New technologies have a way of generating novel forms of creativity. By forcing us to work within certain limits, constraints encourage us to explore our capacities. Few contemporary forms are more rigorously restricted than Twitter, where character limits have inspired whole classes of jokes. But the best consequence of Twitter may be the bots that populate it.
Here, then, is a small collection of Slate’s favorite bots of the year. Not all of them are new (a few have been on the site longer than I have), but discovering them made our years just a little more delightful. (For a great list of truly new bots, check out this compilation put together by Quartz.)
One of several Nora Reed creations that charmed Slate staffers this year (see also Ladyproducts), Thinkpiece Bot parodies the form of the modern hot take. In a (forgive me) think piece about it from this September, I praised its often tautological output and argued that it captured the self-reflexive character of contemporary news discourse.
Since then, the bot’s output has only improved as Reed has tinkered with both its formula and its library of words, terms, and concepts. “Now most of the things that people write terrible think pieces about are already in there,” Reed told me, explaining that though she updates it as new clichés present themselves, many of them—being clichés—are already there. “It makes the bot look a lot smarter than it is.” Like the Onion, it’s sometimes almost prophetic, producing contrary takes on stories before publications have a chance to write them.
Twitter bots tend toward the uncanny. Even the best constructed formulas inevitably produce results that teeter on the brink of the recognizable and then tip over the edge into the bizarre. None of them, however, embrace that effect quite as well as Magic Realism Bot.
An exercise in impossible storytelling, Magic Realism Bot offers elevator pitches for the kind of narratives you wish you could read. More often than not, though, they’re mere fragments, dispatches from the other side of the intelligible. Some of them treat this very theme, jokily encouraging us to dream our ways to an odder elsewhere. One, for example, reads: “By focusing on a sequence of 7 numbers, you can reach a parallel universe. In that place, the Republican Party does not exist.” If only!
Not every bot has to be a storytelling machine. Find Nicki’s Verse exists for one purpose: Tweet at it with the title of a song in which Nicki Minaj guests, and it’ll reply with a YouTube link that begins at the point where she enters the track. Creator Chrissy Ziccarelli (disclosure: Ziccarelli is a friend of mine) told me that the hardest part of creating it was building the database of links. She could, she acknowledged, have created a more conventional search engine, and she may yet do so. But by letting Find Nicki’s Verse live on Twitter, she captures one of the most charming elements of Twitter bots: the way their super specific focus imbues them with a liveliness all their own, making even the most ordinary inquiries and preoccupations just a little more vital.
Fuck Every Word is one of many variants on the popular Every Word bot, which simply went through the dictionary, one entry at a time. FEW, as it’s euphemistically known, does much the same thing, except it adds fuck beforehand. Where its antecedent functioned mostly as a linguistic popularity test, FEW elicits surprisingly complex responses thanks to the suggestive linguistic complexity of fuck itself. I’ve noticed that my academic friends, for example, have latched onto the appearance of jargon important to their work, as if to undercut their own seriousness. But what, exactly, does it mean when someone retweets “fuck dialectical”? Then when an adverb crops up there’s the possibility that the bot is suggesting how you should, you know … On other occasions, the bot’s followers will seemingly rush to retweet, or even like, a word with especially distasteful connotations: Faced with a message reading “fuck constipation,” one commenter simply replied, “true.” We couldn’t agree more.
Though it’s superficially similar to Fuck Every Word and its kin, Benghazi Every Word says far more about the culture of Twitter itself. Parodying the already parodic Benghazi acrostic meme, it suggestively mashes up that controversial location with every word in the alphabet. Well, maybe not every word: “It’s important to suspend disbelief,” creator Ben Regenspan told me. (Disclosure: Regenspan is a friend of Slate staff writer Joshua Keating.) “In this universe, every word intersects with Benghazi.”
Drawn from OS X’s built-in dictionary, Benghazi Every Word’s lexicon is surprisingly obtuse, which only adds to its charms. What can clinospore tell us about what happed that fateful day? I’m not sure, but I bet Clinton has an answer.
So why did Regenspan create Benghazi Every Word? “Maybe for some people it’s a way to find out who perpetrated Benghazi, who’s responsible,” he said.
6. The NiceBot
By and large, the Internet isn’t an especially kind place, but something about Twitter’s format encourages us to be even nastier. Fortunately, we have Nicebot to lighten the tone—and brighten our days—just a little. The NiceBot tweets compliments directly at users of the site, which makes it a little spammy, but in an enjoyable way.
If you spend every day paying attention to the news, it all starts to seem the same after a while. Beakering News cuts out the work of time, reporting on emerging stories in the adorable tones of Future Tense editor Torie Bosch’s favorite Muppet. “There’s not too much depth to it,” Bosch admits. “I just like the meeps.” Sometimes that’s all you need.