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What if my Twitter followers and Facebook “friends” aren’t real after all. It doesn’t bother me, but it might bother other people! What if social media end up as a vast network of bots talking to other bots?

Had a conversation yesterday with someone about a new startup. I hope they won’t mind me mentioning that one element of the conversation was about determining whether social media accounts were “real” or not. This reminded me what Sherry Turkle from MIT (who wrote the brilliant, seminal book on online identity, “Life on Screen“) said last year, when talking about the specific issue of twitter bots and fake social media accounts, that this is a really serious and really important problem because the inability to distinguish between real and fake accounts

will and should undermine trust

[From Twitter, Bots And Fake Accounts – Business Insider]

Indeed. I went to a marvellous panel session about this at SXSW, and I wrote at the time that there was a need to prove what you are (e.g., human) that is entirely distinct from the need to prove who you are:

An internet passport should be something different: whereas a mundane passport is valuable because it proves who you are, an internet passport should be valuable precisely because it doesn’t.

[From In cyberspace, no-one knows you’re a dogbot – Tomorrow’s Transactions]

Given that the industrial-scale manufacturing of fake social media accounts is already widespread, you might wonder exactly who the fake accounts are for? I found this example in the WSJ quite interesting.

Rapper Tony Benson says hiring Mr. Vidmar to promote his account on Twitter is “the best decision I ever made.” Mr. Vidmar’s robots made the rapper, known as Philly Chase, a trending topic so often around Philadelphia that he attracted attention from local newspapers. Prominence on Twitter led to gigs, fans and ways to promote his videos, Mr. Benson says.

[From Inside a Twitter Robot Factory – WSJ.com]

In the early days of the pop business, as it was then called, record companies used to employ “pluggers”. In those days, the pop charts were compiled from the sales records of a small number of record shops. The identity of the shops was supposed to be secret, but the record companies of course knew which ones they were. So they would send their pluggers to buy copies of their own records to push their artists up the charts. Good for Tony Benson, who has found a way to replace pluggers with plugbots.

Much modern spam isn’t designed for consumption by humans at all; instead, it’s “robot-readable”, created by one non-human entity for the attention of another – specifically, the “spiders” that crawl the web compiling data for Google – in the hope of pushing a junk page higher up the list of search results.

[From Why Spam Works – Business Insider]

Is Twitter becoming a vast network of bots talking to other bots? What a fascinating idea to play with, and what a wonderful proto-case study for the future of business. I stand by my prediction of long ago. One day, IS_A_PERSON may be the most valuable online credential of all.

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