The art of the Twitter bot

There are a lot of voices on Twitter and not all of them are human. In a quarterly filing with regulators at the beginning of November, Twitter disclosed that 8.5% of its users showed signs of being bots. With 307 million users in the third quarter, that makes 26 million accounts more robot than human. That’s a lot of bots talking side-by-side with real people.

George Buckenham (@v21) is a game developer, bot wrangler and the man behind Cheap Bots, Done Quick! – a site that helps users make their own Twitter bots. I meet Buckenham in the courtyard of Somerset House, where he is working on a physical-digital-animal-stacking game called Fabulous Beasts.

There’s a small crowd of ice skaters circling a rink close to where we sit, and Buckenham talks to me about internet noise.

“The thing I like is the overloading – the semantic satiation that you can get with words. There’s this constant feeling you get when you’ve read too much internet, where it’s an overload of facts and opinions and blah and Hot Takes coming at you. And then, suddenly, you have a bunch of robots creating fake ones as well, at the point when you’re exhausted and overloaded with that stuff, suddenly there’s even more. It’s the aesthetics of excess – of too many opinions.”

@thinkpiecebot is a good example of a bot that adds an automated voice to the daily influx of opinions, using a series of randomly selected formulas and predetermined lists of words. This results in headlines like “Reverse Racism: The Real Issue Facing Syndicated Columnists” and “What Does George Lucas Mean For Craft Beer?”

While these bots satirise the culture that’s built up around Twitter, Buckenham tells me about the beauty of bots that stick out from the echo chamber. “You read through Twitter and it’s this constant mass of hashtag content, and it’s really nice to mix in an artwork. Instead of feeds of people sharing stuff it’s like: ‘Here’s a moth. Here’s a beautiful moth that a machine has generated.’”

Accounts such as @mothgenerator, @GenerateACat and @NiteAlps all make procedurally generated artworks, while @MagicRealismBot performs a similar trick for magical realist stories. Follow these accounts and you’ll soon find fragments of machine-made art spliced between human sentences. But why are these automated acts of imagination so appealing? Perhaps there’s something subversive about these bots, which digs a handful of fingernails under the fabric of Twitter and lifts the lid on our intermittent expressions.

“The joke of it is as important as the actual existence of it.”

Then there are bots such as @DeathMedieval, @everybird_ and @everyword, which present an regular feed of ordered information – real deaths from medieval coroner reports, bird names and every word in the English language respectively.

Buckenham tells me there is a conceptual appreciation to be had knowing that these accounts exist – that “the joke of it is as important as the actual existence of it” – but it seems to me there’s also something to be said for how words and historical deaths can be appropriated and recontextualised by retweeting, quoting and responding to these tenacious indexers.

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