Brands, Bots, & Storytelling

As illustrated by the recent Mashable “pivot”, meaningful (i.e unbranded) contents appear to be the main casualty of new communication technologies. Hopefully (sic), bots may point to a more positive perspective, at least if their want for no no-nonsense gist is to be trusted.

(Latifa Echakhch)
Could bots restore the music of words ? (Latifa Echakhch)

The Mashable Pivot to “branded” Stories

Announcing Mashable recent pivot, Pete Cashmore (Mashable ‘s founder and CEO) was very candid about the motives:

“What our advertisers value most about
 Mashable is the same thing that our audience values: Our content. The
 world’s biggest brands come to us to tell stories of digital culture, 
innovation and technology in an optimistic and entertaining voice. As 
a result, branded content has become our fastest growing revenue 
stream over the past year. Content is now at the core of our ad 
offering and we plan to double down there.

”

Also revealing was the semantic shift in a single paragraph: from “stories”, to “stories told with an optimistic and entertaining voice”, and finally to “branded stories”; as if there was some continuity between Homer’s Iliad and Outbrain’s gibberish.

Spinning Yarns

From Lacan to Seinfeld, it has often been said that stories are what props up our world. But that was before Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others ruled over the waves and screens. Nowadays, under the combined assaults of smart dummies and instant messaging, stories have been forced to spin advertising schemes, and scripts replaced  by subliminal cues entangled in webs of commercial hyperlinks. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, fictions may retrieve some traction (if not spirit) of their own, reprieved not so much by human cultural thirst as by smartphones’ hunger for fresh technological contraptions.

Apps: What You Show is What You Get

As far as users are concerned, apps often make phones too smart by half: with more than 100 billion of apps already downloaded, users face an embarrassment of riches compounded by the inherent limitations of packed visual interfaces. Enticed by constantly renewed flows of tokens with perfunctory guidelines, human handlers can hardly separate the wheat from the chaff and have to let their choices be driven by the hypothetical wisdom of the crowd. Whatever the outcomes (crowds may be right but often volatile), the selection process is both wasteful (choices are ephemera, many apps are abandoned after a single use, and most are sparely used), and hazardous (too many redundant dead-ends open doors to a wide array of fraudsters). That trend is rapidly facing the physical as well as business limits of a zero-sum playground: smarter phones appear to make for dumber users. One way out of the corner would be to encourage intelligent behaviors from both parties, humans as well as devices. And that’s something that bots could help to bring about.

Bots: What You Text Is What You Get

As software agents designed to help people find their ways online, bots can be differentiated from apps on two main aspects:

  • They reside in the cloud, not on personal devices, which means that updates don’t have to be downloaded on smartphones but can be deployed uniformly and consistently. As a consequence, and contrary to apps, the evolution of bots can be managed independently of users’ whims, fostering the development of stable and reliable communication grammars.
  • They rely on text messaging to communicate with users instead of graphical interfaces and visual symbols. Compared to icons, text put writing hands on driving wheels, leaving much less room for creative readings; given that bots are not to put up with mumbo jumbo, they will prompt users to mind their words as clearly and efficiently as possible.

Each aspect reinforces the other, making room for a non-zero playground: while the focus on well-formed expressions and unambiguous semantics is bots’ key characteristic, it could not be achieved without the benefits of stable and homogeneous distribution schemes. When both are combined they may reinstate written languages as the backbone of communication frameworks, even if it’s for the benefits of pidgin languages serving prosaic business needs.

A Literary Soup of Business Plots & Customers Narratives

Given their need for concise and unambiguous textual messages, the use of bots could bring back some literary considerations to a latent online wasteland. To be sure, those considerations are to be hard-headed, with scripts cut to the bone, plots driven by business happy ends, and narratives fitted to customers phantasms.

Nevertheless, good storytelling will always bring some selective edge to businesses competing for top tiers. So, and whatever the dearth of fictional depth, the spreading of bots scripts could make up some kind of primeval soup and stir the emergence of some literature untainted by its fouled nourishing earth.

Further Readings

Out of Mind Content Discovery

Content discovery and the game of Go can be used to illustrate the strengths and limits of artificial intelligence.

(Pavel Wolberg)
Now and Then: contents discovery across media and generations (Pavel Wolberg)

Game of Go: Closed Ground, Non Semantic Charts

The conclusive successes of Google’s AlphaGo against world’s best players are best understood when  related to the characteristics of the game of Go:

  • Contrary to real life competitions, games are set on closed and standalone playgrounds  detached from actual concerns. As a consequence players (human or artificial) can factor out emotions  from cognitive behaviors.
  • Contrary to games like Chess, Go’s playground is uniform and can be mapped without semantic distinctions for situations or moves. Whereas symbolic knowledge, explicit or otherwise, is still required for good performances, excellence can only be achieved through holistic assessments based on intuition and implicit knowledge.

Both characteristics fully play to the strengths of AI, in particular computing power (to explore playground and alternative strategies) and detachment (when decisions have to be taken).

Content Discovery: Open Grounds, Semantic Charts

Content discovery platforms like Outbrain or Taboola are meant to suggest further (commercial) bearings to online users. Compared to the game of Go, that mission clearly goes in the opposite direction:

  • Channels may be virtual but users are humans, with real emotions and concerns. And they are offered proxy grounds not so much to be explored than to be endlessly redefined and made more alluring.
  • Online strolls may be aimless and discoveries fortuitous, but if content discovery devices are to underwrite themselves, they must bring potential customers along monetized paths. Hence the hitch: artificial brains need some cues about what readers have in mind.

That makes content discovery a challenging task for artificial coaches as they have to usher wanderers with idiosyncratic but unknown motivations through boundless expanses of symbolic shopping fields.

What Would Eliza Say

When AI was still about human thinking Alan Turing thought of a test that could check the ability of a machine to exhibit intelligent behaviors. As it was then, available computing power was several orders of magnitude below today’s capacities, so the test was not about intelligence itself, but with the ability to conduct text-based dialogues equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. That approach was famously illustrated by Eliza, a software able to beguile humans in conversations without any understanding of their meanings.

More than half a century later, here are some suggestions of leading content discovery engines:

  • After reading about the Ecuador quake or Syrian rebels one is supposed to be interested by 8 tips to keep our liver healthy, or 20 reasons of unsuccessful attempts at losing weight.
  • After reading about growing coffee in Ethiopia one is supposed to be interested by the mansions of world billionaires, or a Shepard pup surviving after being lost at sea for a month.

It’s safe to assume that both would have flunked the Turing Test.

Further Reading

External Links