Twitterbots by Tony Veale & Mike Cook

Twitterbots: Making Machines That Make Meaning
by Tony Veale & Mike Cook
The MIT Press, 2018

Twitter’s application program interface (API) allows external programs to generate their own content on the platform, and, infamously, some of those external agents are automated: they’re bots, Twitterbots. They started out being crafted by their creators in order to perform simple, mindless tasks like bonging in tandem with London’s Big Ben, but bots can be created to create more bots, and all these bots can subscribe to and amplify the content of all the others, and since a recent study conducted by Indiana University quaintly concluded that as many as 15% of Twitter’s 330 million accounts may now be bots, we may reasonably conclude that the actual percentage is somewhere near 60 or 70%. If you have a Twitter account, you have been followed by Twitterbots, liked and re-Tweeted by Twitterbots, and you likely follow Twitterbots in return. The whole thing is frantic and insane enough to be funny, if it weren’t for the fact that it can sway electorates, spew mis-information, and destroy lives.

It’s a foreboding subject, in other words, which makes the happy, celebratory tone of Twitterbots: Making Machines That Make Meaning, a new book by Tony Veale and Mike Cook, all the more remarkable, almost jarring. The authors make free use of the word “insolent,” but they’re here to celebrate online insolence, not condemn it; their book tells the history of online bots and characterizes them as engines of creativity rather than destruction ... with allowances for trial and error, of course:

Even the best human creators will produce good and bad in their careers, for a career without missteps is a career without creative risk taking. Naturally, our Twitterbots will also generate a mix of good and bad, of retweetable gems and forgettable dross. Our goal as metacreative bot builders is to achieve a balance between these two extremes.

“Rather like throwing strands of spaghetti at a wall in order to see what sticks,” they go on, “many bots continue to hurl tweets at their users in the hope that some will earn a retweet.”

Readers of Twitterbots will certainly have the sense that something is being thrown against a wall here, but as the narrative progresses, its energy and optimism actually begins to become contagious. The savage chaos of Twitter itself, with weaponized bots swarming over every knob of the landscape and cross-multiplying mindless lies that are then swallowed whole by hundreds of thousands of actual flesh-and-blood people ... that day-to-day reality hardly features in Twitterbots at all. Instead, our authors most often invoke a world of enchantment. “The most magical carpets are those that weave themselves, and in similar object-oriented fashion, our images must determine their own patterned use of colors,” they write, in a typical passage whose actual sentiments ought to be horrifying. “Our best chance of pulling off this magic trick is to view our self-weaving images as living things, with their own DNA-like codes determining how they unfurl.”

Twitterbots doesn’t follow this bots-are-living-things angle to its logical conclusion, thankfully, although the book compares the behaviors of Twitterbots with the behaviors of humans more often than it compares them with anything else. Like humans, Veale and Cook write, “Twitterbots work at various scales of complexity and ambition.” And no matter what readers make of the comparison, Twitterbots brings an amazing amount of wit and learning to telling the story of that complexity and ambition; this is not only a fascinating book but a fun one, an exhaustive and ultimately endearing natural history of an ominous little beast we all deal with every day.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.