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.

The Official @Thinkpiecebot FAQ

I made @thinkpiecebot a couple weeks ago and it has really taken off; it already has more than twice as many followers as me. I’ve been interviewed about it twice already and have also gotten a lot of questions on Twitter, so I’m putting together the common ones so I don’t have to keep answering them over and over.

What do you use to make your bots?
All my bots except @NoraReedEbooks and @NORBORG_ebooks use Cheap Bots Done Quick, which runs on  Tracery. I set up @NoraReedEbooks using this tutorial; @NORBORG_ebooks was built by @iglvzx; he made a tutorial on setting up your own.

How do they work?
Each bot has a series of formulas that it picks from at random and inserts words from predetermined lists. @Thinkpiecebot actually has two levels of these: the main formulas, such as “Do [GENERATIONAL GROUP] Really Love [RANDOM WORD/PHRASE SELECTED FROM ANY CATEGORY]?”, and a top-level formula that puts a publication prefix in front of one in six tweets.

As of this writing, @thinkpiecebot has main formulas and 25 variables. Some of these variables don’t include very many options: the formula that created the above tweet grabs the verb– “cure”– from a list with only two available options, “cure” and “cause”.

What inspired @thinkpiecebot? I’m a millennial, and I’m incredibly frustrated by articles written by people outside of our demographic attempting to explain us and doing so badly. You can’t throw a proverbial stone in the internet-news-o-sphere without hitting an article talking about how hypersensitive and vain we are. Boomers offer their Dunning-Kruger driven takes on trigger warnings, conveniently ignoring the freely available information on how PTSD triggers and exposure therapy actually work. They ask questions about why we don’t do things that require money, like have big weddings or buy houses, and come up with ridiculous reasons involving how we got too many awards as a kid as reasons instead of realizing that their generation completely ruined the economy. @Thinkpiecebot is a way to call out the predictability of these articles, as well as a lot of other kinds of ridiculous output, and the humor of it is a way to cope with the fact that people keep writing them and keep defining my generation by the trumped-up bullshit in them.

You’re really down on Boomers and capitalism. What’s with that?
Capitalist culture attempts to tie our ideas of self-worth to our economic output, and millennials have largely been forced into emotionally and physically draining dead-end jobs that underpay us, if we’re employed at all.

As a generation, we’re struggling to survive in the world that Boomers managed to completely fuck up, and they’re getting paid to write columns on how degenerate we all are for taking selfies. My whole life, I’ve been seeing the output of my generation shat on by people who can’t even be bothered to understand it.

From these people’s perspective, Twitter was a platform for self-obsessed 20-somethings to talk about what they had for breakfast, but after my generation figured out how to use it for large-scale political activism and to connect people to conversations that never would’ve existed, THEN they’re happy to get accounts to promote their “brand”. They’re happy to roll their eyes at fandoms that are creating enormous quantities of creative material and inspiring new writers and artists to make things for their own satisfaction and to share with their communities. They’ll complain about new gender identities and sexual orientations, never realizing how much of a balm to isolation it can be to have a word to describe how you are and to be able to connect to people who feel the same way.

How did you come up with the material for @thinkpiecebot?
Most of it is words and phrases I came up with while looking at horrible thinkpieces, but I got a lot of help from my Twitter followers. They did particularly invaluable work with helping me phrase some of the issues regarding marginalization and privilege; I wanted to be sure that wasn’t falling into doing “ironic bigotry”, and they helped a lot with coming up with specific phrasings that wouldn’t harm groups who are already being targeted by actual thinkpieces.

Does it run on its own?
I have it set up to post every hour, but sometimes when I add new stuff I have it post a handful of tweets using the new formulas/phrases, or when I’m messing with the code and it comes up with a particularly good sample tweet I will have it post that because it made me laugh.

So you’re still updating it?
I keep thinking of new things to add, so yeah. I’m guessing I will stop eventually, maybe once my cutting satire becomes so popular that everyone stops writing thinkpieces in shame.

I would like to pay you! How do I do that?
I have a Patreon and a PayPal tip jar. Thanks! Your contributions allow me to keep working on new bots and keep improving @thinkpiecebot!

Is @thinkpiecebot open source?
I’ve considered open sourcing my bots, but I am concerned that if I do that, men will do things with them. As soon as someone makes an open source licence that only allows use by women and non-binary folks and forces men to ask my permission to use my code, I’ll probably release it.

Update 5/4/16: I’m now sharing the code of TumblrSimulator for people to view to see how it works, and hydratebot is licenced to be shared if you’re interested.  I share code excerpts with people who ask, but after being updated for nearly a year, @thinkpiecebot is kind of a behemoth; it wouldn’t be very useful as a learning tool, because it’s kind of a kludgey mess on the back end.

Are you serious? Isn’t that… misandry?

Why did you block me?
I share my personal blocklist with my bots so that it’s harder for people to harass me via those accounts. As an outspoken feminist, I’m a regular target for online abuse. I might notice if you tweet @ it asking nicely to be unblocked, but it’s my bot, and I get to choose if I don’t want people to have access to it.

Is this really a bot?/Don’t you at least hand-pick the best ones and schedule them?
Yeah, it is, it just seems more coherent than lots of the bots you’re used to because it’s formula-based, not using Markov chains or other, similar techniques. The hourly tweets– the ones that tweet at :11 after the hour– are totally automatic. I do occasionally do tweet-bursts when I add new content, and I pick which of those tweets go up; I also sometimes tweak the code a bit so that new stuff is more likely to come up. The only tweets I hand-write are the ones where I ask for money.

Where else can I follow @thinkpiecebot?
I recently set up a Tumblr for it; it cross-posts tweets from Twitter over there too.

