What’s with @thinkpiecebot lately?

It’s been over a year since I started @thinkpiecebot, and it’s grown a LOT in the interim. The code is a huge, often unwieldy mess, there are over 100 formulas in it, and in the past couple of months the scope and the tone has gone through some… changes.

It was a rough election year, and since we elected a white supremacist sexual predator as the next president of the United States, it’s only gotten worse.  We’re watching a fascist gather military leaders around him and fuck up foreign policy for his own profit. Abortion bans gaining traction, hate crimes going up, reasons to crack down on the poor, on POC, on trans people, all going into overdrive.

It wasn’t good to begin with. At any given time, I know about a dozen people crowdfunding their medical expenses, and more people their other survival needs.

Meanwhile, the discourse has been absolute garbage. We keep seeing fawning profiles and photo shoots with the ringleaders of hate groups, normalizing them. A bunch of dudes on the left have managed to normalize a political environment that mostly consists of them taking screenshots of marginalized leftists on Twitter and making jokes about and/or harassing them; to add insult to injury, the jokes aren’t even very good. This happened. Political propaganda and coordinated disinformation campaigns are being called “fake news” and confused with The Onion, which also isn’t very good anymore. Dudes keep calling for “civility” and “respect” for the people who supported our fascist president-elect. The Daily Show gave a white supremacist a platform that got her a NY Times puff piece, then sent her cupcakes. That’s just a sample.

Personally, I’ve been dealing with a group of stalkers that a prominent “feminist activist” sent on me. I have various groups of people, some of them trans, showing up to tell me my gender isn’t real at least once a week now. Throw in some medical problems and mostly I’m mostly a ball of exhaustion and low-simmering rage that happens to take human form and make Twitter bots, and if I look at my friends, I see that I’ve still got it pretty good.

When I started thinkpiecebot, I was mostly making fun of terrible op-eds by baby boomers where they pretend they didn’t ruin the economy and fuck over our entire generation. Lately, though, I’ve been pretty much channeling all of my frustration and rage at the current state of political discourse, the utter failures of journalism to cover what this is– a full-scale fascist revival, and the mostly cishet white dudes with platforms who refuse to step aside and let people who aren’t so privilege-blinded that they don’t know what they’re talking about do their jobs. The total spinelessness of both the liberal media and the Democratic party has been predictable but disappointing, and I’m seeing a lot of the people I care about be thrown under the bus in an attempt to be conciliatory with neo-nazis. And, well, this bot is the platform I have, and the headlines are still terrible enough that I can riff on that.

Thinkpiecebot is built in Tracery, and it works by having a series of formulas with lists of things that get plugged in. For example, “[EXCLAMATION], A [MODIFIER] [BIGOT TYPE]” can make tweets like “Holy Shit, A Suit-Wearing Racist”. Most of my formulas have pretty long lists of words that can get plugged into them, but I’m at a point where I have over 100 formulas, so I can put in a few that have a more limited selection of possible phrases and not worry about them naturally coming up more than every few days. I’ve been putting in a lot more formulas that are extremely pointed criticism at specific types of stories.  

This isn’t an accident, and it isn’t a bot that learns automatically picking something up. This is me, attempting to use satire to point out something that the media is utterly failing at, assisted by a random number generator. Sometimes it works really well. For example:

What’s great about the evolution of thinkpiecebot is that a lot of the pieces I was originally mocking were about various forms of completely trivial bullshit, from cupcake shops to comic books, and I’ve been expanding it for over a year. That’s a year of reading terrible thinkpieces, taking suggestions from people on Twitter, and sending drunk emails to myself while my friends are in the bathroom to remind myself to put the stuff we were talking about in when I get home. It means there’s over 1,500 unique phrases in the bot that get plugged into the 100+ formulas.

I can’t hold all the stuff that goes in there in my head at a time; I’d never have thought to put “Cupcake Shops” in the above tweet. That’s the power of the random number generator. When you combine it with phrases like “The United States Electing A Sexual Predator As President” and “Headlines That Are Too Fucking Precious To Use The Word ‘Fascism'” that are obviously written by me in my voice, the bot starts to sound less like a bot and more like me.

The bot’s less funny now. But sticking with making fun of the kind of shitty thinkpiece that was bugging me in the middle of 2015 would have just made it slip into irrelevance, and from the beginning, thinkpiecebot has been a living project that expands and changes. I’m longing for a time when the thinkpieces that made me mad were just boomer nonsense about Pokémon, but I think this bot is gonna keep getting darker for a while ago. Maybe it will be funnier if we can fix the world.

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