If I’d Wanted to Talk to a Robot…

For those who remember “Lost in Space,” this column will have special meaning. If you’ve never seen the 1960s’ TV series, you can watch it on Hulu. What’s the connection between this TV series and social media? The robot that accompanied the characters through their adventures.

The robot — it never actually had a name — was endowed with amazingly human characteristics. It would laugh, show some basic emotions, and even poke fun at other characters. In other words, even though it was non-human, it had been created to give the appearance of being human through its actions.

Similar robots are following people on the social Web.

Through the productivity and connectivity tools Web 2.0 has wrought, we’re automating a lot of what we do online. Prioritizing incoming messages is commonly handled by filters we set up. Our friends’ online activities are sent to us not in words and pictures — given an average person’s 1,000-plus friends, this would take way too long — but instead as short snips, arriving in a compact RSS feed. Automated agents that help us find “people like yourself” or “things that people like you purchased” make learning, buying, and sharing much easier. We live in an information age: Being able to efficiently process, manage, and extract value from the information around us is now an essential skill.

Yet we are still human, and we still respond to most situations as humans. So even though we’ve made interacting more efficient, processing a few hundred e-mails, 20 or 30 friend requests or suggestions, and a few dozen tweets each day, we still respond to each other in a decidedly human way. Following a thought-provoking or emotionally rich message, we don’t simply “exit loop” and “move next.” We are people, not robots. We internalize the message, respond to it, and perhaps even share it further. We think about it.

Social media carries with it the tangible aspect of someone else’s desire to share something with you. There is a notion of genuine content. This is precisely why the use of automated responders in social interactions is so annoying to so many.

My bet is that if you’re reading this column, you’re also using Twitter, Facebook, or some other social tool that allows people with whom you’ve established a personal connection to send you messages directly. When you acknowledge someone as a friend on Facebook or you choose to follow someone on Twitter, you grant that person the privilege of sending you a message directly. You are welcoming this person to share things that he or she finds interesting with you as an individual. You are opening yourself up to an interaction between two people. Want to quickly make your friends feel cheap and less than human? Start using automated responders to thank them for what they do or share! Remember those postcards you’d buy on vacation where all you had to was check off “having a good time” and “weather is nice” and find a mailbox? While they were kind of funny, can you imagine sending out a card like “I heard you were [checkbox] sick. I hope you [checkbox] get well [checkbox] soon.”

In effect, this is what auto responders do: If I choose to connect with someone, it requires an explicit action on my part. I know I’m doing this. It’s the same for the person who chooses to connect back with me. Because I see this immediately as a status update or similar notice, I don’t need an additional, automated response saying something like, “Hey, Dave, thanks for following me! I look forward to hearing from you!” C’mon. If that message shows up two seconds after I click “accept friendship,” how much thought could have been put into it? It’s obvious this response is automated and that the sender doesn’t value this new connection. It is, simply put, social spam.

This is particularly ironic given that consumers are turning to social media as a way to make smarter choices — at least in part because of clutter and the relative lack of trust consumers place in advertising. In fact, about 10 percent of all consumers find ads generally trustworthy compared to about 30 percent who trust recommendations from people like themselves. The unchecked use of auto responders undermines this trust, just as questionable claims and pitchmen undermined the credibility of advertising. That is not a good thing for any of us. If we pollute the social Web, we’ll have lost possibly the best channel for truly engaging customers that we’re ever likely to have.

Predictably, tools to combat social spam are starting to emerge. Frustration over automated responders on Twitter have brought about services such as “Turn This Thing Off” and SocialToo to control or block automated direct messages. There is a related conversation on Twitter that can be followed via the “#endautodm” hash tag.

TweetLater, a popular Twitter client, launched its optmeout service. It allows any recipient to opt out of automated direct messages being sent by anyone using Tweetlater. This is smart on the part of Tweetlater. By adding this feature now, Tweetlater prepares itself for the arrival of a new class of social services that only convey messages from socially compliant software agents. Tweetlater is effectively giving control to all recipients of tweets sent from people using Tweetlater productivity tools. This makes its tools more desirable — just like in real life, good manners get you invited back. On the social Web, more acceptable software gets you a higher valuation.

We’ve all got an increased ability to interact, connect, and process information. This is a great for marketers because more information from a more diverse base of knowledge generally leads to better decisions about products and hence higher customer satisfaction. At the same time, if we use the automated capabilities in these new tools to push our messages harder and further while ignoring the social norms and best practices — think etiquette 2.0 — we are likely to find ourselves “lost in space.” As a marketer and an ex-rocket scientist, I can’t think of a lonelier place to be going door to door looking for prospects.

Meet Dave at Search Engine Strategies New York March 23-27 at the Hilton New York. The only major search marketing conference and expo on the East Coast, SES New York will be packed with more than 70 sessions, including a ClickZ track, plus networking events, parties, training days, and more than 150 exhibitors.

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