Tagged: Twitter

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 (weavrs.com). 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 http://donateyouraccount.com/ #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

#nodads, #nomen, #nomums

This is an aggregate of three of my Tumblr posts in November 2012 (i, ii, iii).

#Nodads probably requires a bit of context for a wider audience: essentially it’s a meme among left-intellectual Twitter (similar in some ways to #fullcommunism). People-who-are-dads, fret not (or at least less): it isn’t about you, it’s about The Father as a principle or archetype, with essentially Freudian roots

Key expositions include What is it to Philosophise Fatherlessly? and #NoDads Is Our Principal Of Solidarity by @BenLaden and No-dad S: A further attempt on #nodads by @IlllllllllllllI. In many ways it’s not a wholly serious idea, but that doesn’t stop it being good to think with. 

This is also a very quote-heavy post, which feels illustrative of this moment in time and where conversations like these are happening most. That is, Tumblr.

Part I: Responding to America Dads: Louis CK and Barack Obama
by Aaron Bady (@zunguzungu)

New Inquiry,

29 October 2012

For me, #nodads crystallizes that realization, that assertion that while one way to nurture can, in fact, be a good way, there are many other ways to choose from, and we should choose from among them. If I choose to be a parent to my imaginary child in the ways that my father was a parent to me, it should be because he helped me be a person in the world, in society, in life, and because that help was helpful, and because that kind of help will be helpful to the child who I happen to have fathered. It should not be because my dad was my dad. It should not be because that was the only kind of relationship I could imagine.

Perhaps it means other things, of course. But Malcolm Harris likes to say that #nodads means whatever it means, that whatever it is, it isn’t “dads.” And I like that because the anti-tautology maps nicely onto and precisely attacks the kind of thinking by which “dad” is a transcendental truth, only it does so without limiting itself to any particular content we might apply to the category. As a rejection of the category itself—and of the manner in which it comes to seem a higher order category than many others—it doesn’t necessarily have all that much to do with actual dads, but only by the sociological matrix that makes biology into destiny. It deprives us of the categorical rational, that dads, because dads.

I commented:

Interesting – at first I was thinking your #nodads was quite different to my #nodads – yours being about dads-as-parents, it seemed, whereas to me it orients around authority, knowledge-power, death of the author and so on.

But then you wrote “most of the time, the thing that people mean when they talk about dads is really male control of women and children” and that was the point of commonality found — that the latter current of #nodads is I would argue a bunch of young-ish people speaking ‘as children’ within the academy, or publishing, or institutions of knowledge.

Then again, Malcolm Harris, Ben Laden – most of the regulars on the hashtag bar Jesse Darling – they’re men. For them, I think, #nodads is also a confrontation with the always-already becoming-dads created by any staking out of an intellectual position.

But how does this work for me? As a woman could I ever become a dad? Am I even able to conceive (!) of the possibility? Can we have a feminist #nodads – is it feminist in its destruction of the patriarchal dad figure? Or is it fundamentally masculinist because its nexus is that always-already becoming-dad tension?

(A thought: the structure of this post is a bit dads, hmm. I let the authority speak first, then meekly offer my reaction. Why do I not offer my ideas straight off? Well, see above…)

Part II: Found: The #NoMen manifesto

My last post embryonically started to raise the question of #nodads in relation to feminism. Fortunately it turns out Jane Hu was already on it with her post on 31st October, #nonodads:

I’ve voiced my hesitations about #nodads here a few times now, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to convince those who use (and maybe even abuse, if possible?) the phrase online, but Pateman has helped me feel more firm in my conviction that #nodads is generally unproductive, and often a red herring.

To emphasize society as problematically paternal makes us forget that we’re more urgently caught up in society-as-patriarchal—it takes focus away from the dominance men have foremost over women (before they are ever dads), and places the weight on fathers and husbands. The focus on families doesn’t just play up the importance and necessity of motherhood, but downplays the always present female submission implied in conjugal relations.

Others have written that #nodads can really be whatever you want it to be (of course this is a directive given to us from some one—a man, a straight white man—but beside the point), but that sort of looseness (of which, again, I am suspicious) is still contained within the emblem of “nodads.” Why not “nomen”? I understand that most people behind #nodads don’t see it as a way toward apocalypse or nihilism — that they want the possibility of reproduction without the burden of daddies, but #nomen still seems more appropriate to me. Isn’t it possible to have a no-male (or at least no-man) society too? Is it because most of the people shooting the #nodads tags aren’t (yet) dads? Is it a just-enough-distanced point from which to speak in the name of feminism, of anti-patriarchy? Is the hashtag, then, explicitly anti-paternal enough, especially with said looseness?

