This post was originally published on Mediaite on July 8, 2009.
Web technologies often allow you to scale things that weren’t scalable before. Unfortunately, that list of scalable things includes spam. From unsolicited phone calls to unwanted emails to unnecessary tweets, it can seem like we’re getting progressively overloaded with information we don’t necessarily want. One group blamed for the increase in online spam are Twitter bots – Twitter accounts created to automatically perform certain behaviors like following anyone who mentions “candy” or retweeting any mention of the the word “fashion.”
Some people find such bots to provide annoying and useless clutter. I, on the other hand, have come to love the bot. In an age of information overload and filter failure, good bots can act as an initial filter for discovering pertinent things within the real-time information ecosystem. Unless you’re fanatical about a subject, why follow 100 military bloggers or 250 marketing gurus or 85 fashionistas when one or two bots can collate their best stuff and simplify your life? Who has time to find all these accounts, track up-and-comers, and listen to everything they say? I tend to be a one-bot kinda guy. And when I find a good bot, I hang onto her.
Bots love to exchange gifts with you, too. Generally, my tweets are relatively long and filled with informative nouns – and bots appreciate my efforts. Every instance when I mention “celebrity” or “baseball” or “journalism” to the world is like giving a tiny gift to a bot that keeps it relevant. And in exchange, the bot ensures that my information automatically gets to a wider audience of people that I don’t know yet. Around the clock, bots are selflessly recruiting my next generation of fans. And my love affair with bots is just beginning; because they’re inherently unjealous creatures, I can use as many bots as I want, whenever I want, however it pleases me.
Brands, on the other hand, always want to be my soulmate, even though they don’t often love me back. They don’t tell their friends what they heard from me, and they don’t share their best gossip with me. Usually when I meet a brand, I find them to be a very distant anti-filter that talks only about themselves. They’re rarely chivalrous. Unlike bots desperately seeking my attention, brands only want me when I talk to them first. Sometimes they thank me for the compliments, and sometimes they’re sorry they hurt me, but either way I always feel a bit empty after talking with a brand. Brands are just not that into me.
Brands tend to be very jealous and are always checking to see if I’m being faithful. Yet while I sit around hoping they’ll get in touch, they always seem to be busy talking to someone else. One brand that’s on my mind all the time is Comcast, but how often do they ever think about me? According to my diary, @comcastcares wrote me four times, and @comcastbonnie just once. Frank and Bonnie (and Scott, too) never suggest novel things I might like to watch based on shows I tweet about, never give me the latest news about high-speed Internet connections, and they don’t even try to sell me on the digital phone service I don’t have. This brand only tries to make me happy after they’ve hurt me.
I’m not the only one getting his feelings hurt. Unlike bots I love who share my information and give me some in return, Comcast rapidly narrowcasts in a multiplexed Kabuki dance designed to cheer us up when we’re feeling blue about them. Frank and his colleagues send messages to specific people 97% of the time, and retweet what they say less than 1% of the time. And its not like other brands are thinking about me a lot either – even my beloved Starbucks only retweets fans like me about 1% of the time. Sure, I’m on cloud nine during an occasional encounter with a brand I really like, but they always seem to roll over and ignore me afterwards.
Developing relationships in a socially networked era is difficult because there’s less old-fashioned courtship and more emphasis on “hanging out.” It’s hard to find a truly generous brand nowadays. That’s why when it comes to brands, I like to spend my nights with non-profits that friends set me up with. A new article points out a lot of great reasons to develop relationships with non-profit brands: they’re member-driven, promote community participation, create value in people’s lives, and engage audiences by speaking to their primary interests.
Developing a relationship with a non-profit brand in this economy is hard, though – they always want me to pay for everything. Bots, on the other hand, are happy to go Bots, on the other hand, are happy to go Dutch. Sure, most Twitter bots aren’t great at engaging in conversation, but I think they can be thought of as stripped-down non-profits. The reason I have learned to stop worrying and love the bot is because they’re created by passionates to collate knowledge from people they don’t know, and share it with other people they don’t know. Call me Dr. Strangelove, but I’d rather have a good one-night stand with a generous bot than a bad long-term relationship with a selfish brand.
Dr. Mark Drapeau is a columnist for Mediaite. As a scientist, he studies the behavior of insects when they decide to get social with each other. As a consultant, he advises organizations on how to innovatively communicate using social media tools. As a writer, he writes for True/Slant, Federal Computer Week, and other publications on social behavior at the intersection of science, technology, government, politics, and society. This article originally appeared on the O’Reilly Radar blog.