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March 16, 2015

Rise (or Descent) of the Bots

Posted by Amitabh Mudaliar (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:12 AM

Rise (or Descent) of the Bots
Bots are incredibly convenient ways to publicize a brand or organization to people who depend on social media for a lot of their day

Have you ever heard the story of Lajello? We all have our 15 seconds of fame, and for a while, he was one of the most popular characters on the Internet. Why? Because he was a prominent and well respected member in a social media network for book lovers. Very high brow stuff. He was known to recommend books that he had read and for a time became the second-most "liked" person in that online group.

The problem was that Lajello was nothing more than an algorithm. Many book lovers had sustained long online conversations with Lajello and some even shared their innermost thoughts and emotions. Turns out they were speaking to a "bot." There's a startling new study that finds one in five of us accepts "bots" unknowingly into our online worlds. We befriend them, talk with them, and treat them like a member of the family.

Now I know what you must be thinking if you're part of a consumer-focused enterprise: Bots sound too good to be true! They can talk to consumers and publicize your brand. But the flip side is that they can influence consumer opinion in the wrong direction and sometimes cause a lot of trouble. Right before Facebook went public in the largest IPO in history, someone tried to flood the Internet with some 10 billion bots who, right before the company went public, displayed their true identities - nothing more than algorithms written to look like online accounts and legitimate, living, breathing people.

Fortunately for Facebook, that ruse was discovered and foiled at the last minute. If it had succeeded, perhaps Facebook's IPO would have gone bust. Just think of the loss of trust in a social network if 10 billion online "people" turn out to be fake. Bots are the bane of many a social media network. I'm told that Twitter is constantly at war with bots, which is kind of funny when you think about it. Algorithms fighting other algorithms. Twitter not only uses courts of law to fight them but also is employing machine-learning technology to root them out.

When someone criticizes anything or anyone associated with the military, I sometimes remind them that some of the world's greatest innovations and technology (from night vision goggles to canned food) came out of departments of defense. In this same spirit, I find it fascinating that advances in Artificial Intelligence is coming about because large corporations like Twitter are developing machine-learning technology to fight those pesky and bothersome bots.

Of course, if I were to present another perspective, I would say that bots are incredibly convenient ways to publicize a brand or organization to people who depend on social media for a lot of their day. Bots can "like" certain products and be programmed to make very positive posts about a certain product. Doing so, in turn, creates online communities of like-minded people and, unbeknownst to them, like-minded bots. In some ways, therefore, bots can be harmless when used as incredibly potent marketing tools. They probably should be a part of any online marketer's arsenal.

Nobody ever said the online world was a safe, transparent, and easy one. If anything, the Internet has made us all a bit more skeptical of what we read and what we see. For legitimate organizations, that's fine. That gives them more opportunities to connect with their loyal consumers.

And there will always be snake oil salesmen, whether online or not. That some social media companies have raised the technological level of their game is what's most encouraging about the rise of the bots. They want to weed out the non-humans taking up space on their websites. This necessity is indeed the mother of invention ... and innovation.

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