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On the Internet, Nobody Knows if You’re a Dog…or a Robot

Earlier this year, the Web Ecology Project (WEP, an interdisciplinary research group focusing on using large scale data mining to analyze the system-wide flows of culture and community online) ran an interesting experiment on Twitter. The picked a specific networked group of 500 people who all had similar interests in a topic. Here is a diagram of the initial social network:

Here is what the social network looked like at the end of their experiment:

The difference? 3 robots.

WEP solicited entries from teams to “program bots to control user accounts on Twitter in a brutal, two-week, all-out, no-holds-barred battle to influence an unsuspecting cluster of 500 online users to do their bidding. Points will be given for connections created by the bots and the social behaviors they are able to elicit among the targets.”

The results speak for themselves:

In under a week, Team C’s bot was able to generate close to 200 responses from the target network, with conversations ranging from a few back and forth tweets to an actual set of lengthy interchanges between the bot and the targets. Interestingly, mutual followbacks, which played so strong as a source for points in Round One, showed less strongly in Round Two, as teams optimized to drive interactions.

In any case, much further from anything having to do with mutual follows or responses, the proof is really in the pudding. The network graph shows the enormous change in the configuration of the target network from when we first got started many moons ago. The bots have increasingly been able to carve out their own independent community — as seen in the clustering of targets away from the established tightly-knit networks and towards the bots themselves.

Something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you that Twitter/Google+/social media 3.0-BS is the hot to trot thing you have to be involved with. Or that being a “connector” or developing a following is some sort of special skill. Not really. A robot is likely to do it just as well, if not better. It’s a silly thing to be concerned about anyway.

Do you really care if your internet points go up?


  • http://www.litigationandtrial.com Max Kennerly

    Their experiment didn’t show much other than it’s easy to get people to follow you on Twitter. The underlying network looks the same: three close clusters, one of them very tightly insular. The only difference is that they’re now all following the bots, but there’s little cross-pollination among the actual humans due to the bots.