I think that Twitterbots are the most important development in contemporary poetry. Twitterbots are combining avant-garde conceptual techniques, ethico-political intervention and high expressive potential, and they’re doing so in a popular social space: they are a popular and populist form of poetry. Twitterbots are published for free, and the culture of making them is an open, sharing culture: Twitterbots push poetic surprise into your social space, and their authors are encouraging and supporting you to join in the making.
So I want to do a little work outlining what I think Twitterbots are actually doing poetically. While there’s an open culture of sharing the technical structure of Twitterbots, and considerable discussion of the ethical and political purposes of Twitterbots, there hasn’t been as much attention to their texts as texts, to how the pleasures of Twitterbots are expressed. (For a notable exception, see the bot category at I <3 E-Poetry.)
I’ve made a few exclusions in this discussion to make the task simpler at this stage. First, I’m analysing Twitterbots which are wholly or primarily text-driven: there are a wealth of image-driven visual art bots which I’m not engaging with here. Second, I’m just analysing bots on Twitter: while bots do exist on other platforms, Twitter has seen the most extensive spread of bots so far, and constraining by platform helps to analyse how they function in this particular social space. Third, I’m analysing bots rather than procedurally-generated texts: while this field is also rich (see NaNoGenMo in particular) and much of the same analysis applies, I want to talk about texts which have sociality built into their making.
Below is a (definitely non-exhaustive) list of conceptual strategies in Twitterbots. Each comes with at least two bot examples, and at least two example of a printed text employing the same strategy. Many of these are drawn from Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology Against Expression. After a note on the poetic possibilities of different technical bases, I finish with a comparison between Twitterbots and printed texts, asking how the social space of Twitter changes and magnifies these established conceptual strategies.
@thewaybot (by @elibrody) curates a timeline of tweet fragments beginning with “I like it when”. The bot extracts diverse and copious texts from their original contexts and presents them as simple statements: “curating subtleties of human nuance”, it offers a picture of what humans like – or, rather, what English-speaking humans say they like on Twitter. The bot cannot distinguish between senses, and so straightforward statements (“I like it when a porn has a story, some background.”) are muddled together with sarcasm (“I like it when my nose bleeds bc of heat.”), statements lose their referents (“I like it when you wear those.”) and meaning is fragmented into nonsense (“I like it when people take care of.”) Whereas the foundational net- and data-art piece We Feel Fine offered a survey of human feeling that approached accuracy, @thewaybot is more a conceptual poem on the idea of liking: it is always incomplete, always reaching for new meanings.
@pentametron (by @ranjit) searches Twitter for tweets forming perfect pentameters (ten syllables in an unstressed-stressed pattern), sifts them for rhyme, then retweets rhyming pairs. The result is an ever-unfolding poem of poetic couplets, which are again recontextualised into sonnets on the bots Tumblr. Each source tweet thus has at least three contexts – its original authorship, its couplet, its sonnet – in addition to the context provided by the reader, and so the meanings of the source tweets multiply in possibility. The recontextualisation draws attention to the unintentional music of language of Twitter, and also creates unexpected jokes, critiques, aphorisms and nonsenses which have a pleasure of their own.
Sally Alatalo, Unforseen Alliances, which recontextualises the titles of mass-produced romance novels into new narrative poems.
Caroline Bergvall, VIA (36 Dante Translations), which collates 36 different versions of the openin to Dante’s Inferno.
2. Procedural Editing
@boy2bot (by @rainshapes) searches Twitter for tweets with the word “boy” in them, then transcribes them on its own timeline, replacing “boy” with “bot”. In part, the result is the equivalent of @thewaybot for the word “boy”, creating a collage of collective impressions of the word, but the editing also creates multiple science fiction futures: the future where “This bot just bit the shit out of my nipple”, the future where “my poor bot is sick”. Each tweet contains a new scenario, and the collective whole is a vertiginous and often pornographic robot u/dystopia. And, of course, the bot is an in-joke for bot culture, which frequently imagines its bots as autonomous entities with lives and personalities: @boy2bot imagines a world of fully-realised Twitterbots.
@scarequoter (by @inky) takes headlines from BBC news which included quotation marks and places new scare quotes around a random word or words, performing a critique of how meaning is produced by news editors. Generated tweet frequently cast doubt where you would expect none (“Cuba crowds gather for Stones ‘concert’”, making you question what is wrong with the concert; “Go wild to protect food ‘security’”, undermining the politicised jargon that is “food security”), and thus expose where the original headline-writer elected to place doubt or distance, a decision which is frequently politically-motivated. The bot is also often very funny as a result.
