Are Bots The Anti-Social Media?

Facebook’s news at F8 that it is placing its chips on chat bots got me to thinking. I’ve been in the “social media” game for more than a decade now, long enough to remember the initial excitement surrounding social media — and long enough to have watched it evolve. And all the fuss about bots has me thinking that we’ve kind of come full circle in social or digital.

Back in the mid-2000s, as companies began to embrace blogging, the word on blogs was that they were a way to cut through the artifice and glitz of marketing and PR to get a more authentic communication with brands and their representatives. “Authenticity” became the hot buzzword, and corporate pioneers like Robert Scoble (then with Microsoft), Bob Lutz (GM), the hundreds of developers and engineers that we encouraged at IBM, and others began winning acclaim and attention for shedding the trappings of PR and being “real” with audiences. The more candid or “inside baseball” the discussions were, the more people seemed to like the blog.

When Facebook and Twitter emerged as business tools just before the end of the decade, the push for authentic and direct conversation with brands became even more intense. Brands rushed to show personality and be “real” and to provide personalized customer service via these platforms. Collectively, we seemed to herald in a new era of personal connection between brand and consumer, enabled by digital platforms that put brand and customer on an equal playing field and where artifice would be sniffed out by a public tired of seeing it from brands.

Fast forward to the middle of this decade. Facebook (via Messenger and WhatsApp), Kik, Snapchat and others are in a bot arms race, and bots appear to be the It Thing of 2016. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is proclaiming that “bots are the new apps.” And we’re all talking about the possibilities enabled by AI bots that can automate the interaction between consumer and brand.

ABC News Chat Bots.jpg

Wait, what? In a space where “authenticity” used to be the price of entry, now we’re excited that the future of the space might well be defined by artificial interaction? How did that happen? Is this some cruel joke played by conniving marketers doing their best Simon Bar Sinister  impression and laughing maniacally at the trick we’ve played on the audience?

No. The answer is just one word long: Scale.

We made a good faith effort in the corporate world, we really did. We tried to enable as much individual interaction as possible. But just as individual users of social platforms often found themselves unable to keep up with large networks online, companies found that it was too hard to scale to have conversations with everyone who wanted to interact with them. We didn’t have the bandwidth or the staffing to keep up. And so comes the rise of the AI bots, automating the process for us.

The funny thing is, the audience doesn’t seem to mind. Users don’t seem to care anymore whether it’s a real person behind the interaction or a bot perpetuating the illusion of a personality.  As long as our information gathering or purchase process is as seamless and easy as promised, we’re okay with artificiality. We’ve exchanged authenticity for simplicity.

And so here we are, back where we started: with interactions between brand and consumer missing a human element. That’s not necessarily a wholly bad thing, by the way; as I’ve said, scaling to meet the volume of interactions many brands face is a huge resource challenge. Bots seem like a decent solution to that problem, and they do provide significant opportunity for brands. I for one welcome our new bot overlords. But seriously, I am excited about the possibilities.

It’s just funny how social/digital has now come full circle. We’ve gone from one-to-many mass communication, detoured briefly into one-to-one interaction (admittedly in front of a mass audience), and now appear to be ready to move to one-to-bot interaction. Plus ca change, and all that.

Look at the bright side. Not many bots are going to care about their personal brands.


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