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Canned Email Response System

I find this interesting. Used to be you'd send a letter to president@whitehouse.gov and get a canned response and then your message would presumably be ignored, unread.

Now they've got a new system, probably because people complained about not getting a relevant response:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/webmail/

The idea is you fill out several pages of web forms, specifying from a pre-approved list of topics what your concern is and whether you agree or disagree with the president's position on that topic. You also have to tell them your actual street address.

After submitting your letter, a confirmation is sent to the email address you provided in order to confirm your identity. Once you have confirmed your identity to the satisfaction of the mailer, your letter is processed.

How processing happens is described in the faq. There are two form letters for each of the approved topics you are emailing about -- one form letter congratulating you if you said you agree with the president, and another form letter showing the errors in your thinking and asking you to reconsider your position if you said you disagreed with the president's position. Which form is sent depending on your selection of these settings.

Your letter is placed in a queue where it is delayed for 1 to 3 days, presumably this is done in response to usability studies that show that the users were unhappy getting an instant response since it was clear it was computer generated and impersonal. People prefer the illusion that their message was read and they got a personalized response in which a human actually read their comments. The message is not read though, the person's name is inserted into a form letter. Still, you have to admit that the system has been designed with usability concerns, just perhaps not the concerns the users might be explicitly interested in.

Presumably, the aggragate numebers of pro/con on each issue and level of interest in issues are maintained in a database that is fed into a live display in the spin room, giving live feedback about what topics the spin mechanics need to focus their attention on.

Pretty clever system all together. It provides the users with responses that are more relevant than before, institutes a delay to simulate human involvement, and manages to verify identity and capture demographics information, even linking your ip address to a geographical location for possible later use.

If I designed it I would make it a lot more subtle though so the secrets of how it worked were not so obvious. I would analyze the tone of voice and compare against a set of keywords to determine automatically what the subject was and whether or not the person was for or against the topic. Then, the system would still wait 1-3 days and send out a canned response with the person's name inserted so they'd think we were reading the email. I'd still skim the pro/con numbers into a database for evaluation of spin results of course. Wouldn't need to confirm the email address since we'd already have a directory of legitimate email addresses and the correct ip address ranges they should be coming from. The demographics likewise.

X. J. Scott
Friday, July 18, 2003

I think this is what Amazon does.

www.marktaw.com
Friday, July 18, 2003

No, so far Amazon does not rule the world or invade countries except through the telephone wires.

Hmmm perhaps they do.

Simon Lucy
Friday, July 18, 2003

The system I described as implemented  or my proposed implementation?

It's true that most company's customer service pages work like the current system the whitehouse has set up -- you select some subject and get a canned response, or you type in a letter and an algorithm gives you totally unhelpful information that was based on an incorrect parsing of your inquiry. For the canned system to send the right response from a set of faqs requires some sophisticated processing, not unlike google news. Most companies don't have anything nearly that good though.

As for amazon, I have written them seething complaints and have always gotten back a semi-personal reply, which was some paragraphs cut and pasted by the customer service person in Bangalore, along with a couple of sentences of customization. These human-assisted responses don't address the issues well, but they do do so better than the simple forms of keyword matching that most companies do.

In the future, medicine will work this way. You'll fill out a form and a surgery will be selected for you automatically and all the paperwork set up and a room scheduled. After you've been anesthesized and rolled in, the surgeon making the first incision will be the first time a human was involved in the process. If he happens to notice that you don't look like you need a hysterectomy because you are male, he doesn't say anything because the nails that stick up get pounded down and if anyone questioned the system it could lead to a lot of troublesome lawsuits and government inquiries.

X. J. Scott
Friday, July 18, 2003

Great way to find people that disagree with your policies so they can be "dealt with".


Friday, July 18, 2003

Theoretically, yes, but I think in practice what happens is that the person about to check "I disagree with the policiy of the white house on this issue" will have second thoughts and some of them will decide not to send that letter because they fear what you describe. The result will be that the white house can then truthfully report: "100% of the public that has contacted us supports the president's position on this." Pretty clever eh?

The other gotcha that is really fun is to check out the privacy policy -- they state that they will not use your letter except to comply with existing law, and then they point out that the existing law is that your letter to the president must be made a public record 12 years after the president leaves office! Ha ha! This is going to make a lot of people look really stupid! Hm, let's see... John Q. Public is applying for a job here at Megalo Corporation... let's check the public information database here... well well well, it seems that Johnnie boy wrote to the president advocating greater environmental accountability in the tech industry... I think we can safely eliminate that liberal pervert from consideration for this job!!

X. J. Scott
Friday, July 18, 2003

The _New York Times_ covered this today:

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/18/technology/18MAIL.html

J. D. Trollinger
Friday, July 18, 2003

I think they need to install the old Eliza program and use it to generate responses.

pdq
Tuesday, July 22, 2003

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