Leevi Lehto, Paiva, which takes all news releases from the Finish News Agency on a single day and orders them alphabetically.
Audun Mortensen, Roman, which transcribes all the sentences from Nabokov’s Lolita in reverse order, with “Roman” replacing “Lolita” and “Sammy Sammy” replacing “Humbert Humbert”, with a picture of Roman Polanski on the cover.
@litpatches_txt (by @lizardengland) combines the names of famous literary works with the descriptions of videogame patch notes, juxtaposing two very specific artforms and jargons in a way that creates new imaginary books: “Nabokov’s Pale Fire but with dungeons with multiple difficulty settings”, “Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto but with unique powerful artifacts that can be found throughout the world”. The result is a study of the specific found poetics of videogame patch notes – by recontextualising them into a literary sphere, their poetic quality becomes apparent – a study of the space between the worlds of “high art” and “videogames”. It is absurd to imagine “Pynchon’s V. but with a brand new character select screen”, but absurd in a way that exposes the limitations of both literature and videogames.
@TwoHeadlines (by @tinysubversions) recombines two news headlines into one, creating fantasy news: “Texas Will Be Low for Easter, but Don’t Get Used to It”; “Yoga sessions to be part of Brussels celebrations”. The resulting jokes frequently critique the political space of the news in question, as with the frightening and/or inspiring “F-35 washes feet of Muslim migrants, says ‘We are brothers’”, but the tweets also reinscribe the assumptions of news headlines as often as they undermine them. @TwoHeadlines is thus a slightly broken exploration of the space of the news headline: it tells the truth of headlines, but with enough of a slant to make that truth more apparent.
See also: @AndNowImagine
Marie Buck, Whole Foods, which combines texts from the supermarket’s corporate website, an anarchist zine, and online etymological dictionaries.
Brian Joseph Davis, Voice Over, which orders and combines taglines from Hollywood films.
4. Signal from Noise
@rom_txt (by @zachwhalen) searchs the source of videogame ROM files and transcribes the texts it finds. The result is frequently meaningless and uninterpretable, including seemingly random strings of letters and lists of names or inventory items, and frequently mundane, including poorly-written game dialogue, but even these tweets serve to explore the textual space of early videogames. However, the truncation of tweets and the presentation of texts not originally intended to be read in sequence sometimes leads to serendipitous poetry:
“You’re so kind!
You won’t forget me,
Your adventures must
be so exciting!
You’ll stay with me”
Reading ROM_TXT is thus often a process of looking for signals in the noise of the source.
@MOVIESCRIPTCAPS (by @thricedotted) performs a similar operation on film scripts, tweeting only those extracts that are in all caps. This is conceptually close to the Recontextualisation examples, particularly @thewaybot, but the poetic effect is different: whereas each @thewaybot tweet tends to be meaningfully complete in itself, @MOVIESCRIPTCAPS tweets tend to be commonplace and difficult to interpret out of their original context. Reading its feed is a process of trying to construct meaning from the sequence, or looking for tweets which have a particular quality: it is as if the bot is churning through data in the hopes of finding something interesting, the hilarious tweet that reads “THIS BEAR HAS LOST HIS MIND”, in the middle of a sequence that reads “CHAMPAGNE BOTTLE”, “PLATOON CP”, “CELLPHONE FACE PLATE” and “NOISE SUBSIDES”.
Harry Mathews & Alastair Brotchie, Oulipo Compendium: an anthology of techniques and texts, many of which involve the repetition of procedures which generate high noise-to-signal ration
Noah Eli Gordon, Inbox, which directly transcribes the author’s entire email inbox, creatin unreadable overwhelm the readers searches for a signal.
5. Space Exploration
@restartthevoid (by @NoraReed) combines apocalyptic and horror symbology with error message syntax. Each tweet imagines a malfunctioning universe, a twisted intepretation of current or future reality: “security certificate of heavens has expired.”, “egg sac is hatching; nature not found. no such snake exists. heavens is busy; crow with a thousand bones.” The bot’s source is bounded, though it can be expanded: it is not searching for lexis or syntax outside its own source. The totality of the bot is thus a complete exploration of its own aesthetic space, and it derives its poetic power from the power of those pre-written aesthetics – but its individual tweets are still beyond the ability of its author to fully predict; that is, its aesthetic space is big enough that it will continue to surprise.
