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Gmail’s Smart Reply blurs the line between people and brands
How auto responses like ‘Thanks for letting me know!’ changed us.
“Thanks for letting me know.”
Have you noticed an uptick in this phrase appearing in emails, on social media, and IRL? Do you find yourself saying it even though maybe a year ago you would never use the phrase? Is there a new wave of semi-formality sweeping our communications and infecting our brains? What’s going on here?
The answer isn’t some insidious conspiracy by the Illuminati to make the world more polite. “Thanks for letting me know” just happens to be one of the more common answers offered by Google Smart Reply, and as a result, it has become embedded in our daily lives, like so many other products the company offers.
In November 2015, Google unveiled Smart Reply, a plug-in that reads and suggests responses to emails. The plug-in does its best to take in the content of the message you’ve received and suggest three potential appropriate responses.
The benefits in terms of efficiency are obvious. Many of us wake up to cluttered inboxes and spend the rest of our days grasping toward the zen of “inbox zero.” Like all types of nirvana, inbox zero is an elusive state. Try as we might, we never quite get that last piece of mail off of our digital desk before another deluge of correspondence crashes onto our servers.
It would be considered callous, even cruel, to simply respond, “Got it. Thanks.” to the bulk of your emails. Smart Reply, with its personally tailored yet concise responses, offers a way to maintain a modicum of human decency while preserving your e-sanity.
A perfect solution to a uniquely modern problem? Not quite.
Almost three years into the Smart Reply experience, we are starting to see the cultural cost of automatic responses. With our personally tailored series of pre-fabricated lines drilled into our brains, we are all starting to sound like brands.
The new gmail makes for great, life-affirming conversations.
Ok, thanks for letting me know.
You’re the best!
— Lynley Stace (@lynleystace) June 26, 2018
This makes sense in terms of the goals of Smart Reply. For most people, the majority of emails are work-related, and while friends and family will forgive a touch of formality, being too loose at work has ended a lot of careers. The most important thing Smart Reply can do is not get you fired.
This bears out in the history of Smart Reply’s development. When the technology was first introduced, the New Yorker’s Nicola Twilley wrote a piece on the rollout of the plug-in. Early testing showed that Smart Reply’s natural tendency was to be “overly affectionate.” “When the engineers inspected their model,” Twilley relays, “they discovered that whenever an e-mail did not give a particularly strong signal as to the appropriate response, the machine hedged its bets with a declaration of affection.” This is a very human response: How many men after too many drinks have come up with only “I love you, man!” to explain their feelings to a buddy? Google saw this as a “bug, not a feature,” and added an affection filter to the technology. Your email would never again say, “I love you.”
Google knows that our No. 1 email priority is to avoid embarrassment. After all, “Undo Send” remains one of Gmail’s most popular features and as soon as a big job offer lands on your desk, you would do well to purge any offensive tweets from your Twitter history.
It is in Google’s best interest to create a product that minimizes any outpouring of emotion that might be inappropriate. We can assume that the algorithm that produces these auto-responses isn’t just controlling for affection, but also humor, sadness, anger, wistfulness, and any other feelings that would prevent you from being a gold-star employee.
Smart Reply tries to strike a balance between office-appropriate responses and maintaining some level of personality. Andrew Chamings writing at the Bold Italic noted that while he was offered effusive responses like “Sure thing!” friends of his were given more muted suggestions like “I’ll be there.” and “I’ll try.”
The end result is a set of responses that are in “your voice,” but never transgress the acceptable limits of that voice in a professional setting. After several years of Smart Reply, we all sound a little bit like a corporatized version of ourselves.
We are also in an era where every big brand has a readily identifiable voice on social media. Everyone on Twitter knows what Denny’s and Wendy’s “sound like.” The now-defunct account @brandsayingbae chronicled the early years of company Twitters trying to sound like cool teenagers, and despite constant mockery from the snarkier corners of the peanut gallery, the brands are talking to us, releasing music, and even dissing customers.
As human beings have attempted to sanitize their public presence for fear of being James-Gunned out of their livelihood, and brands have sought ever more “authenticity,” the distance between the way your friend Wendy talks and the way the corporation Wendy’s sounds grows smaller by the day.
Three years into Smart Reply, humans now realize that we are always accountable for anything we say online, in public and in private. Conversely, brands have realized that the more human they sound, the less accountable consumers will hold them. If they can make Mitt Romney’s prophecy that “corporations are people my friends” come true, all the better for their bottom line.
According to the Supreme Court, corporations are people. If Smart Reply is any indication, it is also true that people are now corporations, and are expected to conduct themselves on the internet with the grace and care of someone with a full-staffed PR team. We have decided that it is OK to fire someone for a tweet unrelated to their work, and we have decided that any email could cost you your job. Google may not be enforcing this strict behavioral code, but it is certainly enabling it.
Google is here to help us all make sure that to “sound like us” is to sound like a carefully focus-grouped personal brand. It is too late for us to do anything about it, as the standards for casual conversation on the internet have become so high that a little machine assistance might even be necessary to survive in the current iteration of online.
You could spend time raging against the machine, refusing to give into to the sanitized allure of Smart Reply. But you are probably better off accepting that you will be defined by your three automated responses. It’s probably best to sit back, relax, and pick “Thanks for letting me know.”
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.