As it happens, I am reading a radfem book on this exact topic in another tab – Refusing To Be A Man (by John Stoltenberg; link’s to the PDF full version)

This is where I lose half my audience who aren’t familiar with radical feminism and assume it’s attacking men-as-people rather than man-as-cultural-category. You know, the ones who like to criticise Andrea Dworkin for saying “all sex is rape” without ever having read Dworkin, or made any effort to understand the point she’s actually seeking to make. Anyway, I’ve basically only mentioned Dworkin to in-advance reverse-troll them – now I’ll get on with the point I was trying to make.

Which is basically to say Jane is making a great point, and that this book by John Stoltenberg is attempting to answer that exact question:

Contrary to opponents’ dissembling, radical feminism did not hurl an accusation at a biologically determined class named “men” but rather at a value system—an ethic of injustice to which eroticism, both male and female, had been conditioned. This book urges a solution to that injustice: a radical self-examination among people born with a penis, a radical inquiry into the ethics of our social identity as men.
[p. xvi]

Stoltenberg wrote the revised introduction in the late 1990s, and makes a lot of parallels in the introduction with the then-current New Abolitionist movement seeking to overturn “whiteness” as the dominant identity structure. (Their journal: the brilliantly named Race Traitor). His argument is best summed up in 3 paragraphs where he takes an “abolitionist” passage and re-writes it in brackets as a radical male feminist one:

The rules of the white club [the men’s club] do not
require that all members be strong advocates of white
supremacy [male supremacy], merely that they defer to
the prejudices of others. The need to maintain racial
solidarity [sex-class solidarity] imposes a stifling
conformity on whites [on males], on any subject
touching even remotely on race [on sex].

The way to abolish the white race [to refuse to be a
man, to end manhood] is to disrupt that conformity. If
enough people who look white [who look male] violate
the rules of whiteness [of manhood], their existence
cannot be ignored. If it becomes impossible for the
upholders of white rules [manhood rules] to speak in the
name of all who look white [look male], the white race
[the male sex class] will cease to exist….

How many will it take? No one can say for sure. It is a
bit like the problem of currency: how much counterfeit
money has to circulate in order to destroy the value of
the official currency? The answer is, nowhere near a
majority—just enough to undermine public confidence in
the official stuff.

Which might be, for our purposes, a #nomen manifesto.


Thoughts towards what this might mean:

From the personal level it’s about need, nurturing – as with this side of #nodads, it’s about the lack perceived by the child.

The desire for total responsiveness to our wishes.

Child as dictator, in fact.

As such the mum has no power.

So #Nomums cannot be about de-throning an authority, as it is with #nodads – she never had any authority, she was constructed as a pure facsimile of the need.

It’s got to be about us, about critiquing our reaction to women.

Call out #Nomums on occasion where a woman is being expected to give give give, to caretake as a natural given, to take care of everyone else’s needs and feelings and not being recognised as a person and agent of her own.

Occasions where women are dehumanised in this way, reduced to serf-class.

A call to grow up, or for a kind of decolonialism – because yes, this is about micro-fascisms and Empire – #NOMUMS.

What #WaitroseReasons Reveals About Why People Talk About Brands

First published here on the FACE company blog on 9th October 2012

Did the #WaitroseReasons Twitter promotion snatch success from the jaws of disaster – or the other way around?

Three weeks on, marketers are still talking about it: it’s clearly made impact on one group at least! But to us, as social media researchers immersed in hundreds of comments every day about how people talk about brands, much of the analysis seems naïve, based on an overly superficial understanding of what people are doing when they talk on social media. A hint: they’re not really talking about your brand…

But before we explain why, a summary of the Waitrose kerfuffle:

On 17th September, @Waitrose asked their customers to share their reasons for shopping at Waitrose, using the hashtag #WaitroseReasons. They got a lot of responses – probably not in quite the style they expected… Instead of an outpouring of brand love and affirmation, Twitter became a torrent of snark:


Oops. The runaway Twitter discussion produced a corresponding surge in digital industry & marketing press and blogs trying to make sense of the situation.

