Twitter Broke a Bunch of the Weird Bots That Make It Better

Thankfully, @infinite_scream and @tinycarebot are back now.

The Twitter logo is seen on a sign at the company's  headquarters in San Francisco, California on November 4, 2016.  / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Bad birdie! JOSH EDELSON/Getty Images

For a few hours this week, the infinite screaming stopped.

But this was no cause for rejoicing—in fact, when the @infinite_scream Twitter account goes 10 minutes without “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH”-ing, it’s a sign that something’s amiss. And on Wednesday afternoon, the account broke.

The endless screaming account was one of about 7,000 bots that were affected on Wednesday when Twitter temporarily suspended Cheap Bots, Done Quick, a third-party platform that powers so-called art bots on the social network. Art bots like @infinite_scream (which has 42,700 followers) and @tinycarebot (124,000 followers) use Twitter as a kind of experiment to test the creative limits of automation; they do things like tweet a scream every 10 minutes or the buzzing of bees every few hours, or they remind you periodically to drink some water.

Cheap Bots, Done Quick was unsuspended not long after it went down. George Buckenham, who runs the platform, described their initial reaction to the suspension as a state of “ ‘oh God, is this the end?’ anarchy.” Twitter did not initially give Buckenham a reason for the action, but after complaining, they eventually learned the issue was “hashtag spam,” at which point they booted the offending accounts from the platform. Still, the suspension was a reminder that questions of spam vs. art aren’t always clear-cut: “There’s actually a really blurry line between stuff that’s artistic or creative or stuff that amuses people, or stuff that’s just people messing around with it, playing with it, stuff that people are doing that ends up being kind of self-promotional, and stuff that ends up being actual spam,” Buckenham said.

Buckenham estimated that the bots on their platform were not functioning for about 11 hours. (Some of the delay was due to the fact that Buckenham, who runs the service as a hobby, is based in London and went to sleep for the night while waiting for it to be restored.)

Twitter declined to comment on the record about what happened, but the suspension would seem to fit in with the social network’s recent ambitions to clean up and crack down on bots and automation to stem misinformation and abuse. Understandably, then, the events had the art bot community worried that Twitter was throwing out their bot babies with the spam-and-propaganda bathwater. Once they saw that the bot platform wasn’t working, owners and fans of art bot accounts started posting about the suspension to call attention to it and persuade Twitter to reverse its decision.

Buckenham said they thought getting the attention of Twitter higher-ups was helpful in figuring out what was going on. The suspension underscored to Buckenham—and other users—that they do not fully control the thing they created. “The whole time that I’ve been running this service, I’m aware that it is this kind of fragile and contingent thing,” Buckenham said, adding that Twitter could end the service at any time. “I now have an obligation because there’s all these bots on there that I love and I want to keep going and there’s a community around it.”

“There’s definitely a part of me that doesn’t like making something that’s obviously a lot of work and thought and I’ve built a community around that does exist parasitically off this large corporation,” Buckehham said. “On the other hand, it’s hard to make your own social network. You want to go where people are, where people live.”

Still, the return of the art bots was met with some celebration on Twitter—and also resulted in at least one interesting unintended consequence: While they were down, art bots @infinite_scream and @tinycarebot managed to get caught up in a never-ending loop of replies to each other. It might be yet another new form of Twitter art.