Bots aren’t just service tools—they’re a whole new form of media

When technology comes full circle.
When technology comes full circle.
Image: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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There’s a good chance that the last time you added someone on Twitter, flirted on a dating app, or talked with a service representative online, you were not interacting with a human, but a bot. Political campaigns, hackers, and armchair activists are also using bots to attack journalists, spread misinformation, and demobilize opposition. For example, during the recent US presidential election, they were the primary tools used for boosting the dissemination of fake news.

Bots may be a cheap and easy way to wield power, but they are just tools, conduits for human communication. Though they might seem like a smart machine trying to sell supplements, spread malware, or share misinformation, there is always a person behind a bot. Their value is therefore ultimately determined by how people use them.

Bots aren’t new tools—they have been used in simple chat capacities and to conduct monotonous tasks since the web went public. What is new, however, is that their function has moved beyond the ferrying of basic messages and toward comprehensive social uses. Bots are beginning to be the means through which users experience the internet—automated assistants that guide and augment the online experience.

Such bots are becoming important vessels for transferring information over social platforms, both about ourselves and the world at large. In this way, bots are becoming a new form of media.

Bots as the new media

The word media refers to structures and systems that channel information. Facebook and Twitter, for instance, are termed social media because they mediate social interaction: They are websites that channel self-expression and the flow of information between people.

Bots are a new form of adaptive media that live within social media platforms: They serve to mediate the flow of messages between people, and they also channel the evolution of social networks. Bots are different from social media websites in that social media websites are largely static; your profile picture and the like button are stable features of the platform. Bots, by contrast, behave dynamically and can be programmed to adapt to communities. As such, bots are an adaptive form of media that can be crafted for many purposes relevant to researchers, artists, technologists, and everyday internet users.

The most powerful function of bots is to collect, organize, and communicate information in ways that exceed human capacities for information storage and retrieval. For example, there are now bots in almost every major instant messaging platform that give us the capacity to easily make reservations, book flights, recommend activities, and maintain personal schedules. But they are now also making a major impact as tools for experimental social science.

Research bots: Cornell’s Michael Macy explains that bots hold great promise as “virtual confederates“ that pretend to be real people while implementing experimental manipulations. NYU’s Kevin Munger, one of the first researchers to publish an official bot-like experiment, used fake accounts on Twitter to implement an intervention against racist hate speech. In the experiment, he used fake accounts to follow people who were using offensive, bigoted language, and then he used these fake accounts to post comments asking specific users to stop using racist language.

While Munger manually controlled the fake accounts, the kind of intervention he conducted could in principle be implemented by bots. In the future, bots are going to be actively mediating and regulating online communities, much like Munger’s preliminary experiment. A number of bots are already exploring this functionality over Twitter, such as the Imposter Buster, which exposes accounts that imitate Jewish users.

Artistic bots: Artists are already way ahead in terms of understanding bots as a new form of artistic medium, like oil painting or clay. In this case, code is the abstract material that is creatively manipulated. Take the Twitter bot Archillect. It is among a new breed of automated art curators with the ability to wander the web and collect images around aesthetic themes that the bot generates as it explores. A similar aesthetic achievement has been ascribed to programs like Emily Howell, designed by composer David Cope, which has the ability to compose novel classical songs that move audiences to tears.

Social bots: From a social standpoint, even simple bots can mold the structure of social networks and shape how information flows through them. The Web Ecology Project revealed that it is possible to design bots to influence the structure and dynamics of online communities. Here, bots serve as much more than automated personal assistants or proxies for humans on social media: They are actively mediating the flow of information between people to enhance bonding and productivity.

To this end, researchers are beginning to consider the ways bots may be designed to address major issues of online life. Could bots, for instance, combat the rise of social media echo chambers? Echo chambers, also known as filter bubbles, emerge when people only socialize with likeminded peers who reinforce and intensify their pre-existing views. Bots could be designed to detect echo chambers and to share information from communities with an alternative viewpoint. Moreover, they could create opportunities for people within different echo chambers to interact, facilitating bridges between communities.

Imagine bots that work to flag false content within social media to ensure that truthful and accurate information is easily accessed and widely shared. In her science fiction novel Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer describes a caste of “sensayers” whose vocation is to moderate conflict and supply useful information whenever people engage in conversation over controversial topics, such as religion. The advantage that bots have as automated sensayers is that they can be programmed to analyze conversation and supply information without bias. This allows them to serve as reliable and impartial sources of information, as detached moderators and mediators of conversation in online spaces.

The future of bots as new media lies in designing bots as digital sensayers: They could be just the tools we need to mediate communication and growth in online communities.