Illustration by Matthew Hutchinson

The fully automated social network

In a story that should be surprising to no one who has used Twitter in the past two years, massive networks of fake account have been discovered.

Did this need “discovering”? It’s been a clear and growing part of the platform for as long as I can remember. There were tools five years ago designed to determine what percentage of your followers were real people.

Those three accounts that followed you within seconds of mentioning a brand — the ones whose activity streams read like random quotes from Shakespeare?

Bots.

Facebook & Instagram

Bots aren’t specific to Twitter. Facebook has a long history of fighting fake accounts.

Social networks, having been designed to addict people, put big bold stats right in front of us. Those stats go up and our brains hit us with endorphins. Pretty soon we’re coming back every day hoping to see more notifications, likes, shares and mentions. These numbers are, on base, meaningful to some extent. Shares mean attention and we love having the attention of our friends. For advertisers, attention can be harvested and turned into money.

The down side of bold statistics that are just numbers that only go up? The very same as poorly designed KPI in a business, eventually people set aside the meaningful aspect behind the counter and instead optimize for the counter itself. What does this mean in Facebook terms?

Fake likes.

The easiest way to generate fake likes is by creating fake accounts. Facebook fights these accounts with a mix of automation and human intervention but this is, like Google’s search engine ranking or email spam, a cat and mouse game that only stops once the costs are so high on one side that the game is no longer economically sensible. Neither side is showing signs of stopping.

White hat social automation

Fake accounts and bots that do nothing but auto-follow accounts, spam or generate fake likes are clearly bad. If these are “black hat” tools of social media, the alternative is “white hat” social media automation tools.

There are companies built around automating tedious parts of brand building via social networks. Some of these products are super useful for brands and individuals. Buffer is a tool that allows you to post content in one place and have it appear on multiple networks. It also ensures the content is automatically posted at scheduled times, spreading it out over several hours or days if necessary. This way someone can sit down for a single session, author several posts, and the tool takes care of ensuring it’s posted to social networks over time.

One of the most striking things about some of these tools is their design and marketing. Instead of going after business, they are designed and marketing at consumers. Just above the average social media user is a group of people who are putting real effort into building personal brands around their Tweets, pictures, and personal content.

Prosumer tools like Buffer and Edgar are what I would call white hat social automation. Both these prosumer tools and their enterprise counterparts steer clear of black hat behavior for fear of getting banned by the major network’s terms of service.

The next tier

Where there are white and black hat players, there are going to be people walking the line. While I won’t go so far as to call it black hat, more tools have been cropping up that take a prosumer approach but offer the ability to completely step away from the computer.

Enter Quuu, a two-sided marketplace for automating Twitter.

On the supply side of the marketplace are people who believe that sharing high-quality content will have some upside for them. They don’t have enough time in to read 15 blog posts to find the high-quality two or three so instead, they want a tool that picks good content for them. They allow Quuu to post to Twitter for them.

On the demand side are people who have content that they want to be promoted. They pay a small fee, someone takes a look at the content to ensure that it’s of passable quality and the content is sent into the loving arms of Twitter accounts from the supply side.

I’m going to just neatly side step the part of myself that wonders whether or not there is “curation” involved here and instead focus on bots.

Bots all the way down

People are using Twitter.

Bots are using Twitter.

Humans usually keep to themselves and the bots attempt to get their attention from time to time without getting noticed as fake and banned.

People want followers, that’s the big bold metic in your face on Twitter. It’s the bad KPI. Whether it’s bots or humans doesn’t really matter, just make that number go up. In an effort to gain followers, who are mostly bots, they are handing over control of their Twitter account to a bot.

How long until we have a social network for bots? A fully automated social network.