This followed a classic dialectic trajectory – first, the stern claims that “Waitrose was asking for trouble”, followed by enthusiastic rebuttals that all publicity is good publicity, and all ‘engagement’ is a sign of brand affection. But this hasn’t culminated in synthesis, but rather name-calling: specifically, Mark Ritson in Marketing Week arguing “Why marketers are socially stupid”. A bold claim: let’s examine it.

Ritson begins by making a very important point: situating Waitrose’s social media tactics in the context of their overall brand strategy:

“The ultimate purpose of Waitrose’s social media strategy is not to start conversations or increase the number of followers the brand has on Twitter. The purpose of Waitrose’s social media strategy is to build its brand and increase sales. Waitrose has had a successful strategy to do just that, built around two approaches – first, getting existing shoppers to shop more frequently at Waitrose and second, attracting new shoppers into the stores.”

This is really important, and not often enough done. We entirely agree – volumes of mentions or retweets are not a meaningful end in themselves, and social media metrics shouldn’t blind researchers or brands to the real goals.

What we disagree with is his next claim:

“But this campaign inadvertently positions the supermarket as posh, snobby, overpriced and reserved exclusively for the upper classes. That’s terrible news for Waitrose, because it has spent the past four years positioning its brand away from these stereotypes and towards a more accessible, value-based position to drive market share gains.

[…] Existing shoppers at Waitrose, the middle-class segment it targets, will feel sensitive and perhaps a little less enthusiastic about entering the store now, and store traffic will decline. Potential converts to Waitrose will have had their stereotypes confirmed and be less likely to consider the switch in future. Perhaps neither of these impacts will be huge, but they will be negative and they were self-inflicted.”

What’s Ritson’s thesis – that people will take the “butler” and child-called-Orlando comments literally, and conclude that Waitrose is not a place for people who don’t have these things? This is suggesting someone’s “socially stupid” – but not the marketer: the Waitrose shopper. Twitter might allow only 140-characters, but we argue there was a lot of social nuance encoded in those tweets.

Defining features of British humour and culture: self-deprecation. Sarcasm, irony. We refuse to take ourselves seriously, and we’re somewhat keen on a bit of understatement. As a result, every international guide to British culture puzzles over the way we never seem to say what we mean. “Your report was… quite good”, says your boss with a wince. Rosie Huntingdon-Whitely “scrubs up alright”.

“Put the papaya down, Orlando!” has to be read through this lens – understanding its meaning through considering what is implied, what is inverted, and the shared tacit knowledge that’s referenced. This includes:

  • Orlando is a slightly silly & pretentious name for a child – and giving children slightly silly & pretentious names is a middle-class social trend
  • Recognising this shows familiarity with this class, and suggests the speaker is of this background or close to it – so it’s also a self-deprecating joke (which aren’t aggressive but rather inclusive – inviting recognition)
  • Recognising buying exotic fruit like papayas as another signifier of middle-class identity…
  • …and moreover the behaviour of talking loudly about specialist foods in order to demonstrate and assert middle-classness
  • Using irony and sarcasm to show that you’re not “taken in” by the brand’s marketing – (you believe) you’re subverting it
  • And by the way, the kind of person who does all these things would typically shop in Waitrose.

In fact, this is what almost all the #WaitroseReasons tweets were doing: making observations that demonstrate the author’s familiarity with and membership of a specific segment of the more comfortably-off middle class.

It went big on Twitter, because it was a way for people to talk about their favourite topic: themselves. The discussion around the hashtag wasn’t really about Waitrose as a retailer so much as a way for people to start talking about that great British obsession, social class, and where we fit into the hierarchy. It was a discussion about belonging: people were collectively & collaboratively playing with the boundaries of belonging to the middle class.Waitrose was just a signifier – a particularly rich and meaningful one, a national treasure whose meanings are owned by its customers (not just its marketers).

In fact, it mightn’t be something marketers want to hear, but people don’t really want to have relationships with brands as such. If you think about it, it’s pretty weird – a passionate love affair with the nexus of meanings encapsulated in your shampoo bottle? No: as Mark Earls argues in ‘Herd’ (and we discuss in Augmented Research), “We talk of the relationships consumers have with our brands as if they were primary, but consumers’ most valuable relationships are not with brands but with other consumers.”

