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At this year’s Recode conference in California, legendary Internet analyst Mary Meeker released her annual Internet Trends report for 2017. While there were many interesting findings in the 355 PowerPoint slides that Meeker shared with the audience, one finding particularly stood out: the growing role of bots in overall Internet traffic.
That’s right – even as the world is seeing a slowing of overall Internet traffic growth, bots are becoming more and more prominent. In 2016, there was an inflection point, as Internet traffic from bots surpassed human-generated traffic. Put another away, there are now probably more bots visiting your website than there are humans.
The good bots
Of course, there are different types of bots. In general terms, a bot is simply a program that’s asked to do one specific thing, over and over again. For example, how do you think Google is able to come up with its search rankings? That’s right, there are “search bots” that go out and crawl the Internet.
And how do you think Facebook is able to go out and find the right items to put in your newsfeed? That’s right, there are “feed bots” that go out and check out websites. By some estimates, Facebook feedbots now account for just under 5% of all Internet traffic.
The newest craze is messenger bots – the so-called “chatbots.” Back in 2016, Mary Meeker had identified the Facebook Messenger chatbots as the main type of bot. These bots can do everything from suggest a good gift to buy, to answer basic customer service questions. Digital marketers initially embraced them because they offered a way to provide one-on-one conversations – since there were no humans involved, these chatbots were infinitely scalable, no matter how many customers you had.
The bad bots
Those are what you might refer to as “good” bots. But, rest assured, there are “bad” bots as well. Back in January 2017, The Atlantic ran a story – “The Internet is Mostly Bots” – in which they checked out the various types of bots out there, and what exactly they are doing. According to The Atlantic, bots accounted for 52% of all Internet traffic, and of that 52%, the mix of “bad” bots and “good” bots was 29%/23%.
In other words, “bad bots” account for nearly one-third of all Internet traffic. Again, in layman’s terms, you can think of 1 out of every 3 website visitors as harmful bots. These might be bots that leave nasty comments on any blog post you write, or bots that are scraping your name and email address for other nefarious cyber purposes.
As bots become smarter and smarter (mostly thanks to advances in artificial intelligence), it’s possible to imagine bots taking on more and more of a role in everyday life. Many could “evolve” to become really smart personal digital assistants, able to offer advice at any time on just about any topic, based on your voice commands. (And, indeed, one can see the rise of technologies like Amazon Echo as a vestige of this trend).
Future scenarios for bots
The big question, though, is what happens when bots account for not just 50% of all Internet traffic, but a majority of all Internet traffic? There are a lot of dystopian scenarios that are possible to imagine – like giant bot media conglomerates, relentlessly producing “fake news” to correspond to some predetermined editorial slant. (It might be hard for the New York Times to turn a profit, but what about a news media company without any human employees?)
Or how about particularly vile spam bots that go around the Internet, defacing the Internet with offensive hate speech? In this year’s presidential election, many cited the rise of pro-Trump bots and pro-Clinton bots as damaging the overall political discourse. Imagine that type of polarizing rhetoric wherever you go on the Internet.
Ultimately, bots can only do what humans tell them to do. Let’s hope that the humans in charge make the right decisions!!!!!