Personalization, Automation and Authenticity (Part I: Twitter)

Two things have happened to me a lot recently that have merged in my mind.

The first: Generally I get very positive comments on my Twitter ‘followback policy’, but every now and then someone complains that twitter should not be automated and that you need to have authentic relationships. How dare I automate my following? It’s immoral (if not evil).

The second: There has been a huge push for companies to provide more ‘personalized’ experiences. The thinking is that if a company can make a website or email more ‘personalized’ then users will have a better experience.

I am pro auto-following but anti auto-personalization.

This post is to help explain why.

It has nothing to do with morals and everything to do with capabilities.

What computers are good at

Computers are really good at doing what you tell them to do. If you can predict exactly what you need them to do, you can program them to do that. The more random or uncertain the situation the more computers falter. It is no surprise that computers mastered chess before Jeopardy before Go and it will be a few years before we ever see a computer write a novel worth reading.

Following people on twitter has two parts you need to do in order to do it well:

  1. Figure out who you want to follow
  2. Click a button to follow those people

The first part is somewhat hard. There is obviously nothing difficult about the second part.

When I find something that is “somewhat hard”, I believe the best method is to do it manually. As I do myself I start to internalize the “rules” I am unconsciously following to succeed at the task. I can rarely guess what those rules would be before I started, but sooner or later my activities become automatic. If I spend a little time thinking I put those “kind-of rules” into “strict rules” that a computer could understand.

At that point it’s time to automate the activities.

For my twitter following that means following people who tweet about specific things, who have specific terms in their profiles, who tweet at specific frequencies, who have low spam estimations, and other characteristics. Once I figure that out I don’t need to keep doing it myself. I can outsource it to either a computer (or in this case, another human, since twitter bans the use of computer automated following). Whether it is a computer or another human the principle is the same: I create detailed rules for someone/something else to follow to the letter.

Doing it myself at this point doesn’t make it more authentic or real or anything else. It just makes it more work.

The only advantage of doing it myself rather than outsourcing are the errors. My rules will not be perfect. If I do it myself I will presumably catch some of those ‘rule errors’ and prevent them from happening. But doing it myself can result in a different category of errors – where I fail to follow the rules at all and that results in bad final results. So whether I do it myself or use others there will always be errors. One of the concerns about self-driving cars is that they might get in accidents. They WILL get in accidents, but the real metric is if they get in more or less accidents than the alternative. In the case of following I think the automated method makes more errors. But an error in this case just means I follow someone I would rather not have followed. That might pollute my feed a little until I correct it (by unfollowing), but otherwise it does me no damage. So I am okay with the automation.

What computers do poorly

Another thing I automate with twitter is when my tweets are sent. I use BufferApp to spread out my content tweets about stuff I find when I am reading, and I use SocialOomph to spread out tweets about this blog (Re-tweets I usually do myself without any automation at all). But while I use tools to automate when tweets go live into the twitter-verse, I never automate the content of the tweets.

The reason I don’t is that computers are very very bad at this.

There are tools out there that will do that for you. They scan for content related to the content you have shared in the past or content your followers are sharing with each other, and then auto-send tweets for you on your behalf. I have very little confidence in a computer’s ability to guess what content I think is valuable enough to share with my followers, so I would never use a service like that. To me THAT is being unauthentic.

I believe the only thing worse than autotweeting content, is autotweeting personal ‘messages’.

I just took a break from writing this to check my Twitter notifications. In the last hour (60 minutes) I have received 5 auto tweets. For the record they are:

.@Ednever Thanks for supporting .@XXXXXX Did you get a $25 reward level t-shirt yet? Let´s connect.

  • Really? You want to “connect” with me? Do you really mean “I want to spam everyone I can with an offer (including you) and then throw on an ‘offer’ to connect so it doesn’t look spammy”? Cause if so, it didn’t work.

@Ednever welcome

  • Uh. Welcome to you too. I guess. Am I supposed to do something now?

@Ednever Thanks very much for the follow, Edward. Looking forward to your Tweets! :)

  • Mine and everyone else’s. You have failed to make me feel special.

Thanks for the love my #leaders @XXXXX @XXXXXXX @Ednever I always appreciate it.

  • I know. I can tell from your feed. Always.

@Ednever Thanks for the follow! :)

@Ednever Thanks.

  • Am I obligated to say “You are welcome”?


How do I know these are all auto-tweets? The easiest way is to just open the individuals twitter feed and see all the identical tweets they sent to other people. They aren’t really using twitter to share information as they are using twitter to repeatedly send the same message to everyone who interacts with them.

My DM feed is even worse. I can’t be sure that DMs are automated (since I can’t see what they are sending to everyone else), but I am confident enough that I have effectively stopped checking it.

Here’s the last random DM in my mailbox:

  • Thanks so much for the follow :-) I tweet about healthy living and network marketing. What do you like to tweet about?

What do I tweet about? Um. Maybe the best way to know that is to read my twitter feed. Or to read my bio. Or visit my website. Maybe the best way isn’t to automate a tweet that asks that question to the mailbox of everyone who follows you?

This is the ugly side of automation. It’s trying to fake a connection when none exists. There is no difference between a computer ‘clicking’ to follow you or a human clicking to follow you, but there is a big difference between auto-messaging everyone who follows you with a question that asks them to do work (while you automate your work) and sending a personalized message to someone who follows you based on reading what they have to say and making intelligent conversation.

It can be fun to have conversations with other humans. It’s insulting to have conversations with computers pretending to be humans.

In Part II I will talk about why it is so hard for a computer to do automated authenticity well and how it applies to email programs, websites, direct mail, and other things non-twitter.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.