bots

Traditional societies hold that gods create people who actually exist. But today, in new media, non-gods can create people who don’t exist. Some may be your followers or fans.

One such creator explains,

I am the ruler of worlds. Let me rephrase that: I am the ruler of one very small world of social media bots.

My Twitter bots resemble real people, with photos for avatars and bios. Meet Fabiola Shaffer: She is pretty, has long brown hair, is a writer and researcher in New York and loves chocolate. Karri B. Segal is a sophisticated woman in her mid-50s, works in advertising in New York and likes Etsy. Rick Engbarg is a tuxedo-wearing rocket scientist who freelances at SpaceX and lives in San Francisco.

Never mind that they don’t exist (and their accounts have since been suspended), figments of a few lines of computer code. I can command them to retweet certain topics (like chocolate or Ebola), favorite a tweet or follow anyone who follows them. Compared with most bot collections, which number in the tens of thousands and are often called bot farms, my enclave of 20 bots is more like a bot petting zoo. More.

Yes. One can, with minimal programming skills, buy thousands of fake friends on major social media like Twitter and Facebook, then make money by promoting certain tweets, for example, selling a celeb’s fashion label choices.

Yes, the social media companies do consider it a violation of user agreements. But how do they know whether that army of celeb fans exists or just lives in an entrepreneur’s head? They don’t even know who’s buying the service; could be a celeb fashionista or a shoe manufacturer. In any event, a realistic estimate is that 5% of followers do not exist.

In fairness, sometimes the purpose of the fake follower is literary rather than commercial. The stuff generated by the automated computer message may actually generate something interesting to read. We are offered from one source a list of 17. Another list offers eight worth following. Here is an example of something teens should know:

Olivia Taters is an imaginary teenager who lives on the internet. Created by Rob Dubbin, she’s convincing enough that real teens actually converse with her – and because she replies to messages, those conversations can go on for a long time, without ever really making sense. Her tweets are built from real things being said on Twitter, which allows her to be strangely topical too: just this morning, she joined with much of her generation in mourning the death of Robin Williams.

Except “she” had never lived and, unlike her fans, could never die. This is not a good thing.

Dubbin himself offers by way of explanation,

While people access Twitter through its Web site and other clients, bots connect directly to the Twitter mainline, parsing the information in real time and posting at will; it’s a code-to-code connection, made possible by Twitter’s wide-open application programming interface, or A.P.I. The bots, whose DNA can be written in nearly any modern programming language, live on cloud servers, which never go dark and grow cheaper by the day.

If you don’t communicate with your teen, maybe someone else will. Maybe one of that guy’s bots. Or one of someone else’s.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...