More bot thoughts & more

Originally published on on February 24, 2016. INSIDE: A leading question, more bot thoughts, a podcast teaser, GIF Battle links, random web links, and that’s actually it. It’s the Postlight Newsletter for Wednesday, February 24, 2016 — Subscribe here.

A leading question

This newsletter needs a cool name. Postlight Posts isn’t hacking it. Any ideas?

More bot thots

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I tried hard not to have any further bot-thoughts. But after we published “Bot Thots” on Monday, and warned you that bots were in the air and bots bots bots bots, two more big bot things were published. The first, by large group of smart Internet-thinky people, is “How to Think About Bots.” (That’s from Vice’s Motherboard.) They are pretty serious:

Platforms, governments and citizens must step in and consider the purpose, and future, of bot technology before manipulative anonymity becomes a hallmark of the social bot. Rumination on bots should also work to avoid policies or perspectives that simply blacklist all bots. These automatons can and might be used for many positive efforts, from serving as a social scaffolding to pushing the bounds of art. We hope to provoke conversation about the design, implementation and regulation of bots in order to preserve these, and other as yet unimagined, possibilities.

The second is “News Publishers Need To Jump Into Bots (1/2).” (That’s by Frédéric Filloux, in Monday Note.)

Today, reader interaction is mostly based on push mode. The publisher sends all sorts of news on its platforms (website, apps), and on third-party social channels: basic ones involve Facebook and Twitter, others spread their stuff over 20 platforms — most of the time without direct monetization…Relying on bots could reverse the process. There are two categories of bots: transactional and conversational.

Nieman Lab even did a roundup on bots. It suggests we start thinking, Can a bot commit libel? I mean, sure! Computers can do all kinds of things. It would be pretty easy to create a libel-generating bot in Python 3:

baby_eater_name = "Paul Ford"
print(“{} eats babies!”.format(baby_eater_name,))

Run that and it produces:

Paul Ford eats babies!
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Thought #1: Bots are chatty command lines

You could make a bot use Microsoft Excel for you. “Okay, bot,” you might say. “Move the mouse to the little disk icon and click that. Then sum all the numbers in column C and tell me the result.” That bot would be a damned nightmare, so no one would do that. Instead we make bots that are funny, or that listen in on conversations, or that remember things and tell us jokes. At the same time, the human-intelligence-simulating technologies that undergird bots are available everywhere, to all kinds of software. These technologies get used a lot in search and in various kinds of data mining. So what makes someone choose to create a bot/conversational interface over a visual interface?

Thought #2: Bots thrive in highly constrained environments

The limits of the platform is what. Twitter has its famous limit of 140 characters; bots thrive there. Slack could be ported to the Apple //e and maintain much of its functionality; bots thrive there. And Siri, Amazon Echo, and other voice-based input formats are similarly constrained to a single channel of input and output — audio — and they are primarily chatbot interfaces, too. In a constrained environment a bot is a good tool for tracking user behavior over time. A bot gives a constrained environment a structured, actionable memory.

I guess you could say: Bots enter places that are mostly focused on talkingand make them more about doing.

I’m not surprised people are excited by bots. Minimalism captures the imagination and communities arise around doing great work. There are still many people actively making interactive fiction that runs in environments that were constrained even in the 1980s.

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Thought #3: The Web and app development is a little exhausting right now

The web right now is components, and frameworks with a trillion moving parts, and every 30 minutes there’s a new front-end JavaScript something you should understand. The number of things you can do online is now infinite and the number of platforms that promise to simplify doing infinite things is also infinite. It’s a lot of infinite. Building new things is bad, expensive, and slow — choose any three. It requires tons of testing and strategy to do something that will make a dent in the world. Plus, Skynet is here and it’s ad networks.