@dronesweetie (by @the_log_lady) tweets a Deep Learning programme’s attempts to describe photographs of drones: it thus relentlessly explores the space of how this artificial intelligence understands drones. Because the computer does not understand drones, the results are deeply eerie, occasionally funny, and have an unfortunate beauty: “a man is flying a parachute that they can just get prepared to land in the sky”, “two butterflies that are sitting next to each other”. Unlike @restartthevoid, the possibility space of @dronesweetie is technically infinite, but like @restartthevoid, @dronesweetie’s poetry feels bounded, like a complete exploration of a specific aesthetic space. Interestingly, both bots can continue to have their possibility expanded: the former by its author adding to its source, the latter by the crowd continually training the bot.
@genderpronoun (by @tylercallich) tweets suggestions of new pronouns, including full grammatical declensions. The possibilities are, if not infinite, then very very very large, given that the bot appears to draw on a huge range of symbols and syllable combinations to suggest new pronouns. The results are aurally pleasurable, and the pleasure also comes through the surprise: each tweet contains an unexpected combination of sounds, and occasional serendipities with other languages allow for strange and allusive identifications.
@restartthevoid draws on a bounded corpus created by its author; @dronesweetie draws on expanded knowledge created by crowd-assisted machine learning; @genderpronoun takes as its source the full orthographic possibilities of the expanded Roman alphabet. For more on the poetic possibilities of these choices, see A Note on Sourcing below.
See also: Nora Reed’s complete list of bots; @spacetravelbot; @MagicRealismBot; @str_voyage; @contingencymsgs; @DUNSONnDRAGGAN; @ThanetGuide; @memorypoem; @wearerain; @MythologyBot; @portmanteau_bot; @fantasy_florist; @feelings_js
Katie Degentesh, The Anger Scale, which runs the questons of the Minesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory through a search engine and transcribes the results, creating a poem between the Inventory and the internet.
Fiona Baner, The Nam, which writes a continuous description of multiple Vietnam war films, exposing both their possibility space and the author’s interpretation.
@everyword (by @aparrish ) is the original exhaustive bot: its aim was to tweet, one by one, every word in the English language – or at least in a given dictionary. The content of this rolling poem is not merely the dictionary, however, but also: the number of favourites and retweets each tweet received, giving preferential meaning to particular words; the replies each tweet received, creating an going dialogue around the English lexis; and the vast number of echoes and recontextualisations of each individual word. How a given tweet appeared in my timeline was different to how it appeared in yours, and so the poem was different for every reader. The strength of this concept is appealing enough to spawn numerous tributes and derivations: reimplementations like @everybird_ and the expansive @everysimile; many jokes like @everywordisgay; attempts at exhausting an infinity or near-infinity like @nondenotative and @everyadage; and, finally, spiralling self-reference by the original author in @libraryofevery.
@EuphemismBot (attribution unlisted) indicates the continuity between exhaustion and exploration: is a bot that explores a space always attempting to exhaust that space? Here we can imagine an end to all the possible euphemisms when every verb-noun pair in English has been tweeted, but is the poetry in the exhautiveness, as with @everyword, or in the humour of the possibility space, or, reaching back, in the signals in the noise? Where the space is infinite or potentially infinite, as with @MagicRealismBot, exhaustion is possible, but the attempt at exhaustion may still define the twitterbot’s effort; where the space is finite and bounded, as with @wearerain, exhaustion seems less important than the poetry of each individual tweet, but the aesthetics of exhaustion still loom behind the poetry. In the several bots which textually describe a space, such as @str_voyage, exhaustion matters less: repetition just means the voyage has circled back on itself, or is appearing to – here, the power is in the bot’s imagined extension forward into infinity.
Christian Bok, Eunoia, which creates prose-poems from almost every unvocalic word (words with only one type of vowel) in an English dictionary.
Clause Closky, The First Thousand Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order, which is what it says.
“Exhaustion” is an Oulipian term: it was often said to be the Oulipo’s mission to fully exhaust the possibilities of any given constraint.
@oliviataters impersonates teenage girls on the internet. It applies natural language processing – a form of analysis of language that models or imitates natural language – to internet texts, weighted towards certain linguistic features of teen-speak. Part of its pleasure comes, again, from finding beautiful signal in noise (“beneath the armour of skin and bone and mind, most of our colours are right”, she tweeted recently, but also “would have they did his name is tom brady”), and part of its pleasure comes from the imperfection of its imitation: @oliviataters dwells happily in the uncanny valley, where we can tell she is a bot, even though she is sometimes indistinguishable from a human, and we enjoy the fact that she is a bot along with the broken virtuosity of her impersonation. It is more poetic when she tweets “i was amazingly bad ” than when my teenage cousin tweets it, because she is a bot.