#WaitroseReasons was a chance for people to demonstrate their social tribe allegiance and how witty & clever they could be – two very desirable social markers, hence the massive participation. It’s basically #MiddleClassProblems with a brand attached. Was this Waitrose’s strategy? It’s not clear. It certainly was Alan Sugar’s, though, who invited people to share #TheWayISeeIt for the launch of his book – gaining 390,000 tweets, celebrity involvement and major press coverage from giving people a chance to share who they were.

But what about Mark Ritson’s second point: that #WaitroseReasons was exclusionary, that it was sending too many people a message of “not for me”?

There’s a grain of truth in this. What Waitrose did was bold – it wasn’t an ‘everyman’ strategy but rather spurred discussion about group norms. As such, this is necessarily a “boundary policing” activity, one that defines who’s the “us” who share these norms, and by logical extension who’s the “them” who doesn’t. And yes, for some people kids called Orlando and fruit like papayas are pretty far from their lives.

But brands have to do this – they have to define their audiences and target markets, rather than hoping to be all things to all people. Waitrose is a middle-class brand, its locations, pricing, product range and marketing all make this clear. Its value strategy is merely about trying to appeal to a more budget-conscious middle class shopper who might have moved away – they were never staking their claim to Asda’s demographic. It’s about consolidating loyalty.

By participating in a discussion about social norms, then, Waitrose strengthens its identification with this middle-class group. By being able to “take a joke” and “keep their chin up” during a hazing ritual, Waitrose comes out of a social media pasting showing they can demonstrate English middle class values too.

And connecting social activity back to brand strategy, then hopefully we’ve made it clear that this isn’t just a win on awareness. No: it’s also a complex but powerful statement of identification – and thereby brand loyalty. And brand loyalty gets feet through the door and keeps the tills ringing.

Mapping the Brand Graph: a study of @O2’s Twitter audience

Another post via the FACE company blog – see the story in full here: Mapping the Brand Graph: a study of the O2 audience on Twitter (FACE and O2 @ Warc #Datacentric 2011, London).

This has been some of the most interesting research I’ve done all year and certainly the most technically challenging, so I wanted to share it here too.

In short, FACE and O2 presented at the WARC Datacentric conference in December 2011. To quote Fran’s write-up:

The objective of the O2 Brand Graph pilot was to mine social media data in a way that would allow us to connect it to audience studies. What follows is an initial exploration of how we can you use social media to augment a segmentation model with real-time data.

Whilst tracking social media by keywords allows us to get an understanding of how a specific topic is discussed online, tracking social media by users allows us to build a map of an audience, its hubs, its behaviours and its interests.

We called it the Brand Graph: the conjunction of the Social Graph (defined here as the network of people who are within 2 degrees of separation from the brand through social media channels) and the Interest Graph (the network of interests, topics, activities and behaviours associated with the nodes of the social graph).

What can you do with it?

  • Dynamically understand who your audience is and how is it changing, in real-time;
  • Dynamically understand what your audience is about, what makes an interesting topic and how broader cultural conversations affect it;
  • Segment your audience in clusters based on topics of interest, passions, life stages, professions, online behaviours etc.;
  • Plan and fine tune the content of your social media strategy;
  • Engage with your audience in the right way (channels, mechanics, times of the day, tone of voice etc.);
  • Assess the impact of your strategies in real-time.
  • Going forward, we see the brand graph becoming one of the key tools to build a seamless connection between your brand and its audience

So, how did we go about building the O2 Brand Graph?

Sample: We defined our sample as the entire audience of O2 on Twitter, i.e. 58.339+ Twitter users who were following @O2 (as of November 2011).

Methodologies: Statistical analysis, Semantic analysis, Network analysis, Netnography and Content analysis.
We then analysed the static data of 58,339 profiles on Twitter gathering insights around 10 key dimensions:

  • To get this information we had to map 58,339 users following @O2 and who was following each of the 58.339 users.
  • We ended up plotting a graph of 1 million nodes, 1 million primary connections and 574,278 horizontal connections within the graph.
  • We then analysed the static data of 58,339 profiles on Twitter gathering insights around 10 key dimensions.
  • Finally, we analysed 3,120,371 public tweets, 122,220 tweets/day (avg), generated by the @O2 followers over one month (November 2011).

[Source: Mapping the Brand Graph: a study of the O2 audience on Twitter (FACE and O2 @ Warc #Datacentric 2011, London).]

Here’s the conference presentation: