Would you give aid to a tiny, helpless robot that fell into a pothole?

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Kacie Kinzer's Tweenbot on the sidewalks of Manhattan

Chances are you would.  At least this is the conclusion that Kacie Kinzer has come to. The NYU graduate student has been conducting an experiment on the sidewalks of Manhattan where she sets free her small, human-dependent robots and observes.

The tiny, 10-inch smiling Tweenbots, able to move only in a straight line at a constant speed, bump into all kinds of trouble.  But equipped with a flag displaying their destination, they overcome challenges, obstacles and curbstones, thanks to the kindness of strangers.  Passersby and pedestrians seem more than glad to read the flag, right the Tweenbot, and send the little rolling object on its way.

For the last few months I’ve used the Tweenbot case study in all of my social media presentations. What’s it have to do with social media you ask?  Simple, it teaches us three important lessons.

1. People will help if you make it easy for them

They’ll be especially willing to help if they can see their small effort contributing to a larger whole.  Social media is ideal for this.  You won’t turn your avatar green if it takes 20 minutes or if  only three other people change theirs. But if it takes just a click of the mouse and you feel as if you’re contributing to something significant you’ll take action.

2.  People will do the right thing when the community is watching

While Kacie expected disaster, it never came. Why? Who is going to step on, crush, or otherwise mess with a helpless Tweenbot on the busy sidewalks of Manhattan when the urban tribe  is watching?  We see the same in social communities all the time. Aware of the community’s presence we act accordingly; we shout out the people who do good and call out those who don’t.

3.  Don’t be afraid to ask

I don’t mean the blatant, self-serving request for an RT, but rather the confidence to ask for help or advice, or information.  Chances are you’ll discover human generosity in abundance.  Same holds true when you’re seeking support for a cause or just trying to spread the news about a new product or service.

On her one page website sharing the story of Tweenbots, Kacie Kinzer closes with this thought.  “As each encounter with a helpful pedestrian takes the robot one step closer to attaining its destination, the significance of our random discoveries and individual actions accumulates into a story about a vast space made small by an even smaller robot.”

Random discoveries, individual actions, a vast space made small.  Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like social media?

10 comments
edward boches
edward boches

Mitch:
Good point. Probably not. Then again, same in SM space. If you're friendly and giving, you'll get something back. If you're a jerk and a downer, forget it.

mitchblum
mitchblum

I'd love to see the experiment re-run with the robot sporting an unhappy or a mad face. Would people be less inclined to provide help to something that isn't so cute?
.-= mitchblum´s last blog ..But Wait…There’s More! =-.

Amy Shropshire
Amy Shropshire

Everyday there is something that comes my way via social media that makes me smile and I'm constantly amazed by the closeness of community that can be built. And thanks for sharing Kacie's experiment!

Jamie Favreau
Jamie Favreau

Good points! I know people are more willing to help in your job search I think it is about finding the right person to ask!
.-= Jamie Favreau´s last blog ..NHL, NBC and the FINALS =-.

Leo Bottary
Leo Bottary

It was uncanny for me to read your post today in light of what I posted this morning! Your conclusions should make people feel a bit better today.
.-= Leo Bottary´s last blog ..Basic Human Nature. Good or Bad? =-.

Leo Bottary
Leo Bottary

It was uncanny for me to read your post today in light of what I posted this morning! Your conclusions should make people feel a bit better today.

.-= Leo Bottary´s last blog ..Basic Human Nature. Good or Bad? =-.

Seth Hosko
Seth Hosko

Yes, it does. I find a lot of lessons out of this that can also apply to my job search as well. The biggest point for me is that people are willing to help if you make it easy for them, if they see that they can contribute to a larger good or goal.
.-= Seth Hosko´s last blog ..On Brand Strategy =-.

Kat Jaibur
Kat Jaibur

Interesting story, Edward. Reading the link in your post, Kacie Kinzer's statement that "the Tweenbots a story of people's willingness to engage with a creature that mirrors human characteristics of vulnerability, being lost, and having intention without the means of achieving its goal alone." In the online space, vulnerability and needing help to achieve your goals can be very compelling. Being a little lost may work for individuals, but certainly not for brands.

To your point #1: People will help if you give them a reason to believe... and then make it easy for them. And that -- as always -- means showing how whatever you're promoting will benefit others -- not the promoter/brand. As true for an Olympus camera as a children's charity or Iran elections.

Point #2: You still need a few responders to create momentum. So again, a compelling message is key. Something that moves them from interest to action.

Point #3: Don't be afraid to ask. Yes. But as you and Chris Brogan and many others have pointed out, be a giver first. You would never dream of introducing yourself to someone and asking for a favor right off the bat. Both individuals and brands need to act accordingly. In the online space, it's been said: "Create your community before you need it."

edward boches
edward boches

Amy:
My pleasure. It's a great little experiment. When I tell the story or use it as an example in presentations people always respond with smiles and write down the url so they can check it out later.

edward boches
edward boches

Kat:
Agree with all your points. Make it easy. Inspire your community. Give before you take. Well put.