@poem_exe writes haiku, very beautifully. I have deliberately avoided finding out how it works, though it seems likely that it involves some level of markov chaining applied to a corpus of haiku texts, plus some level of context-free grammar (the system used by bots like @restartthevoid, which involves creating a set of possible syntaxes into which words or nested syntaxes can be plugged) to structure the haiku. Again, there’s the pleasure of finding signal in noise, though the signal-to-noise ratio is high; again there’s the pleasure of observing the bot’s virtuosic impersonation of a haiku poet. In this case, however, the understanding of haiku seems complete enough to grant the bot full autonomy as a haiku author: imitation has achieved originality.
Paul Fournel’s “Canada Dry” texts, which are “texts which have the taste of a restriction but do not follow a restriction” – that is, they look as though they’ve been written procedurally, algorithmically, or through severe constraint, but haven’t. These texts have a similar uncanny valley effect to bots impersonating humans: you can tell something is wrong but you can’t place it. The exact bot analogue here is @horse_ebooks, which pretended to be a markov chain type bot but was written by a human.
@tranquilbot (by @slimedaughter) is a rolling meditation: it gives absurd instructions for calm, imaginative visualisations and affirmations. As with @restartthevoid and similar Space Exploration bots, the poetry is more closely authored than many other bots: the full possibility space is predetermined, and the act of poetic authorship is in describing that possibility space. However, an extra layer is provided by @tranquilbot’s exension into social space: it can be read as a timeline to guide a meditation, and individual tweets might be a calming intervention into a busy timelines. Instructional bots are social by design.
@DOTHINGSBOT (by @norareed) foregrounds its interventionist style: it is specifically designed to appear dramatically a Twitter timeline and provide interruptions for people with executive function disorders. The bot is also, however, given a poetic frame: a robot character, an amusing style, a relationship to the reader, and enough variety of forms to continue providing interest. These poetic techniques both make the bot more interesting as a text and strengthen its psychological function in a fusion of aesthetics and purpose.
Yoko Ono, Grapefruit
Gizmet, Game Poems
A Note on Text Sourcing
There are three main methods of generating a Twitterbot text:
- Context-free grammars, in which authors create a syntax or set of syntaxes into which words and nested syntaxes can be plugged.
- Natural language processing (particularly through markov chains, a simple probabilistic analysis of language), which applies algorithms and sometimes machine learning to a corpus of texts, such as a Twitter timeline or the Project Gutenberg library.
- Various forms of appropriation, often using an API (application program interface), to extract texts and sources from news sites, Twitter trends, or libraries of synonyms and rhymes.
Each technique allows for different kinds of poetics. The first technique, context-free grammars, is suited to authors who want to define and explore their own possibility space: it is easier to tightly or loosely control the poetics of the results, while still allowing for strangeness and surprise. The second technique, natural language processing, is suited to authors who who want to play with or subvert a given style or means of writing, and also tends to generate a high noise-to-signal ratio unless the algorithm is sophisticated. The third technique, sourcing texts and fragments from outside the bot, is particularly suited to authors who want to apply specific and controlled manipulations to existing types of text. Often, twitterbots combine more than one of these techniques to achieve their effects, but it’s important to recognise that the technical basis of a bot often determines its aesthetics – new bases, we can surmise, will allow for new aesthetic possibilities, though there is much left to explore in our current tools.
Some Differences Between Twitterbot Poetry and Printed Poetry
It should be clear from the examples given that, conceptually speaking, there is not much that is necessarily new in Twitterbot poetry: poets have been authoring procedural systems, appropriating and recontextualising texts, and exhausting possibility spaces for a very long time. The exception, perhaps, is in the artificial pseudo-intelligence of natural language processing, but though the process is different the canon of conceptual poetry contains many texts that fruitful occupy the uncanny valley between the human and the non-human. However, computer processing and the specific social platform of Twitter allow for major differences in how those concepts are implemented, as does the creative context of the Twitterbot community – and these differences often reshape the concept entirely.
