I think I’m maybe the first per­son to talk who does­n’t have a real­ly strong pro­gram­ming back­ground, so go easy on me. Everything I cre­ate here today was made after like one web class and I don’t know PHP and blah blah blah. So that said, I’m a graph­ic design­er. So I’m com­ing to this stuff from a design background. 

This is the first thing that I made. I’m just going to go through one or two real­ly brief projects before I start talk­ing about the bot that I’ve made. This is the first sort of gen­er­a­tive text project that I made that takes a bunch of commonly-used phras­es in OKCupid pro­files and strings them togeth­er as this sort of lorem ipsum gen­er­a­tor thing. It has a very small sam­ple size to pull from so it repeats itself a lot, which I real­ly like because OKCupid dat­ing pro­files are hor­ri­bly bor­ing and repet­i­tive, and every­one’s super-chill and laid back and likes moun­tain climb­ing all the time. So here’s anoth­er exam­ple. You know like Breaking Bad and NPR and Doctor who, like all the time. 

I got a lit­tle bit of cov­er­age for this, which was cool, so I just kept mak­ing things that start­ed as kind of a joke. Another one I did was this thing that names your cock­tail bar. There’s real­ly, there’s just like, there’s ten of them. There’s like a Bourbon & Branch, and a Bank & Bourbon, it’s like the same damn bar, so I just start­ed mak­ing fun­ny… So it pairs a one-syllable word and a two-syllable word, it just does ran­dom things.

But what I’m real­ly here to talk about today was the first bot that I made—the only bot that I’ve made—called The Lonely Project. This is actu­al­ly how I met Darius, because I did not know how to code this thing or make this thing, and I was Googling tuto­ri­als and this is how I got here. 

So I’m going to start with why do this project. It got a write-up at this Technically Philly blog in my home­town, and this is how they described it:


It was the sad­dest tweet in the world. I was like, Thanks, guys!” So I Instagrammed it with the #lol­sob hash­tag. So that was the gen­e­sis of this project. I had been through a breakup, and I was sit­ting awake at the end of the night, and I checked Facebook and Twitter and the news and Reddit and what­ev­er. And I just was­n’t find­ing what I want­ed, which was some way to con­nect to oth­er peo­ple who are sit­ting there twid­dling their thumbs over their phones and feel­ing kind of depressed and not know­ing what to do. So I want­ed to make some­thing that was sort of like a land­ing page for that feeling.

It’s a mobile web site, and what it does is it pulls one ran­dom tweet from Twitter at a time from a per­son who’s say­ing that they’re lone­ly, and you have two options. You can either reload it to load anoth­er one or you can hit the tweet but­ton and it’ll give you a lit­tle bit of an instruc­tion if you’re total­ly con­fused about what those but­tons mean. But hope­ful­ly you get it. Then the check mark shows up when you actu­al­ly have tweet­ed to this per­son. You don’t know who they are. It gives you no han­dles, no iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion, no loca­tion. All you know is they’re typ­ing in English and that is how they’re feel­ing at this gen­er­al moment in time. And then it just sends them this tweet. It’s one tweet over and over again: Someone over here want­ed you to know that you’re not alone.”

So that is the idea and it was a real­ly sim­ple idea. It’s an account that does one thing. And when I first launched it I was real­ly real­ly ner­vous that peo­ple were going to hate it. Because you know, it’s kind of a robot and it’s talk­ing to you in this moment of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and I thought it was entire­ly pos­si­ble that peo­ple would freak out at it and be like, Why is this thing talk­ing to me? You’re not a per­son. You’re not help­ing.” But actu­al­ly I’m kind of hap­py to say that it’s had real­ly the oppo­site reac­tion. So I’m just going to go through a cou­ple of lessons I learned from mak­ing this weird thing.

Being vul­ner­a­ble on the Internet sucks. People have this dri­ve to reach out and talk to oth­er peo­ple, but they have a hard time doing it. So I see a lot of tweets that look like this, where it’s peo­ple who are sad but they end it with LOL,” or they end it with a joke like they’re kin­da laugh­ing about them­selves. A lot of LOL” tweets, and then a lot of song lyrics, espe­cial­ly this one over and over and over. This is a ten-year old 3 Doors Down song. But it is the most com­mon thing that I see in this feed, it is so fun­ny. So every once in a while this will come up for some­one who’s using this web site and the bot will tweet to that per­son, and then I’ll get a reply that says, It’s just song lyrics but thank you!” And I’m like, you picked them for a rea­son, alright? So peo­ple have a hard time actu­al­ly admit­ting that they feel this way and have a hard time talk­ing about it, and it’s kind of inter­est­ing to see the ways that peo­ple on Twitter are try­ing to express that feel­ing with­out real­ly express­ing it, get­ting too emotional.

So yeah, it’s a robot but actu­al­ly peo­ple like it. These are some sam­ples of the replies that this account gets. It seems like a lot of young peo­ple, hon­est­ly. A lot of kids in high school who just real­ly feel alien­at­ed and are just on the Internet and want some­one to talk to. It gets screen­shot­ted, it gets retweet­ed a lot, which is real­ly nice to see. I made some­one’s birth­day, that was cool. 

Screenshot of a Twitter notification of a user adding the Lonely Project account to a list named "my reasons to be alive"

It was like oh Emily, change your lit­tle frowny face. And she does, actu­al­ly. That per­son changes her face from frowny to hap­py every day, depend­ing on how she’s feel­ing. Guess I caught her on a bad day.

