Bot Benediction, 2015

On Bots, GIFs, the Things We Lose, and the Magic Worth Enjoying

Never begin with Hadoop,” I said, but did you listen, no. (Pieter Bruegel the Elder/MetMuseum)

To close this year’s running of the bots, we asked artist, data designer, and researcher Ingrid Burrington to give us her late-night thoughts on the bots we build and befriend. —Ed.

I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking to people about magic and technology. I do this in part because it’s easy to find–the language of various forms of magic, from sleight of hand to wizardry to cults, permeates tech culture (as does sufficiently advanced over-quoting of Arthur C. Clarke). I also do this in part because magic as a rhetorical device offers generous leeway for talking about big uncomfortable topics like power, fear, and trust. But mostly I think about and talk about magic because magic is totally awesome and I’m pretty sure it’s real. And when I’m trying to illustrate the existence of magic as a real force (for good, bad, or ambivalence) in the networked world, I can’t think of a better manifestation of that magic than Twitter bots.

The metaphors are numerous—bots are homunculi, bots are witches’ familiars, bots are daemons. And yes, the bots were inside us all along, and ultimately we make ourselves into Twitter bots in order to live. But really. Twitter bots are the imaginary friends that I love and cherish as much as the real-person relationships I’ve formed on Twitter (both with people and with other creatures with alleged human operators, whose true identities are best left unknown). They notice things we might not notice. They chime in with helpful commentary that lets us take ourselves less seriously. They inject uncertainty and serendipity back into a web where platforms and advertisers are constantly trying to engineer both out of existence.

(If this sounds like all too much nostalgia for @horse_ebooks, I direct you here.)

The discourse around bots today is not that different from the one that has emerged over the past decade around animated GIFs. Both have largely benefited from the fact we live so much of our lives on platforms uniquely suited to their quirks (in the case of GIFs, Tumblr, and for bots, Twitter). Both effortlessly traverse high and low cultural space, and both are subjected to wholly unnecessary debates over whether they’re art. Both are generative through fragmentation, distilling the chaos and ambiguities of the world into discrete, repetitive packets—telling more stories that anyone thought could be told with just three frames of a film or 140 characters.

Where the cultural narrative for bots decidedly diverges from GIFs is their potentially uncertain future. Bots can be delightful and they can be an annoyance and a scourge. Twitter’s allowance for the proliferation of bots as instruments of journalism, art, and memes that we all know and love is maybe a form of benevolence, but it’s just as likely a consequence of bots being really hard to track and shut down. Bots are slippery and weird and not particularly monetizable–which is part of what makes them magic and what maybe puts them at risk.

GIFs existed long before Tumblr, and will continue to exist and thrive whenever Tumblr dies. But bots as we know them exist almost exclusively because of Twitter. What happens when Twitter dies? In three to five years, maybe we’ll bemoan the loss of the Twitter bot and desperately try to preserve them the same way people archive Geocities pages as early internet folk art. Or we’ll find ways to revive them as a lost artifact of nostalgia for The Web That Was, tilde.club-style.

I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking to people about magic and technology, and honestly one of the biggest reasons I do this is because I see magic disappearing from the internet all the time—or worse, magic being invoked toward entirely the wrong reasons and mostly questionable business models. Twitter bots aren’t the magic of alienated labor or the magic of manipulation. They’re honest magic, they’re chaos magic, they’re real fucking magic. That kind of magic has a way of persisting online, regardless of the vacillations of markets and platforms. For now, we have it in our Twitter bots, and for now, I’m just so happy it’s thriving.



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