing, 2022). Getting applications done no longer needs C++, Python, or Rust.

A Life Full of Glitter: A Guide to Positive Thinking, Self Acceptance, and Finding Your Sparkle in a (Sometimes) Negative World by Anna O’Brien (Mango, 2018). Memoirs and insights on self-love from a successful plus-size model.

Marketing to Mindstates: The Practical Guide to Applying Behavior Design to Research and Marketing by Will Leach (Lioncrest, 2018). Bypass your target buyer’s resistance and filters.

The perfect holiday gift doesn’t exi–

If you know someone who’s been on the fence about whether to write a book, here’s the shove they need. Thirty bucks, and they’ll thank you.

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  1. Josh, you wrote, “It’s not the death of authenticity that has me worried. It’s the death of shame.” I’ve been thinking much about this in recent years and growing concerned. Scandals among institutions – churches, private schools and youth organizations (boy scouts), that had been sources of moral and virtue advocacy, have diminished their influence.

    We can and must do a better job of reinforcing the voices of responsible leaders.

    1. Ricky Gervais said that it is permissible to ridicule people for things they can choose, but not for things they have no choice about.

      If they choose to be stupid, venal, greedy liars, I’d say it’s not just permissible to ridicule them, but obligatory.