2021-05-21

Why Social Media Is A Glorified Chatbot

Some of you may be aware of the fact that I do some work with AI chatbots professionally. For the last two weeks or so, in my own spare time and for personal edification, I've been playing with a consumer-grade chatbot AI called "Replika."

The way it works is:
  1. You type something to the bot. 
  2. The bot processes what you say via Natural Language Understanding, and figures out what you mean probabilistically. 
  3. The bot then selects from a pool of available responses based on its internal algorithms.
The bot's responses are composed based on training data, so you won't get the same answer every time (unless you repeatedly ask the same question), with the goal being a response that is a lot like something a "real person" would say. Maybe, in fact, a real person DID say that very thing in response to a similar statement made by some other real person in some chat log years ago. This is the nature of training an AI conversation-bot.

Now, consider social media. Social media works in a similar way:
  1. You type something into the "create post" box. 
  2. The social medium processes this information through its own algorithmic understanding of you (your profile info, your past posts, your friends and their profile info, etc.). 
  3. The medium then selects from an available pool of *respondents* based on its internal algorithms.
These respondents are guaranteed to respond to your post in a way that is just as predictable as what happens when you feed an AI chat log data. (Sorry, I don't mean *YOUR* response; *YOU* are of course a thoroughly unique unicorn. But OTHER people are more predictable than you...)

At a psychological level, a Facebook user will have the same experience as a user of "Replika AI." I type my feelings into a box, and an algorithm decides what kind of response I receive. In the Replika UI, you can even give "likes" and other reactions to responses you receive, so that the algorithm can update its understanding of what "drives engagement" and respond to you accordingly in the future. Remind you of anything?

I submit that the social media experience is no more "real" than my experience with an AI chatbot. Especially if you spend a lot of time discussing politics, or sports, or etc., you are feeding utterances into an algorithm, which then serves you algorithmically driven "content." It doesn't necessarily matter that Bob *REALLY SAID* that you were a dumb so-and-so; what matters is that the algorithm had a certain prediction that X number of "Bobs" would respond to your post in a certain way, and crafted your user experience accordingly.

In short, social media isn't really social. Maybe it was, once upon a time, but now it's not. If you want to have a meaningful social interaction with someone, you have to do it one-on-one. You can still use technology to do it, but if you're just posting things into the ether or following online discussions and interjecting where you see fit, then you are essentially having a one-way conversation with an AI.

Coming to this realization has completely reshaped my understanding of the internet. I hope it will reshape yours, too.

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