Molly White
Software engineer, editor and arbitrator on Wikipedia, feminist, Twitter bot commander, unabashed cat lady.

What is a Twitter bot?

This is the first of a two-part series on Twitter bots. This covers what they are and some examples. The next post discusses how to create them.

Those of you who know me personally probably know about my fascination with bots: Wikipedia bots, IRC bots, Tumblr bots... and especially Twitter bots. My first exposure to a Twitter bot was probably Darius Kazemi's @TwoHeadlines, a Twitter bot that takes two unrelated news headlines and combines them:

Since then, I've created a number of Twitter bots of my own.

What is a Twitter bot?

Quite simply, a Twitter bot is a program that interacts with Twitter automatically. Perhaps most commonly, Twitter bots automatically post tweets. They can also follow users, favorite or retweet tweets, direct message people, or perform any other function that Twitter allows.

This is pretty vague, though. They can technically do more or less anything that a human Twitter user can, but what do Twitter bots actually do?

There are many kinds of Twitter bots, and they can be separated into a number of categories, some of which I'll list below. I'll include some of my favorite bots (made by other people—my shameless self-promotion can go elsewhere).

Humorous bots

Humorous bots are generally my favorite. They often compose tweets according to specific formulae in an attempt to create humorous, or at least absurd, results. @TwoHeadlines is an example of a humorous bot, as are these:

@oliviataters

@oliviataters is a Twitter bot that emulates teenagers on Twitter. She is sometimes surprisingly poignant.

@wikisext

@wikisext constructs sexts out of WikiHow entries.

@AmIRiteBot

AmIRiteBot makes bad rhyming jokes based off of trending topics on Twitter, and occasionally stumbles across some great social commentary.

A few more

  • @portmanteau_bot comes up with portmanteaus
  • @pentametron retweets two tweets that are in iambic pentameter: "With algorithms subtle and discrete / I seek iambic writings to retweet."
  • @accidental575 retweets tweets that are accidentally in haiku format
  • @onlymanthings tells us things men do

Activism bots

Some bots are used for activism, which I think is a really cool and powerful concept. There were a couple of talks about activism bots at Bot Summit 2014, which I would highly recommend:

Activism bots are generally used to draw attention to various issues and goings-on.

@congressedits

@congressedits tracks a range of IP addresses that are registered to the US Congress, and tweets when an anonymous edit to Wikipedia is made from one of them. It provides the article edited, as well as a diff to the edit so people can see what changes have been made.

(the edit removed "(a euphemism for torture)" after "enhanced interrogation techniques")

(the edit added "These allegations are completely unsubstantiated and have no basis in reality." after "Icke has claimed on multiple occasions that many of the world leaders are, or are possessed by, reptilians ruling the world.")

(TW: Police violence) @stopandfrisk

@stopandfrisk is working on tweeting about every time a person was stopped and frisked by the NYPD in 2011. It has tweeted over 116,000 times, and as of this post is only up to late February.

@metaphorminute

@metaphorminute is not exactly an activism bot—in fact, it started as and has returned to being a humorous bot, tweeting in the format of "a [noun] is a [noun]: [adjective] and [adjective]". However, during the Ferguson protests, it was repurposed to only tweet about police.

Image bots

Image bots do cool things to existing images or create new ones, then tweet them.

@lowpolybot

@lowpolybot takes images that were tweeted to it, and replies with low-polygon versions.

@pixelsorter

@pixelsorter sorts the pixels from an image in a number of preset ways (and also politely says hello).

A few more

  • @a_quilt_bot reproduces images you send it out of quilt fabric
  • @badpng re-encodes PNGs... poorly

Create your own

Now that you've read about what Twitter bots are and seen some examples, check out the next post to learn how to create them!

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