Untestable hypothesis: Lots of people are pretty psyched about bots, because bots are simple in opposition to most other digital things of the moment, which are very complex. Maybe we have people talking about bots now because we have a kajillion publishing platforms and they are knit together less by structured search, and more by dumping content into constant, uncontrollable conversations that happen in public (Twitter, Facebook) and in private (Slack), and hoping someone notices. Bots can jump into the those conversations and they are easy to build. People think bots are a path forward out of our current state of chaos.

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Bots Need Staffs

Should news organizations go all-in on bots? Hmm! My personal opinionis that news organizations should hire Postlight to fix their content models and make their CMSes work really well. Once they’ve got their massive technical debt under control they can hire great editors who can think about products over the long haul. If they let those editors play and explore, collaborating with creative product teams, they’ll get great results because humans really appreciate carefully crafted experiences that anticipate their needs, and bots might even be part of that.

A bot provides an interface for storing and retrieving data, just as “mobile” and “the web” and “Microsoft Windows XP” are interfaces for the same.

Not long ago Quartz launched a new app that’s a very chatty interface to news. People seem to be excited about it. I wasn’t surprised when I saw that it was edited by Adam Pasick. He used to be my editor when he worked atNew York magazine and he’s a very smart person who understands things and helped make my pieces better. Now he’s the editor in charge of the bot team. Another example: One of the best editors I’ve ever worked with was Sara Sarasohn at NPR. I feared her, a little. I think about what she taught me almost daily. A year or so ago I learned that she had become a leader onNPR One, another app that is seen as a great example of news innovation. Her intelligence and decades of experience making radio went into that app, and it mattered.

It’s cool to see some of the best editors I know transition to experimental/product roles, because it means they can reach more people with their ideas about constructing good, interesting stories. And I say this not to be all like “I know these editors,” but rather to scream to the rafters that people are making decisions about software experience based on their own, professional experiences. Also that the variety of talents necessary to make one of these new things work is significant. If you dump money down the bothole without considering that bots need staffs, you will be facing a write-down over 18 months instead of the success you promised your CEO with your new awesome bot strategy.

Please don’t dump your money down the bothole without considering who will make the bots great every day. That would be like launching a website without thinking about who’s going to maintain it. No one would ever do that, would they? Of course not. Bots out.

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  1. A clear winner here
  2. 22 likes, but a tie!
  3. The theme here appears to be cute animals x sunglasses?

“Don’t forget to tease the podcast”

We started a podcast! You can’t hear it yet (tomorrow, though). Like this newsletter, it’s early days, and we welcome all feedback and suggestions — for guests, topics, where we should stuff it.

We’ve played it for a number of people and they have said “It’s really good for a first podcast!” They also said: “Honestly, I was expecting it to be much worse!” People are so great and helpful.

It’ll be out tomorrow in MP3 format. Here’s a teaser from the interview portion:

Paul Ford: You started at Shift Magazine in 1994. What was that?

Jon Lax: Shift was a publication out of Toronto. I guess in some ways it kind of a Wired but more focused on culture, and the role of technology and culture and how it’s coming together.

Paul Ford: Was it specifically Canadian?

Jon Lax: No, its editorial was very broad-based. I went to Burning Man in 1995 and covered it.

Paul Ford: You are talking about that openly now.

Jon Lax: Yeah, that’s the first and last time.

Rich Ziade: The Canadian Burning Man?

Jon Lax: No.

Paul Ford: What would be the Canadian Burning Man be like?

Jon Lax: Its just a barbecue.

Tomorrow! Manage your expectations!

Today’s Links

Today’s variety of religious experience: Bushongo mythology(Congo).Today’s public data set: Dallas Open Data. Today’s JavaScript library: FlexSlider — An awesome, fully responsive jQuery slider plugin.Today’s React component: react-pressable — Add onRelease, onReleaseInside, onReleaseOutside, and onPress events. Today’s freely available programming book: Programming on Parallel Machines; GPU, Multicore, Clusters and More .

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About Postlight

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CEO,, a digital product studio in NYC. Also writer, Medium advisor, programmer. Any port in a storm, especially ports 80 and 443.

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