I recently stumbled across a video of writer Jon Ronson confronting a Twitter bot that was “stealing” Ronson’s personality. The surreal (or is it hyperreal?) video and the subsequent article written by two of those interviewed in the video, Dan O’Hara and Luke Robert Mason, is a fascinating glimpse into the robotization of the internet today.
O’Hara, a lecturer in English and American Literature at the University of Cologne, and Mason, Virtual Futures conference director, believe that advancements in technology are changing the world, but few of us are in the driver’s seat. They write that algorithmic trading makes up 70% of the United States Stock Market, “Bots create 24% of tweets. Half of the internet traffic clicking through our websites and profiles is not human. Even Wikipedia is not immune: 22 of the 30 most prolific Wikipedia editors are bots.”
But why the bot? The Twitter bot mentioned, @Jon_Ronson is called an infomorph by Weavers, the programming company that created @Jon_Ronson. Although the ideas behind infomorphs are endlessly fascinating, the direct applications aside from spamming seem hard to pin-point. They interest me as an attempt to articulate how our online personalities are created and understood through social media tools and various websites, like Twitter, Wikipedia and blogs. How information passes through and defines individual personalities is becoming a science, and what does that mean for bloggers like myself?
To learn more, I created by own infomorph, NYC Art Bot, which now has it’s own blog and a can be followed on Twitter @WorkByArt. I tried to make the infomorph act as another version of me, but without a Wikipedia article, like Jon Ronson, there was only a quick survey for my infomorph’s character. The resulting identity has blogged about The Black Eyed Peas and a dress from Etsy. NYC Art Bot has said it was “Feeling Awesome” while mentioning a Tweet about a Ghost Bike. There is definitely room for improvement. Radio Lab did a really amazing segment on “Talking to Machines” which examined some of the bots most skilled at mimicking human personalities.
As these technologies develop we must learn new ways to recognize and control our machines, but also new ways to express our human-ness on platforms. So many people online use social media sites in such a predictable way; there are the ubiquitous food updates, the weather commentary and the link sharing, and I could see the next generation of infomorph bots doing just that. But as our interactions with digital space grow to be more interwoven, we must figure out how to maintain our human-ness, or we, not the machines, will become obsolete.