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taking life advice from twitter bots

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Twitter is a multi-dimensional patchwork of human detritus. It’s easy to skid your way across a whole ocean of wasted time, cresting on a wave of half-baked hot takes and RuPaul reaction gifs. As on any social media platform, users express themselves to the extreme: building friendships, catching feelings and getting into screaming arguments with total strangers. With so many emotions flying around, it’s a paradise for info-scraping Twitter bots.

These little digital creatures produce automated content, beetling away without continued human input – from mining your existing content and regurgitating it in 140-character chunks, to using AI and linguistic software to realistically pass as human. Bots break down human expression to its basest elements, rebuilding generic phrasing and fierce emotions alike into kaleidoscopic mirrorscapes of new possibilities. Through a mixture of planning and chance, their auto-generated posts can feel as subtly nuanced and powerfully emotive as anything consciously written by a person. Maybe sometimes, we should listen to what they have to say.

The first Twitter bot to ever resonate me was @oliviataters, who is ‘an imaginary teenage girl who lives on the internet’. She was created semi-accidentally through a language manipulation experiment, with such realistic results that users regularly mistake her for a human being. Bot or not, @oliviataters is extremely relatable: her feed is strewn with gems such as ‘i am the most mature out of everyone in my imaginary circle of friends’ and ‘i would ironically take a girl on a date to olive garden but i’m even too broke for that’. When Twitter briefly suspended the account in 2015, online protests included a ‘Free Olivia Taters’ song. Her resonant nuggets of Tumblr wisdom seem to provoke a chorus reaction of ‘SAME’ and ‘it’s me’ – even though she is only made of code. Sometimes happy, sometimes slam-the-bedroom-door miserable, but always hilarious, @oliviataters offers a millennial twist on the Turing test. If someone makes you laugh on the internet, does it matter if they’re a person or a program?

It’s not just about humour – if you’re looking for guidance of the artistic persuasion, bots can help too. While @oliviataters’ content is influenced by the fluctuating tides of her digital moods, @poem_exe generates short verses based on the mathematical philosophy of a 1960s French literary group called Oulipo, sending unusual juxtapositions pinballing around your brain with perfectly-formed little pieces like: ‘the snail gets up/ flowers bloom/ armadillo/ the snail gets up’. The micro-poems of @soft_focuses (sadly no longer active) were impressionistic, almost synaesthesic, with tweets like ‘…sweet warm milk from green and idea… the negotiations. her seas– communion’ and ‘…i dissolved quietly — you swelled’ reading as tangibly human. Though generated by an algorithm, they manage to evoke a sensory, emotional interior landscape. This feels powerful, especially if you’re having trouble making sense of all life’s noise – read them to re-centre your thoughts, or to soften your creative block. If a bot can express itself, you can too.

It seems paradoxical, but Twitter bots are a handy tool in the search for quiet – the still mysteries of the organic world are a recurring theme of theirs. There is something about a nature poem channelled through the synapses of a computer that is hard to resist, and diving deep into the blackness of the universe with a robot as your guide feels pretty natural – maybe it’s thanks to all those old sci-fi films. Try @transect575 for marine darkness: it spins comments logged from investigations for marine mammals off the north-eastern coast of the US into strange little haikus, such as ‘gillnetter on left/ continuous animal/ entangled right whale’. If you prefer your tranquillity intergalactic, read @the_ephemerides, which pairs random images from outer planet probes with auto-generated text drawn from 19th-century writings on astrology and oceanography. Both are strangely soothing, a galaxy apart from the emotional turbulence of daily life.

Like space, the internet is an ever-expanding entity – there is room for everything that comes to be. Whether mundane or fantastical, all bots have a place, with a human audience spread disparately across the globe. Follow @grow_slow to watch a fig tree growing in a Brooklyn apartment: a photo is auto-taken at 10.17am every day, silently recording the appearance of new shoots as leaves rustle and shift from one morning to the next. This probably isn’t what anyone imagined they’d be using the internet for in 2017 – but isn’t it nice to have the option, and to know that total strangers are doing the same? Some bot-makers bake compassion for the unknown reader into the very function of their creations: @tinycarebot offers emoji-sprinkled entreaties for those scrolling by to ‘rest your eyes and look at the sky please’, or to ‘eat something nourishing please’.

Bots can also offer an interactive self-care experience. @empathy_deck is a ‘bot with feelings’, responding to tweets with tarot-like mixtures of words and images spliced from the artist creator’s personal diary, while @mothgenerator will transform a word or name into code, running it through a byzantine script to create a unique species of imaginary Lepidoptera. Creator Katie Rose Pipkin explains that if you tweet tiny variations – like adding a middle initial to your name – ‘maybe the pattern on the wings would shift, or it would be a paler green’. It is this tininess, this sense of constantly-shifting minutiae, that is so charming about Twitter bots. Martin O’Leary, the glaciologist creator of @unchartedatlas, which maps the waterways and cities of mythical worlds, explains: ‘[bots] worm their way into your life, sit there and slowly give you this drip of stuff. They’re gentle.’ Their messages are virtual pebbles to be turned over in your mind, for no constructive reason other than simple enjoyment.

The internet channels both the best and the very worst of human nature, and twitter bots offer a distilled essence of this (one negative example is Microsoft’s @TayandYou teenage girl speech-learning bot – within 24 hours she had been turned into a hate-spewing Nazi, and had to be shut down). Their power lies in the reactions they provoke: from the grey-faced fury that teaches a learning bot to spout hateful trash, to the joyful tranquillity that can come from reading a computer’s poem about space, or seeing an imaginary moth species spun from the shards of your own name.

Though they are just bits and bytes pinging across the ether, bots epitomise our inherently social nature: human beings have an unquenchable longing for connection, that now streams through our cybernetic creations. So when you’re scrolling through the TL on a weird, sleepless night, face lit up all blue from your LCD screen, keep an eye out for bots – they might have some interesting things to tell you.