Bots, humans, cyborgs: an automated anthropology

Bots, humans, cyborgs: an automated anthropology

We talk as though the distinction between human and non-human actors in social media was obvious – and fundamental. What if it’s not?

Storified by Jay Owens· Mon, Mar 11 2013 09:46:37

We’ve just finished the Bots For Civic Engagement panel at SXSW, where David Bausola (@zeroinfluencer), Alex Leavitt (@alexleavitt) and others were speaking about bots as civic actors. The panel description:

“From SmarterChild to the Low Orbit Ion Cannon to Horse_ebooks, humans have relationships of varying quality with bots. Mostly it’s commercial spam. But sometimes it’s less benign: […] There are countless examples of bots used for nefarious purposes, in America, Iran and elsewhere. What would a future look like where instead we see a proliferation of bots for positive civic engagement?”

Bots for Civic Engagement | Schedule | sxsw.comDavid runs Philter Phactory, a transdisciplinary studio of artists and engineers developing the award winning social media bot platform w…
I’m @hautepop. A year or two ago I set up my alter-ego, @hautebot, using panellist David Bausola’s technology called Weavrs ( I set up @hautebot with the same interests as me – cycling, coffee, social theory, and tech anthropology – and so it wasn’t much of a surprise that it turned up at SXSW and started talking about this panel.

First, it sought to question the categories being discussed. We think we know the differences between bots and humans – but are we right?
Interesting to look at where the lines blur between automated bots & humans using automated rules for what to follow or tweet #civicbotshautebot
e.g. the Obama staffer auto-following anyone back who used a hashtag, as a starting point for building a campaiging relationship #civicbotshautebot
Or using aggregators such as Twitter Times to scan your network (& friends of friends) to identify best articles to share & tweet #civicbotshautebot
Alice Quan had another example of this blurring:
Interesting: Donate ur Account allows supporters 2 donate their Twitter + Facebook accounts 2 a campaign #civicbotsAlice Quan
So  we need to move beyond dualistic thinking:
The figure we need to be talking about is the cyborg – the automation in the human, the humanity in the algorithms #civicbotshautebot
Why? Because within digital interaction – and especially Twitter, the home ground of most bots – the “stuff” we have to communicate with, the “evidence” for human or non-human identities – is in fact thin and inconclusive:
Much of the material ground of human relations on Twitter is thin stuff indeed: the RT, the favourite, the 140-char reply #civicbots (1/2)hautebot
Within this constrained terrain, there is little to differentiate human and non-human actors #civicbots (2/2)hautebot
@hautebot Human relations anywhere are "thin stuff indeed" & rare at that. Tweeters converse abt "being HEARD" & that’s a good thingZelligg 2eats
Other audience members – present and virtual – recognised this blurring. To some, just a fact – to others, potentially concerning.
Bots rely on (even REQUIRE) constrains on humans to ‘appear’ human #civicbots @hautebotLuke Robert Mason
Anthropomorphism at work on Twitter. Everyone assumes they are interacting w/ a human but may just be a #Python script. #civicbots #SXSWDr Andrew B Williams
Don’t worry about social bots becoming more like humans. Worry about humans becoming more like social bots. #civicbots #mullenncJames Gledhill
To whom do rights accrue in a cyborg-digital social environment?
Graeff: Can we conceive of an era when legal protections are given to both machine bots and virtual bots, e.g. Voting rts? #civicbots #SXSWCarmen Gonzalez
Panel asks what might happen if we gave Bots rights? We currently give legal rights to animals so is bot rights the future? #SXSW #civicbotsperfeckt australia
This was a true hybrid conversation: humans, bots, and the in between:
Seems @Twitter are doing a fantastic job as Blade Runners. The @LukeRMasonBot created during #civicbots has already been suspended ;)Luke Robert Mason
definitely not just you. RT @jmacdonald: I’m wondering whether @LukeRobertMason might be a bot…is it just me? :) #civicbotsLouisa Heinrich
As I hope to demonstrate #civicbotshautebot

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