We all, on some level, know that our friends and family didn’t memorize our birthdays and anniversaries—they use a calendar to keep track of those dates. And there’s nothing impersonal about that. But if a friend set up a bot that texted you on your birthday, and you found about it, how would you feel? Probably not great.
There’s a line somewhere, between automation helping you be a better human and automation making you seem inhuman. That line matters.
A bot that says “I love you”
Kate Zasada, product manager at Zapier, told me her husband modified an Amazon Dash button to send her text messages. It was . . . strange.
To be clear: this was done as a joke, and both parties were in on it. But it points to that line I’m talking about.
This button didn’t last long.
“Basically, he made the I love you button, spammed me with it for a bit, then made the button say new stuff from a list,” Kate told me. “I appreciate it as a comedy bit, and it did make me laugh every time he sent something.”
Humans are social animals, wired to notice when things are insincere. Outsourcing compliments feels that way quickly. In this case, both Kate and her husband are aware of that and acknowledge the weirdness. The results are, in my opinion, perfect.
Jesse Taggert, a consultant who follows Zapier on Twitter, recently told us that an ex-boyfriend built a bot like this late in their relationship. It wasn’t a joke.
“One of our exasperated arguments was about me wanting some positive feedback,” Jesse told me. “So he programmed something that would periodically send a prewritten text from him.”
The results were . . . not great.
“The compliments were like ‘You’re great! You’re a good person!’ It wasn’t personal enough. It felt like he still didn’t take a risk, you know? It’s about vulnerability, about saying something authentic. After about four days, I told him to turn it off because it didn’t feel good.”
The couple broke up a few weeks later, though Jesse told me the bot wasn’t the issue. I asked her if a good version of the bot could exist. She said yes.
“If it had been a reminder for him to say something to me, it would have been different,” Jesse told me. She continued:
“We all use technology to remind ourselves of things, checklists that remind you to do something. Where’s that line? When the technology is sending personal messages for you, I think. The nature of texting is a personal thing.”
Automated messages are common in business, but that doesn’t make it work for a romantic relationship.
Kristie Wirth, data scientist at Zapier, is the foremost expert on automating your personal life. She uses snippets to make her more efficient at dating, for example, and uses text replacement tools to be more assertive, yet she never comes across as robotic. Far from it, actually. So I asked Kristie where she thinks the line is.
“Probably somewhere before automating reminder emails to your sister,” joked Kristie, referring to another actual thing she did once.
Kristie found the bot Kate’s husband made interesting because she’d contemplated a similar setup.
“I thought about making a Zap that sends a starter text to some friends I don’t see enough, every month, that says, ‘Hey! Wanna hang out soon?’ But that’s it, so it forces me to respond and make plans.”
This didn’t work out, because Zapier currently can’t send messages from your phone number to third parties. And that’s probably for the best, Kristie told me. There’s always a chance that an ill-timed “let’s hang out” text could wind up seeming insensitive. Instead, she’s trying a similar setup that adds reminders to text people to her to-do list.
Of course, even that can backfire—if you fall into a routine. Janine Anderson, managing editor at Zapier, told me she once suspected her husband was using a bot.
“He used to text me every day around 11 just to see how my day was going, and I was convinced it was a bot,” said Janine. “It was not.”
It’s possible that Zapier employees spend too much time thinking about bots, and that it would never occur to a normal person to suspect this. I still think it points to something about how even normal interaction can seem robotic if it’s repetitive.
Back to Kristie. The specifics of her setup ultimately don’t matter—what I like here is the intention. Kristie wants to set up something that encourages her to meet up with people and improve her existing relationships. That’s a hard thing to do, in part because of how overwhelming our lives are right now.
That, I think, is the line. Using automation to eliminate emotional responsibility is awkward at best and inhuman at worst. Using automation to enable connection doesn’t have that problem.
“To be clear: I have not yet automated my friendships,” Kristie told me. “Please do not tell the internet I am a monster.”
Dearest internet: Kristie is not a monster. She’s like the rest of us, trying to figure out how to be successfully human on a network of computers that’s anything but. There is no shame in using tools to do that—the trick is not to rely on the tools to do it all for us.