Liking it is dif­fer­ent from using it. It’s still a very small account. It’s only tweet­ed 1800 times. This was launched in April [2014]. Most of them are not me at this point, oth­er peo­ple are using it. But it only has 137 fol­low­ers, it’s kind of a nice thing. So when peo­ple get tweet­ed at, I was kin­da hop­ing that they would then go back and find the site and start talk­ing to oth­er peo­ple on it, which seems to hap­pen but not at a very high rate. So it’s a real­ly slow-growing account. It goes through bursts of activ­i­ty and then it’s real­ly slow and then…whatever.

But I think the inter­ac­tion stats are real­ly inter­est­ing so like a third of the time I tweet to some­body, or the account tweets to some­body it gets faves. Which, it’s just remark­able to me that peo­ple actu­al­ly like it enough to throw it a fave even thought it’s some­one they don’t know who’s just read­ing their stuff on a site. But it real­ly does seem to actu­al­ly help peo­ple feel a lit­tle bit better.

So, oth­er find­ings. Justin Bieber. When peo­ple are lone­ly, they try to talk to Justin Bieber. It’s real­ly amaz­ing. So that’s some­thing I see [over it?]. It’s nei­ther here nor there or any­where, but I just thought it was kind of a fun­ny thing. And it did get a lit­tle local press. There’s a pic­ture of my face that local news squished real­ly ter­ri­bly badly. 

So that’s a recap of my bot. If you have any ques­tions I’ll take them.

Audience 1: Does the bot tweet just at the user, or in reply to their lone­ly tweet?

Lauren: It just tweets at the user, I believe. Yeah, it does­n’t actu­al­ly reply to that tweet in particular.

Audience 1: What is the time­frame for a tweet being on there to reply to?

Lauren: I think it only loads the last fifty to pick from, so they’re only up for a cou­ple of min­utes before you get new content.

Audience 1: So it’s a quick turn­around from tweet­ing about it to get­ting a response

Lauren: Yeah, which I think is why peo­ple are right there fav­ing, since it hap­pens pret­ty fast.

Darius Kazemi: I guess it means there’s also a lot of peo­ple blog­ging about how lone­ly they are.

Lauren: Yeah, con­stant­ly. All hours of the day.

Audience 2: How do you pick up lone­ly tweets? Do you search for…

Lauren: It’s just search­ing for, I think I’m lone­ly” and I am lone­ly” and it does a bunch of fil­ter­ing to rule things out. And it’s not per­fect. Once in a while I’ll get some­one who’s writ­ing about not being lone­ly. So hope­ful­ly the user on the oth­er end can sort of human­ly weed some of those things out. But any­one can use the account, so it will tweet to any­one [inaudi­ble]

Brett O’Connor: Have you ever seen any replies, or has this bot encoun­tered any­body that seem kind of in a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion or…

Lauren: A cou­ple times, yeah. And I take it over pret­ty fre­quent­ly. If some­one writes back with a ques­tion or want­i­ng a resource, I will if I see it I’ll step in and start talk­ing to that per­son. It’s been real­ly rare that some­one real­ly seems in a very bad place, but it does hap­pen. And the bot itself fol­lows a bunch of men­tal health resources, so there’s a lit­tle bit of an effort to con­nect peo­ple who are real­ly in trou­ble with bet­ter stuff. But yeah, right now some­times you just talk to me which is real­ly weird.

Darius: What was your expe­ri­ence as a begin­ner set­ting this thing up?

Lauren: It’s real­ly hard, guys. I mean you have some great tuto­ri­als and that def­i­nite­ly helps, but there were moments where I was ask­ing for PHP help on Twitter. And I got it. It’s real­ly cool that peo­ple who are into these kind of things will just help you make stuff. Which is why I real­ly like this com­mu­ni­ty. But I think the bar­ri­er to entry here if you don’t code is high.

Ed Summers [from IRC]: Can you talk about con­nect­ing peo­ple who are tweet­ing about being lone­ly, some­one asks.

Lauren: That’s sort of clear­ly like a v2 of this project, and I don’t entire­ly know what that would look like. Originally I kin­da locked it down so that the account was only say­ing one thing and reach­ing out in one way because I was wor­ried it would become a weird bul­ly­ing plat­form poten­tial­ly, because it’s real­ly easy to find peo­ple who are in a crap­py place and just start pick­ing on them. So I did­n’t want to relin­quish all con­trol of it. But I think there’s def­i­nite­ly a way to do this. I don’t quite know what it is yet.

Darius: Someone just said, Here’s a com­ment. This is a great exam­ple of a bot not writ­ten by a pro­gram­mer that I would state is one of my favorites overall.”

Lauren: Oh, thanks. It’ll prob­a­bly break at some point, but it’s fine.

Audience 4: I think they all break.

Lauren: They all do.

Audience 5: I think Tully [Hansen] had men­tioned that it’s inter­est­ing that it does­n’t real­ly ben­e­fit from being fol­lowed. So it’s kind of tak­ing all of the ini­tia­tive and it’s not try­ing to grand­stand or get atten­tion, really.

Lauren: Yeah. You know, peo­ple fol­low it and I’m not exact­ly sure why because it will prob­a­bly nev­er talk to them again. Or prob­a­bly ever say any­thing that they’ll ever read again because it’s all @-replies. But it’s kin­da nice.

Audience 6: I guess if you fol­lowed it and it was talk­ing to one of your friends you might notice.

Lauren: That’s true.

Further Reference

A sim­i­lar project called Cheer Upper was launched in 2015.

Darius Kazemi’s home page for Bot Summit 2014, with YouTube links to indi­vid­ual ses­sions, and a log of the IRC channel.