13 March 2012

Author Orla Foster

It's an inescapable truth that your online presence is shaped by how you want to appear. No matter how sincere your intentions, when it comes to your virtual self, you exploit your best features: posting flattering photographs, showcasing your favourite bands, storing up one-liners for Twitter. As you gradually curate this online persona, you can't help but exclude the occupational hazards of being human - the stammering exchanges, the shyness, the jokes that fall hopelessly flat because you delivered them in the wrong tone of voice. Your Internet persona is your perfect form, the best version of you. 

So how can you make this even better? One answer might be Matthieu Cherubini's project rep.licants.org, which is on show as part of FACT's upcoming Robots and Avatars exhibition.

rep.licants.org is a service tailored for social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Once users install the software, their every online move is closely monitored by the app, which simulates interaction through statistics and keywords already available on the user profile. Social setbacks such as awkwardness and hesitation are replaced with readymade responses - all based on the user's previous input. 

There have been many playful examples of artificial intelligence programs before. The likes of Cleverbot and A.L.I.C.E. invited users to "chat" through a simulated question/answer dialogue, but there, the interaction felt almost confrontational. You wanted to outsmart the bot, expose its machinery, sneer at it, ask it to marry you - anything to provoke a reaction that revealed the application to be automated, and therefore less intelligent than you. This time, however, the bot is on your side. It's not here to act superior, to cast aspersions on your intellect - it's here to coordinate your online wellbeing and improve your Internet persona simply by analysing and responding to what's already there. 

And why would this be a good thing? Well, as our personalities are becoming increasingly web-based, the bot is simply accelerating a process that's already begun. This is particularly evident on Facebook, which has become more and more attuned to its users' actions, readily transmitting the information to external sites. Users leave a trail of reference points on their profiles which can be followed up infinitely. This is veiled as a helpful tool: a snapshot of your digital habits to be later used to guide you towards relevant links. 

At the same time, this step towards assimilated content places a huge burden on the user. Your most-visited websites, once separate entities, now seem to be in collusion, their details swarming onto each others pages. A pair of brogues you briefly considered buying two weeks ago dance across your inbox. You're told you have "super compatibility" with Mitch in Ohio, who listened to the same Local Natives track within minutes of you. To your deep regret, everybody on Facebook now knows you spent the afternoon watching a Hilary Duff film on Netflix. 

On the surface, your Internet existence is evolving into a streamlined, smooth-running process, saving you the bother of having to sift through reams of unrelated information in order to find what you want. But in practice, the effect is dizzying. Seemingly linear activities you used to accomplish in one sitting (listening to an album, reading an article, composing an email) have morphed into apparently insurmountable tasks. Your online path is strewn with obstacles, with too many related items to click on, too many links sweeping your attention further and further off topic. You're flicking between so many windows and tabs that you can't concentrate for more than 30 seconds at a time. You need some help to navigate the ceaseless vortex of information. 

So why not sit back and let the bot take the reins? After all, the precedent is already set in place. You've started sculpting the perfect online personality, so all the bot has to do is refine the model even further by absorbing the patterns of interaction and repeating them to fit. Once the process has been set into motion, there doesn't even need to be a human pushing the buttons. So if you're exhausted by the labyrinth of cyberspace, maybe you should give your sagging brain a rest and let rep.licants do the talking. It's the next logical step...

FACT has a rep.licants.org bot of its own - you can find him on Facebook.

Image courtesy of Flickr, KatB Photography