Theo Miller Nov 7, 2017
First came the text message. It all but eliminated the casual phone call. Then came autocorrect. When it works, we can misspell every word in the English language and not embarrass ourselves.
Now LinkedIn has taken autocorrect to a whole other level by launching a feature called Smart Replies. It actually writes your messages for you. In case you get stuck or you’re in a hurry, LinkedIn jumps in with some machine learning to bail you out. While it could be useful, generating a contextual message like “Sounds good!” feels like a flagrant waste of advanced technology.
Chatbots have become popular in recent years, but I never thought they’d supplement the human side of the conversation. It was bad enough when they replaced basic form fields to capture user data. Forms were a much clearer way to enter information into a computer than texting critical user data to an imaginary friend. Now we’re relying on chat automation to create small talk for us.
While spellcheck is useful, it’s disconcerting that we have to rely on LinkedIn to tell us what to say. Like Cyrano de Bergerac crouched in the bushes, LinkedIn is there to feed us sweet nothings. It makes you wonder how long it will be until humans become totally redundant.
LinkedIn’s new feature works exactly as you would expect. If someone asks, “How are you?” You’re given your choice of “Good,” “Fine,” and “Great, thanks!” The replies are so simple that you might as well type them. You still have to write out the detailed responses that require focus.
The most sophisticated response in the promo video asks, “What time?” Again, I think we can manage the two syllables on our own. Sure this could evolve into something more sophisticated and valuable, but not for awhile.
There’s a subtle parallel between LinkedIn’s Smart Replies and the recently acquired social network TBH. Iterating on the success of Secret and YikYak before it, TBH is an anonymous platform. Both TBH and Smart Replies improve the way we interact with one another online.
Anonymous social networks have a history of bullying and gossip. TBH avoids this pitfall by centering the user experience around compliments. Their users flatter one another by voting on who has qualities like Best Smile. It’s like yearbook superlatives in app form.
TBH should be considered for a Nobel Prize. It’s remarkable that an app can force people to be polite through design. Facebook and Twitter sure can’t do that. It’s sad that we have to rely on software to have constructive social interactions, but it’s a real problem.
Seeing that 73.7% of Millennials interact via text more than in person, social skills could be on the decline. Sure the expressiveness of body language and vocal inflections live on in emojis, but our digital selves lack grace. Trolls are the worst, but they only represent the extreme. Most of us could be more considerate when we interact with strangers online.
LinkedIn’s Smart Replies don’t prevent trolling, but they do supplement our social skills. You have to imagine how sloppy the average message must be for LinkedIn to invest in this. In their defense, they’re not the only ones.
Google offers the same feature. It provides suggestions for what people should write. Again, I’m sure this feature saves time, but it doesn’t take imagination to write, “That’s a good point. See you Tuesday, Bob!”
Much like Facebook, LinkedIn’s messaging has evolved over the years. Social platform messaging often straddles the awkward middle ground between emails and texts. Facebook Messenger is so instantaneous, it’s like using SMS. LinkedIn, designed for professional networking, still has some of the formalities of email. What results is something of a hybrid message that may or may not contain a salutation and a formal sign off.
If Smart Replies didn’t serve as a conversational aid, it would be less alarming. The feature suggests basic phrases to help users carry on a simple conversation. It’s scary to think how dependent we could become on something so unnecessary.
Building human connections is one of the few advantages that we can have over machines. We have to fight the urge to rely on technology for everything. Otherwise, we might serve no purpose other than collecting universal basic income and watching reality TV.