We never gave much thought to the reality of social bots until a question about them came up in a recent edition of Health Communications Social Media Chat (#hcsm). As a matter of fact, a few of the attendees even struggled with the question of “What is a bot?” So, let’s get that out of the way up front:

“(Social) Bots are algorithms acting in social media networks. But to the outside world, they look like a real user.” – Lutz Finger, in Forbes

Now, we’ve talked before about the evils of social media automation, i.e., the lack of connection, authenticity and interaction. Most of us associate bots with anonymous (autonomous?) social media accounts that blast our Twitter chats with spammy posts. Annoying, right?

But suppose, for a moment, that an algorithmic ‘intelligence’ was capable of assisting and guiding you along in your workaday life? Hmm. “Hey Ehsan, it’s only 9 AM and there’s a Starbucks around the corner. Shall I order you a latte?” Or “Hey Mark, your blood pressure and respiration are way up. You want some music?” Cool. Yeah, play some Eagles. Sort of like a cloud-borne Siri or Amazon Echo – as described by Jim Kerstetter in this bit from the New York Times a few days ago. Or, as discussed in the aforementioned #hcsm chat, bots that assist us a patients through our healthcare journey. I think this also delves deeply into an upcoming topic for our chat – of the ‘personalization’ of our social/commercial presence in the digital realm. Youthful digital citizens of today have few qualms about trading some ‘privacy’ for some convenience. Or a great deal. Don’t bots fit into that space quite conveniently? The recent hype over Facebook Messenger bots would have us believe so – that bots can and will (maybe must) secure their place as a presence for your business that is constantly available with programmed replies. Hey what could go wrong with that?

As stated when I left this final thought from our #hcsm discussion: Our quantified selves are probably getting quite cozy with the social bots.

Q1) Can you always spot a social bot? How? And what do you do?

Q2) What are some benefits/risks of trusting an algorithm to interact with people? Examples?

Q3) What kinds of interactions might a social bot be best used for?

Q4) As a marketer, do you see bots having a constructive role in social media? How?

Q5) Do we rely enough on social media cues that bots could influence our behaviors?