All About That Bot


According to Wikipedia, bots are software applications that run automated tasks over the internet. Although bots can be written for all types of things on the web, many of the ones I encountered before this week’s readings were spam advertising. (If you were using a desktop in the third quarter of 2014, 41% of the online ads you were seeing were bot-generated.)
The number of bots is also growing rapidly on Twitter, whose open API makes them especially easy to script. The social media company released a statement in 2014 saying that 23 million users were automated accounts, or bots. Don’t assume that they are all trying to get your money, though. In this post, I’ll explore some of the good guys.
The Protest Bot
In Mark Sample’s article, we learn that bots can be written as a form of protest. His bot @NRA_Tally pulls real victim numbers, locations, and types of weapons from mass shootings that have taken place in the United States in the past thirty years, and matches them with one of 14 stock NRA responses. It’s also participatory, so users can submit generalized versions of documented responses and Sample will add them to the bot code. Although Sample outlines several characteristics a protest bot must follow, the most interesting one by far is the aggregate power of the bot:
It is the nature of bots to do the same thing over and over again, with only slight variation. Any single iteration may be interesting, but it is in the aggregate that a protest bot’s tweets attain power. The repetition builds on itself, the bot relentlessly riffing on its theme, unyielding and overwhelming, a pile-up of wreckage on our screens.

So in the case of @NRA_Tally, the point is to literally spam you with these examples so that they’re unignorable. As he says, the purpose of the protest bot is to “create messy moments that destabilize narratives, perspectives, and events.”
The Cultural Institution Bot
In our line of work, bots have been created to promote cultural institutions by displaying their wares. MOMA created @MuseumBot to tweet images of their collections two to three times a day. These tweets are relatively simple, consisting of an image, sometimes a title, and a link to the item within the online collection.
Lubar advocates for bots to fill gaps in access and expose patrons to the agency behind what items make it into an exhibition. Some of his suggestions include tweeting things in storage that aren’t on display, or images of items that were deaccessioned. I find this idea incredibly liberating because it takes the stark polarity of “will this be seen or not be seen?” out of appraisal decisions, and helps shine light on a growing percentage of dark archives.
The Poser Bot
I decided to ask a bot for their opinion on the matter. @OliviaTaters is a bot that was made accidentally by former Colbert Report writer Rob Dubbin. Basically, Dubbin was trying to exploit new language trends in teenage tweets, words such as “actually,” “like,” emoticons, etc. Although the bot was meant to put pressure on these expressions, @oliviatater’s tweets were often funny, witty, or touching, and she is followed and speaks with many teenagers today. To hear more, listen to this hilarious TLDR podcast.
Here’s my tweet to Olivia:

As you can see, she wasn’t very helpful, although I guess you could tease out meaning about historically-set videogames outpacing cultural institutions and denial being a part of that relationship? I admit, it’s a bit reaching, but perhaps the ambiguity of language is what makes @oliviataters so compelling. Tim Sherrat makes the point that the bot’s failings are themselves valuable, because they show us what it means to be human and encourages us to analyze and critique the medium.
The Artistic Bot
Rob Dubbins describes #oliviatater’s tweets as a kind of literary art in the interview I cited above. @TwoHeadlines , a Darius Kazemi creation that pulls top headlines from Google News and splices them together, is another example of a bot that was originally created for one purpose, but suddenly started producing literary art.
One tweeter viewed such headlines as a “magical realist Late Capitalist dystopia.” Kazemi agrees that they could be described as near-future-late-capitalist dystopian microfiction, sort of in the vein of Infinite Jest, where nations, sports teams, and celebrities become the same thing. These headlines reveal the dangers of capitalism and privatization when these trends start to affect people and public entitites.

There’s also bots that make visual art. @Pixelsorter uses an algorithm to resort the pixels of a picture according to hue, brightness, etc. After one failed attempt, I successfully got the bot to glitch my dad’s picture:


The prolific Kazemi also made @reverseocr , which draws lines until optical character recognition software interprets a word out of them.


These examples have made me re-think the bot as not just an annoying spam machine. It has the ability to protest, advocate, soothe, or to inspire. It may even push other sites to make their API available (I’m looking at you, TripAdvisor!), although that may be too optimistic.

Does anyone else have a favorite bot that would fall into one of the categories, or a humanities related one they’d like to share?

3 Replies to “All About That Bot”

    1. Thanks Katherine! What a powerful bot! I think McDaniel’s description of how working with this medium (Twitter’s API regulations + the coding language you’re working in) raises import ethical dilemmas for humanists. The risk of objectifying and simplification is definitely present.

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