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Web Friend or Faux?

Digital 'buddies' are elaborate marketing tools, but their lifelike responses in online instant messages can be misleading.

July 18, 2002|CHRISTINE FREY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When none of her friends is online, 11-year-old Olga Szpiro sends her artificial ones an instant message to chat.

"hey ... welcome back!" one replies. "what can i do for u?"

But unlike Olga, these friends don't just socialize. They sell.

One markets movie tickets. Another talks up a reality television show. A third pushes magazine subscriptions.

In a culture inundated with advertising, companies have discovered a new way to connect with consumers and make their messages stand out amid the din. They are using digital "buddies" to spread word of their products on the Internet.

The buddies are software applications also known as "bots." They're programmed to make friends and small talk, and they're eerily good at it. They take cues from a human acquaintance's questions and answers and search databases for conversational fodder. Bot-speak can be formulaic and stilted. It can also be witty, provocative and startlingly lifelike.

Buddies are not mere motor-mouths. The more elaborate ones have quirks, preferences, yearnings--virtual personalities.

Their presence on the Web represents a powerful new dimension in marketing. It's easy to ignore a billboard or flip past a magazine ad, and many TV viewers reach for the remote the instant a commercial appears.

Web-based buddies, on the other hand, make a direct, even intimate, connection with people. They allow companies to reach potential customers one on one, typically in the privacy of their homes. The marketing message need not be heavy-handed or obvious: It can be artfully insinuated into light badinage between buddies.

At least a dozen companies have deployed bots, using software developed by ActiveBuddy Inc., a New York firm. Hooking up with human pals through instant message services, they urge people to buy Ford trucks, check out the eBay auction site and take in "The Lord of the Rings."

Appearing in Szpiro's personal message list every time she goes online to chat with one of her San Fernando Valley classmates, they are indefatigable and ever-present.

Most buddies are programmed with personalities that appeal to their target audiences. ELLEgirlBuddy, the Internet ego of teen magazine ELLEgirl, is a redheaded 16-year-old who likes kickboxing, the color periwinkle and French class.

GooglyMinotaur, a buddy for the British progressive rock band Radiohead, affected a British demeanor with words like "mate." The Austin Powers buddy, which promotes the summer film "Goldmember," interjects the movie character's favorite phrases--"yeah, baby" and "grrr"--into conversation.

Some buddies are even programmed to express emotions--sadness, frustration, desire. In the year since it debuted, people have told SmarterChild, the demo buddy for ActiveBuddy, "I love you" more than 9 million times, the company reports. Every time, it's responded: "I love you."

Though most users understand they are communicating with a computer, some engage in deep conversation with buddies, talking to them as they would to friends. College students look them up late at night. Teenagers consult them about fashion faux pas and weight problems.

Such exchanges reveal how technology can assume a lifelike character in people's minds, even when it's just an elaborate advertisement.

"People forget in very profound ways that they are talking to nothing," said Sherry Turkle, director of MIT's initiative on technology and self.

Talking Back

Computers first chatted in the mid-1960s, when MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum created a software program called Eliza. Designed to converse in the manner of a psychotherapist, Eliza asked people questions by rephrasing their previous statements. The "patient" typed questions on a keyboard. Eliza's answer appeared on the screen moments later.

In a typical exchange, a user said that she was "depressed much of the time."

"I am sorry to hear you are depressed," Eliza replied.

"It's true. I am unhappy," the person typed.

"Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?" Eliza asked.

Some of Eliza's chat partners thought they were communicating with a human being. A few even formed emotional bonds with the program. Disturbed by these reactions, Weizenbaum lost his enthusiasm for artificial intelligence and wrote a book warning of its potential dangers.

The technology has only grown more sophisticated since then.

Today's buddies operate through instant message services such as America Online's AIM and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Messenger, which allow people to communicate in real time at their keyboards. A buddy can't crash into someone's cyberspace; they have to be invited. Users maintain online lists of friends and send them instant messages by clicking on their screen names. People add digital buddies to their lists after learning of them by word of mouth or from Web sites.

When a user clicks on a buddy's screen name, a computer server receives the message. By analyzing key words, it interprets what the user is saying and formulates an appropriate response.

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