Why We Read Robot Parodies of Ourselves

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

Why We Read Robot Parodies of Ourselves

187364720
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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Right to Run

If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.

Move Aside, Oxford Comma, the New Battle Is Over Single or Double Quotes

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Ben Bradlee’s Fascinating Relationship With JFK

Culturebox

The Simpsons World App Is Finally Here

I feel like a kid in some kind of store.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 11:57 AM Why Wasn't the WHO Ready for Ebola?
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 22 2014 11:36 AM Casting the Role of Scarlett O'Hara Was Really, Really Frustrating
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 22 2014 11:04 AM Do All U.S. Presidents Look the Same? What About Japan’s Prime Ministers?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 22 2014 10:29 AM Apple TV Could Still Work Here’s how Apple can fix its living-room product.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 22 2014 11:30 AM Where Does Ebola Hide? My nerve-wracking research with shrieking bats.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.