A group of travelers sits out on a boat in an unknown ocean. They tweet, asking “How long have we been adrift?” But there are no travelers. No human is tweeting. Yet @str_voyage keeps tweeting every half hour anyway.
This Twitter account is run by a bot, tweeting 140 characters or less at a time. J.D. Biersdorfer writes in a New York Times piece, “Bots are small programs that typically perform repetitive, scripted tasks. On Twitter, they are used for a variety of purposes, including for help and harassment.” When scripted, these bots run their respective Twitter accounts automatically, according to a predetermined set of parameters. These parameters tend to dictate how the bot will form a sentence, what words to include, and can sometimes be the instruction to respond to specific tweets. Such bots can act as tools of harassment by continuously spouting hateful messages, but as Biersdorfer notes, “not all bots are bad.”
Darius Kazemi (@tinysubversions) produces some of these exceptions, making many bots, most of which are for his own enjoyment. These include a bot that utilizes Harry Potter references (@sortingbot), one that plays off of movie trailer tropes (@thissummerbot), and another that shares nice-sounding statistics (@NiceStatistics). He even created a meta-bot (@dariusbots), a bot with parameters based on other bots, in order to see the most popular tweets from all of his created bots.
Creation of entertainment sources is not the only use Kazemi has found for his skills. He helped create a poetry bot for the New Yorker (@tnypoetry), which shares a piece of poetry every day, and a role-playing bot for Wizards of the Coast (using the preexisting @Wizards_DnD) that gives Twitter users unique fortunes in reference to a popular Dungeons and Dragons character. Kazemi says that he would notice people interacting with the latter, playing out scenarios themselves.
In these instances, bot-makers have a way of turning a profit, being paid for the advertising purposes of their bots.
However, a significant portion of existing Twitter bots fulfill the artistic and entertainment interests of the creators and are made purely out of interest. Another bot-maker, Joe Baxter Webb(@joebaxterwebb), started using his bots to incorporate themes that were “a bit too grand” for games. Twitter bots give him the opportunity to create continuous streams of content within these themes without being limited by character creation or the need to create a concise narrative. Every 30 minutes, Webb’s post-apocalyptic Twitter bot (@ThanetGuide) has scavengers popping up here and there in an unknown wasteland, searching for absurd scraps, as the mythos continues to deepen. Webb speaks of the fun and ease of creating bots. He himself doesn’t write much code, but he uses a service called Cheap Bots Done Quick (CBDQ) in order to create what he needs. Webb likes using tools for unintended purposes, and he constantly asks, “Can you create pathos with this random jumbling of stuff?”
When made with CBDQ, the bots do not have a memory; sometimes they even duplicate tweets that result from the coding. However, as random generators, the bots have the ability to create unexpected combinations or become the start of something bigger. Webb is the creator of the aforementioned @str_voyage, and each of the bot’s tweets offer story potentials, prompts from which other Twitter users could expand upon ideas. Vin Tanner (@hologramvin) is another bot-maker, as well as a writer. Tanner enjoys “making little worlds of stories with bots.” Their bots, like @spacetravelbot and @brandnewplanet, often create stories or story worlds in science-fiction settings. Tanner sees the stories told by the bots not as much about the raw content each bot publishes, but rather, as potential for what can be written as a result.
There is something about science-fiction that seems to fit nicely within the form of Twitter bots’ storytelling. The bots have no intelligence, and they do not think on their own. Rather, they follow a set of parameters for randomness, and this is how they create. Dramatically distant as the bots are from any concept of singularity, they create worlds and story bits, venture into art, and come up with results that amuse, befuddle, and intrigue.
In a speech attended by Webb, CBDQ creator George Buckenham (@v21) advocated for content creators to stop making games and start making bots instead. Bots can utilize traditional forms of setup and punchline to elicit humor on an automatic basis. They can create phrases that sound poetic, and Buckenham notes that bot-making is “a job for poets rather than programmers.” He praises the “static” and “contextlessness” [sic] of the bots, which interrupt the argumentation and hatred that so abound in Twitter feeds. Twitter bots afford opportunities for art, humor, and absurdity within the stream of everything else that scrolls across our various screens. After being set, the bots can keep tweeting, voyaging forever in uncharted seas.
By, Benjamin Wallin
Benjamin Wallin is an English and Journalism major with a Film Studies Minor. His tweets are most likely not written by a bot (@BCWallin).
Cover Art by Marisa Cole