Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why I hate automation in human communication

The Twitter fail whale error message.Image via Wikipedia
Stephen Waddington was kind enough to ask for my thoughts on Bots (and specifically Twitter Bots) for his latest article on Reputation Online.

He's also blogged about his motivation for writing the article.

Stephen has compiled the thoughts of several social thinkers and you can read the aggregation in his article.

But I thought it may be good to share the interview Stephen conducted with me as part of that process, in full.

So, here it is:

Stephen: Is there a real world equivalent to script building in the virtual world? I'm looking for a metaphor?

Me: It's a little like someone who arrives at a university's Freshers' Week and goes about indiscriminately joining each and every club and society. And then they refuse to come to any of the meetings unless they first get appointed to the organising committee. By people they don't yet know and whom don't yet know them.
Or the speed dater who takes everyones number and doesn't call anyone.
Or the boss of a large org who expects everyone to greet him by name each morning but doesn't bother learning the names of his staff to respond with.
In short it's anti-social in the purist form: ie not the way humans expect each other to behave.

Stephen: Is the size of a network as a means of measuring influence/authority appropriate under any circumstances?

Me: If that network is a perfect match for the niche you are interested in. That is a perfect match, and a perfect match Right Now. But the reality is influence flows. It's a real-time web in a real-time world.
Think of a flock. Think of the times you tried to change the direction the flock was moving in. If you succeeded you may claim some influence. If you failed, where was the influence then? Same network - at least the same nodes - in play. But the interactions between the nodes vary on each occasion. And it is in the interactions that change-in-state occurs. Finding nodal start points is important, but the peer to peer mechanic itself is more vital.

Stephen: What is the downside of using a script to build a social network? Technically and socially?

Me: Technically it's likely you will be in breach of many networks' terms and conditions. Check out twitters rules, for an example. But more critically you will mark yourself out as using social networks in a broadcast, one-to-many way. No one wants to talk to someone who doesn't listen.
I have this dream that as us humans spot the bots we block them, refuse to follow them etc to such a degree that the fuzzy edge around our communities hardens against them. And we end up with a walled off Escape From New York scenario where the bots are all following each other, broadcasting welcome messages at each other. Every bot talking but nobody listening.

Stephen: Agencies are flogging bots as a means to build guaranteed follower numbers? How should an agency that deems this inappropriate counter this from a sale perspective?

Me: Well, we have to point out that follower numbers don't equal interaction or desired outcome. Social media means nothing in its own right. We have the best set of tools for connecting people in history. So what are you going to do with them? Harvest eyeballs? Come on! Ditch the spam-tastic waste machine of the 20th century - get efficient. Keep your million eyeballs, I'd rather connect with a small group of people who care sufficiently about the purpose at hand to want to make it better. These people find each other through genuine human interactions, not carpet bombing. Famous for 15 people beats famous for 15 minutes.

Stephen: What should clients/agencies be measuring?

Me: Outcomes.

Stephen: Are there any other points that you'd want to make on this topic?

Me: There is an exception to my anti-auto position. It is to take advantage of the growing Web of Things. Automated reports from devices, buildings etc that I choose to receive status reports from are welcome. I'm also ok with bloggers adding an RSS feed of their posts (and similar) provided that isn't the only or major representation of themselves in any particular network. If the content prompts conversation in the environment in which it is shared, or helps people with shared purpose find each other, that's a good thing.

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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?