Why did @thinkpiecebot just tweet a bunch of times in a row?
I sometimes do tweet-bursts when I add new content. It’ll stop in a minute.

Will you add ________ to @thinkpiecebot?
Maybe; I do take suggestions that are tweeted to @NoraReed. However, there are a lot of places I don’t want @thinkpiecebot to go because they end up way too close to just parroting the people the bot is meant to make fun of. I’ve taken things out that make jokes that are too close to punching down and/or being “too real” before– namely “AIDS”– because they just felt like what happens when you play Cards Against Humanity or MadLibs with assholes.

What other work do you do?
I run a both my personal blog at barrl.net and What Is GamerGate Currently Ruining; I also tweet as @NoraReed and have a bunch of other Twitter bots. (Here’s a full list of my essays, games and other projects.)

Do you take interviews?
Usually yes! If you aren’t paying me– which is fine– I’ll want you to include links to ways your readers can do so, because I’m an artist, and I need money for burritos, which I metabolize into more bots.

some similarities between #GamerGate and the “War on Christmas”

There’s probably a name for the thing where a bunch of members of a sociological majority group develops a weird persecution complex over attempts to:

  • recognize existing diversity and be more inclusive
  • be less socially harmful by promoting marginalizing narratives
  • make more money by expanding your demographic to include marginalized people who might want to see characters like themselves
  • recognize an existing demographic that already is consuming your product and try to make it more friendly to them
  • otherwise not be so much of a misogynist/racist/religiously bigoted/transphobic/ethnocentric/etc dickbag

but dang does this happen a lot.

I’ve been thinking about the thing that Fox News types do every year where they flip their shit over the “war on Christmas”, as if attempting to be religiously inclusive is an attack on them. It’s this weird thing majority groups do where they co-opt a bit of social justice stuff and act like not being the only group being catered to is an attempt to persecute that group. I’m pretty sure it’s disingenuous; the alternative is that it’s just plain ignorant.

Anyway, if you hadn’t figured it out, I’m talking about how #GamerGate and its ilk react to cultural criticism of video games and video game companies choosing to make more diverse games. They do it a bit differently than the War on Christmas types, who lose their shit in somewhat different ways, but it’s a very similar conservative backlash. The War on Christmas people claim that they’re being religiously oppressed because their faith isn’t catered directly to; the #GamerGaters claim that they’re being oppressed by female characters who don’t all have improbably large breasts without support. War on Christmas people pretend that calls for inclusive language are government censorship; #GamerGate does the same thing.

It’s possible that #GamerGate is better at harassing its ideological opponents (IE, people who are reasonable and think that their terrible opinions are awful) and threatening them into silence, but I’m not sure exactly what the backlash ends up being on people who get called out on Fox News by one of their popular pundits than what happens when TotalBiscuit or Adam Baldwin does the same thing on Twitter; the bigot backlash is clearer on Twitter since the hatemongers and their mobs are using the same medium as their targets, and they’re able to coordinate more effectively. But it’s still a pretty similar type of conservative backlash that happens when people have their privilege challenged, and it’s depressing that it manages to claim so many adherents who fuck up so many lives.

TWO weirdly fitting articles of clothing in ONE garment

These seem to be for sale pretty much everywhere. 2 styles in 1 garment isn’t really a bargain if both of the styles look kind of weird. The abundance of sites making videos of models wearing their clothes makes it really easy to throw together a fake ad for this kind of crap and get away with it under fair use, though, so I did that today.

“Intimates”, sexualization and actual intimacy

Sociological Images has done good writing before on how when companies make gendered versions of a product, that is, one for men and one for women, they tend to assume the male version is functional but the women’s version is sexual. A friend of mine pointed out today that the women’s underwear at Target is listed as “intimates”; they were looking for underwear and felt uncomfortable with the idea that underwear has to be “intimate”: maybe they didn’t want to do anything sexual in their underwear, or maybe they just wanted functional underclothes.


“Intimates”, of course, also includes teddies and a handful of bustiers and corsets, a sort of sexy middle ground between sleepwear and underwear, clothes that are really only meant to be sexual. (In fact, the “unsexy” underwear, such as sports bras, gets relegated to the “athletic wear” section.) This doesn’t exist for men except in a few specific concepts, many of which are coded as gay, and none of which are sold at Target.

The idea that all of womens’ underwear is “intimate” leads to some practical problems– the fact that one can’t find a multipack of breathable cotton underpants in black that won’t visibly stain if your tampon or pad leaks is one of them. Another is the prevalence of “sexy” unbreathable underwear that can lead to yeast infections.

The big thing I’m thinking about here, though, is socialization, and the word “intimates” being a descriptor for all of women’s underwear sexualizes the female body; it implies that our underwear is primarily there to be titillating (presumably for men), not to, you know, cover our butts/pelvis and/or stabilize our breasts. But the word “intimate” being used for a sexualized consumer product is also a part the way we socially construct relationships; “intimate” can mean a lot of different kinds of closeness but this connects it specifically to romantic or sexual relationships.

This societal prioritization of sexual and romantic relationships, and the presumption of heterosexuality in them, can really skew our priorities It ends up looking “weird” when people choose to have their most important relationships be with friends or family members and not romantic and sexual partners. It marginalizes asexuals and aromantics. It exacerbates societal problems that already exist around friendships, especially among men.

I’m obviously not saying that Target has some hidden agenda in calling women’s underwear “intimate”, but the social narrative that defaults the word “intimacy” to “sex” is one that dismisses other kinds of intimacy, and the coding of all womens’ underwear as titillating or sexual not only makes it harder to find more functional underwear but also contributes to the sexualization and objectification of all womens’ bodies; it would never explicitly put a sign on a woman that says “this, too, is for consumption”, but it helps people come to that conclusion on their own.