Humans and Computers in Social Systems

Unintended Consequences of Technology Can Be Instructive

Michael Port is a leading speaker, successful author and socially engaged business person who happens to live in my local community. I don’t know Michael personally, but he enjoys a fine reputation both internationally and locally. Similarly, Rick Toone is a successful entrepreneur, video producer and socially engaged business person who lives in the same community. I know Rick well on a personal and professional level. We have consumed beers, brainstormed business ideas together and worked together for clients. Michael and Rick are both fine people.

Rick recently created a Facebook group for people in our local community to facilitate greater networking among people with similar interests also linked by geography. Knowing that Michael is a great guy who enjoys networking, a group member added Michael to the group. When “a friend” adds someone to a Facebook group, they are automatically included. If they do not want to be in the group they must opt out.

Creating a group and adding potentially interested friends can seem like a good idea – unless business practices, technology and human factors get in the way. Rather than improve our community networking, this situation pointed out some annoying problems that can occur in computer-human interaction within the social sphere. Here’s what happened.

Apparently, Michael utilizes a very efficient auto responder that sends a system-generated response when someone contacts his organization. The message thanks the sender for contacting his business, generates a new account for the sender and provides contact information for future use. Surely this is great in certain circumstances, but in this case an inappropriate response to posts in a Facebook group.

Every time anyone posted to the Facebook group, Michael’s auto responder issued the note you can see to the right. At first it seemed unfortunate and even a bit amusing. Then people became annoyed. I commented that is was an “anti-social” social experience. Group members suggested deleting Michael from the group to stop the auto responder. And all the while, the faithful technology continued to spit out context-inappropriate responses to every comment.

When Michael became aware of the situation, he sent Rick the following note:

Please don’t add me to groups. thanks

Rick, can you please post this to the Doylestown Group so that I can save face for all the autoreply messages that showed up there are a result of you adding me to the group. Thanks.
Holy cow. Apparently, each time someone posted to this group my helpdesk has been sending a response email. Sooooo sorry. However, I never actually joined this group – someone else added me to the group, which is why I wasn’t aware of the problem until Jamie B let me know. So, two lessons learned:

1. Don’t add people to groups unless they give you permission.
2. The default setting for FB groups sends a notification email each time someone posts to the Group’s Wall. If the email you (read: I) use in Facebook is your public helpdesk email it will send an automatic reply and post it as a comment. Yikes.

Peace out lovely DT neighbors.

– Michael Port

There are so many interesting observations, bits of advice and learnings that we can all take from this. Here are a few:

  1. I think Michael makes a good point – perhaps we shouldn’t add “friends” to Facebook group unless they give permission. But the Facebook groups function – unlike Facebook friend requests, causes, fan pages, etc. – does not let you suggest or invite; rather, it requires you to add people to a group or move on. Perhaps you could send a message to each friend and ask them if they want to be part of a group, but managing that is a hurdle most people are not going to engage in.
  2. When anyone uses an auto responder or any other automated technology gizmo, they or their advisors should contemplate the implications of using the technology. May there be unintended consequences that can harm business or business reputation? Are there rules that can be programmed in saying some in effect like “Don’t auto respond to Facebook posts?”
  3. Technology is great, and we all use devices and software to help us manage interactions with others. Voicemail, away messages on email, alarm systems on our homes while we are sleeping are just a few of the common technologies that we put between ourselves and others for their perceived benefits. Where do all of us as socially engaged, busy professionals set the line for actually being social ourselves versus letting other people or other applications be social for us?

The good news here is that Michael and Rick communicated with each other and the situation was resolved quickly with no harm intended or inflicted. With a tip of the hat and great respect for both of them, I’d appreciate your perspective on this situation. What are your observations on computer-human interactions in the social sphere? I’d love to hear from you.

–Chuck Hall

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