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.


Discussion

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.


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