In the age of Donald Trump, Twitter is a place of political anger, but it can also offer catharsis. The most recent viral Twitter account to tap into this genre of liberal self-care is Burned Your Tweet, which replies to Trump’s tweets with a video of a Rube Goldberg-like machine printing out a page containing his tweet, grabbing it, lighting it on fire, and dropping it in an ashtray. It’s an impressive display of both DIY robotics and trolling.
The robot’s creator is David Neevel, an inventor who once worked in advertising. He also once hosted a web series called Practically Useful, in which he invented complicated ways to simplify daily tasks. He’s pretty good at this weird-viral-robot thing: In 2013 he starred in an Oreo commercial with his Oreo-separating machine. After we tracked Neevel down, he answered some of Slate’s burning questions.
So, who are you?
I'm a creative technologist, and I'm just freelancing in the Netherlands. I'm looking for work prototyping and robot building. Just kind of making weird, funny robots. My usual aim with the ones I've been building for myself is just to make something that solves a simple problem in kind of a hard way.
But this one was just my own project, done in my own time. No client on this one, weirdly.
What inspired you to do this?
Despite living over here, I can't seem to totally separate myself from what's going on back home. I'm probably a little more insulated than folks back there, but it's still—it feels kind of constant. I'm always checking in on what's going on, I find it disheartening and kind of troubling. So when I find a problem like that, I'll look for a machine that can help, whether it actually helps or just makes light of the problem. That's what I like to do.
I thought this was a nice way to just kind of make a comment on it and dismiss at least the Twitter aspect of what's going on. It seems like that's how people are picking it up, too: just a nice kind of ritual of dismissal of something unpleasant.
Were you the only one who worked on it?
Yes, it was just me.
How much work do you think you put into it?
It was about two or three weeks of work. Pretty solid work.
So how does it work?
Every 15 seconds, it looks on Twitter for a new tweet from Trump, and if it finds that, then that's the trigger. Now, what it does is it sends me an email and lets me know it has a tweet that it's ready to burn. And then I get to it as soon as I can. When I was testing it, I would have it go automatically. It would find a tweet, and turn itself on and burn it. But until I have a really fireproof place to keep it, I wanna have some eyes on it while it's setting fires.
What was toughest about it?
I guess the unforeseen challenge was—I don't know if I totally succeeded—making the little print-out legible. So the initial attempt was just with this camera I was using and taking a still photo of the whole setup. It turns out when you shoot video, it's a lot more zoomed in, so that's when I had to implement a panning motion to a camera. I had to build in a little zoom feature—not zoom, but a push-in feature—and add that to it.
Getting really in depth in [the coding] and making that code talk to Twitter and talk to a camera and talk to video and coding bits was really a fun part of it. All the mechanical stuff is always a lot of fun for me, but it's not as much new ground.
It’s been pretty popular so far.
I just started yesterday, and I was expecting to have some kind of soft launch and get a video shot about it and stuff like that before it was everywhere. But yeah, it took off immediately. It was pretty crazy.
It's been neat. I'm glad people are responding to it. I hope with these little experiments to communicate something to people, and with this much attention, I think that was a success.
What do you think made it so popular?
I think people are looking for a way to acknowledge this [political situation] without it being totally disheartening and discouraging, and I think this is a way of doing that. The realities of what's going on are pretty rough, but completely shutting down and turning it off doesn't feel right, either. So some middle ground of still being aware and still keeping a sense of humor is a nice place to find if we can.
How long do you want to keep going with it?
I'm just going to keep it working. To do it a few times is funny, but I think the idea is to keep doing that as much as he wants to put out.
So you're going to go forward with it indefinitely?
Yeah, for now.
Is there anything left to tweak?
I'm trying to find the right place to have a fire start at odd hours. I'm a few time zones away, so a lot of his tweets come in right in the middle of the night. So things like that. It's definitely out there now, so I'm trying to figure out some things on the fly.
Did you ever have moments when you wondered why you were putting in so much work for this?
It beats reading his tweets all day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.