Why We Read Robot Parodies of Ourselves

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 15 2013 10:39 AM

Why We Read Robot Parodies of Ourselves

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A new app creates uncannily distorted versions of your Facebook status updates. Spooky.

Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last few days, my Facebook feed, like yours, has been filling up with status updates automatically generated by an app called What Would I Say? This app trawls through the user’s archive of updates to produce an artificial text, based on snippets from that archive, which the user can then post to their timeline. The real fun, of course, is not in reading others’ fake updates (because, obviously, who cares?) but in generating your own—over, and over, and over again. I don’t want to think about how much time I’ve spent over the last couple of days reading absurd knock-offs of my own Facebook style; I’m just thankful I can partially justify it by writing something about it.

As Ian Crouch pointed out yesterday on The New Yorker’s website, “Narcissism and nostalgia are two of the driving forces of Facebook’s popularity, and this new app combines both quite neatly.” (The whole post is worth reading, by the way, not least because Crouch provides the story behind the app, and talks to the programmers who put it together.) It’s fascinating, and kind of mortifying, to see your words chopped up and blended into a reconstituted paste of your own processed prose. The results are amusing, of course, but as with many of the Internet’s more interesting diversions, this amusement is shadowed by a vague unease. And as with the results of WWIS’s Twitter forerunner, the @tofu_product bot, which replies to users in an approximation of their own tweeting style, there’s an odd doppelgänger effect to reading this stuff—both uncannily close to the bone and absurdly wide of the mark.

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Often, the generated statuses are more or less grammatically structured, yet totally nonsensical. Here’s an example of something the app informs me I would say: “None of his past as a psychotic episode and the epitome of edible shovels shaped out of capitalism.” This is entirely meaningless, of course, and yet it does sound, weirdly, like something I would say—is, in fact, made out of things I have said (or written, or Facebooked). And then there are the sentences and fragments that do sort of make sense, but which are abstracted from any kind of context in which they could be interpreted. For example: “Amazon links from Coldplay will probably bring about a purely cultic religion.” Or: “What are we talking, garlic?” Or: “Their loud patriotism is a fillet o’ Žižek.”

There’s a definite intrigue to these sentences—not for you as reader, I’m guessing, but for me, as the person whose undeniably pretentious Facebook utterances are being mechanically lampooned by an unwittingly satirical algorithm. Using the app is slightly disturbing for the same reason that it’s entertaining: the endless replication and distortion of your own online persona. It’s a kind of pleasurable dehumanization, a small and unsettling representation of the socially mediated self. And the random particularity of it, derived from and oriented towards your own online persona, reflects a wider online aesthetic of glitchy linguistic absurdity. If you’re in mourning for the passing of @horse_ebooks, in other words, you might find some consolation here, in the knowledge that we are now, all of us, the @horse_ebooks of ourselves. 

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

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