Procedures which are laborious to complete by hand can be accomplished quickly with a computer; corpora which took years to play with can now be analysed in minutes. The result is that Twitterbots often apply a concept several orders of magnitude beyond what was previously possible. Raymond Queneau’s 1961 achievement in Cent mille milliards de poèmes – which exhausts the full combination of 10 sonnets of 14 lines each – can now be replicated on a website in an afternoon, and @poem_exe, @Pentametreon and @VillanelleBot each contain vastly more poems than Queneau’s flipbook. Thus, where once the creation of a combinatorial poetry book was interesting in itself, now the poetic strength is in how that book is written and what that book has to say. Similarly, Kenneth Goldsmith’s 2003 work Day, a complete transcription of the New York Times of a specific day, is exceeded and rendered obsolete by text-scraping programmes which routinely create such corpora for a bot to play with. Because a computer can perform the concept with ease, the concept is now less interesting than what it can specifically express.
Jorge Luis Borges described, in The Book of Sand, an infinite book – a book which, when you turn a page, grows more pages in either direction, and can never be exhausted. Such books now exist, and some of them are Twitterbots. Most Twitterbots are projected forward into infinity: whether or not they do continue infinitely (and Twitterbots fail, Twitter itself may one day close, and even the cloud is built on material architecture which can decay), each tweet is understood within the context that the tweets could continue being generated forever. Whereas a conceptual poetry book must eventually be printed and bound, so that even if it describes or pretends at infinity its boundedness is always apparent, a Twitterbot poem frequently comprehends infinity: infinite authorship is its baseline. The possibility space is always contained within the tweet. Relatedly, Borges non-infinite-but-very-large Library of Babel has been fully implemented online, and there are bots tweeting extracts.
Every text has a social existence, but with printed texts that sociality is often hidden, assumed, forgotten or elided: we do not always think about what a book as book means when we read it, and too often a poetry book is confined to a shelf and rarely seen in public. A Twitterbot poem is always and incontrovertibly a social text: it can only ever be seen in a corporate social space. This gives extra power to instructional poems, because their instruction are always received at a point they can be performed; it gives extra disruptive potential to political poems, because there is a ready-made social space to disrupt; and it gives extra layers to conceptual poems, because their texts are dynamic and interactive rather than static and received. Notably, poetic strategies formally confined to the academic avant-garde firmly enter the popular sphere through Twitterbots: @everyword has been read by more people than most texts on UbuWeb.
For various historical reasons – the particular social groups which are furthering Twitterbot making and their interests in left-liberalism, the generation of internet architecture in cultures of technological utopianism, the open-source and open-culture tendency within independent programmers, the coming-of-age of Twitterbots in a specific sociopolitical moment – the culture of Twitterbot poetry has strong senses of ethics and politics. Many Twitterbot makers share their source codes and programming techniques freely; several Twitterbot makers have created platforms to make it easier for other people to write bots; the texts themselves are freely published; and at atmosphere of collaborative open discussion pervades the botspace. Meanwhile, alongside technical articles, articles on the ethics and politics of botmaking are the most common form of discussion around bots: the Twitterbots are always understand as social and political entities over which their makers must take ethical responsibility. This contrasts with the culture of conceptual poetry, which is frequently ethically bankrupt, taking the artistic defense too often: see, for example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of the autopsy of Michael Brown. In the botsphere, conceptual poetic techniques are often turned to political ends.
Threaded through all the above points is the idea of expression: to me, and filtered through my own political aesthetics, Twitterbots as a body of poetic work represent a turn away from uncreative writing and conceptualism-as-such. But rather than retreating from conceptualism into expressive lyric poetry, Twitterbots move through conceptualism into a new space: a space where the meaningful and the empty co-exist, where the signal and the noise are the same thing, where intelligence is artificial but ethically sculpted, where high concept processes are used to tell bad jokes, where the digital is rooted in social and bodily experience. That is, through an atmosphere of total linguistic saturation – frequently exhausting, frequently demeaning, frequently foreclosing of individual personal expression – Twitterbots are emerging as unruly personalities and disobedient poets.
Places to Learn and Make
- BotWiki catalogues bots and bot discourse
- I <3 E-Poetry provides short-form criticism on digital poetics, including bots
- #botALLY is a central hashtg for discussion and announcements
- Bot Summit is a regular discussion event, documented online
- The Data & Society workshop produced much good writing on bots
- Kirsten Irving has written on computer poetry from a poet’s perspective; Holly Gramazio has written on the deep history of text generation; Sarah Jeong has written on bot ethics.
- Cheap Bots Done Quick is a simple platform for making bots; there are many guides for making markov chain bots including Zach Whalen’s; I’ve written about my learning process here.