But bots don’t even need to be useful. “I don’t think bots have to do something worthwhile,” says V Buckenham, founder of Cheap Bots, Done Quick!, a free tool that helps people create automated Twitter accounts. Tens of thousands of bots have been developed using the platform, most of which Buckenham says aren’t useful. “It’s a joyful thing or a creative thing,” they say. “It’s a form of creative expression, whether that be something lots of people are following, or something that just amuses you.”
Some bots blur the boundary between utility and diversion. Journalist Karen K. Ho began posting reminders for people to put down their phones and stop doomscrolling through Twitter at the start of the pandemic. “I had developed quite a following during the pandemic because—understandably—many people were doomscrolling for information on how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic,” she says. She was doing so manually, typing out the missives and hitting send, until she began to find it tiring to do so—particularly late at night, when people were most likely to aimlessly flick through Twitter.
So she built a bot to do the job for her. @doomscroll_bot now tweets every hour, reminding people to log off, alongside sitting better and not slouching. It’s followed by nearly 90,000 people.
“I think of bots as a type of medium, or a tool of the internet,” says Ho. And Ho believes that such innocent, useful bots aren’t necessarily conducive to success. “What I do with my bot doesn’t feed capitalism,” she says. “With disinformation bots, people can make money. That’s why they exist.”
Part of the issue, says Buckenham, is that the term “bot” has an elastic meaning. A 2021 academic paper shows that using three different methods of defining inauthentic behavior on Twitter results in three dramatically different estimates of the proportion of users. Buckenham says that people point to new Twitter users, who often have a string of numbers automatically assigned in their username, as being state-sponsored. “It’s a filter bubble thing,” says Buckenham. “Different people use Twitter in wildly different ways. You may only see people who tweet in a similar way to you, so when you encounter people using the service in a different way, you assume they’re fake or illegitimate.” What one person perceives as a Russian-sponsored bot designed to sew disinformation could in fact be a middle American mom who isn’t bothered about changing her username from the default option given to her when she signed up.
Buckenham believes the shift from bots being a neutral word to a loaded one occurred in 2016, when bots became the bogeyman that supposedly won Donald Trump the US presidential election. It signaled a change from the denomination of bots as something that corners of the internet like Weird Twitter would use, to a tool of disinformation designed to seed chaos and, in time, polarize society.
Such polarization has continued through to Musk’s approach to Twitter bots, which have been presented as the enemy of a harmonious platform. That’s not the case, says Buckenham. “They add serendipity and beauty to the timeline,” they say, pointing to bots like BoschBot, which dutifully posts small sections of Hieronymus Bosch paintings every few minutes. Buckenham created a similar bot of their own, @softlandscapes, which posts generated pastel-colored landscapes every six hours. It’s one of their most popular bots. “Mainly it’s there because you follow it, and among all the doom and gloom and terrible stuff that happens on Twitter, you see a beautiful, calming landscape,” they say. “It takes you out and distracts you from all the stressful things in everyday life.”