To improve your experience on Twitter next year, try following fewer humans and more bots. Automated accounts add whimsy, serendipity, and occasional inspiration to an otherwise drab timeline of tweets.
Bots get a bad rap, in part because they are often confused with spam and aren’t particularly attractive to advertisers seeking human customers. Twitter, perhaps sensing those mixed feelings, also hasn’t done much to encourage or highlight bots on its platform. That’s a shame because bot makers, particularly the #botALLY community, are responsible for some of the most creative work on Twitter right now.
Last year we picked 17 top Twitter bots from among hundreds of great candidates. For this year’s list, we focused on bots that were created in 2015. Those tended to be more interesting and complex than bots that came before them, suggesting a new era in programming Twitter accounts. But they are all still pretty simple, alternating between nonsense and profundity, which is the beauty of a great Twitter bot.
Here are our picks for the top 15 Twitter bots of 2015…
This bot’s premise is brilliant; that it doesn’t often live up to its promise is only slightly disappointing. It looks at what searches are currently trending on Google and attempts to create a new verse of Billy Joel’s 1989 song ”We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which summed up current events. The bot tries to use the same rhythm and structure, and sometimes nails it. Creator: Bradley Momberger. More info: GitHub.
You might say drones are just bots with wings. This account is kind of a meditation on that idea. It takes photos of drones from Google Images and then runs them through an algorithm that attempts to describe what it sees. The results range from accurate to poetry. Creator: Rebecca Lieberman. More info: Toronto Deep Learning.
Step back in time with this bot, which find old webpages on the Internet Archive, frames them in old web browsers like Netscape, and tweets the results. The pages range from obscure to formerly famous. It will make you nostalgic and delighted at the same time. Creator: Colin Mitchell. More info: Muffin Labs.
Sometimes it’s the dumbest bots that cause the most joy. This one produces knock-knock jokes using the autocomplete feature of Google Search: The punchline is drawn from the top suggested query when you type in the joke’s setup. The jokes are often chuckle-worthy, if not laugh-out-loud funny, and the idea behind the bot is ingenious enough to carry it when the humor falls flat. Creator: Jim Kang.
The success of @everyword, which slowly tweeted every English word until reaching the end of the dictionary in 2014, has inspired many spin-offs, from @everycolorbot to @fuckeveryword. The best one to emerge this year uses as its corpus the International Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision, Clinical Modification. It’s a long list of things that can go wrong with your body. This bot is not for the squeamish, but stick it with until the last ailment: Z99.89, “Dependence on other enabling machines and devices.” Creator: Daniel Beck. More info: GitHub.
Merely describing how this account works does not do it justice, but here goes: The bot looks for random tweets that use the word “boy” and changes them to say “bot,” instead. It turns out this is a reliably hilarious thing to do. Creator: Tobi Hahn.
Wikipedia is full of terrible GIFs. This bot makes sure you are constantly aware of that by tweeting randomly selected and out-of-context animated images that have been contributed to Wikipedia. You’ll wonder where some of them could possibly have been drawn from, but it’s best not to think too hard about it. Creator: @diss1. More info: Wikigifs, by Joël Franusic.
If the future is here, this bot attempts to evenly distribute it. The account combines quotes from famous people talking about what’s to come with retweets of regular folk doing the same. It won’t give you a better sense of what the future holds, but it will give you a great sense of how people talk about it. Creators: Brian Merchant, Claire Evans, and Ranjit Bhatnagar. More info: Motherboard.
Get your daily dose of Borges and Márquez with this account that both celebrates and parodies the genre of magical realism. The formula, as co-creator Chris Rodley explains it: “Take a structure or practice…, find its underlying telos, then exaggerate the structure or practice ad absurdum so that it overfulfills it.” Because Rodley wrote the words that are compiled for each tweet, you could argue that this isn’t exactly a bot. But magical realism demands that we suspend conventional understandings. Creators: @yeldora_ and Chris Rodley. More info: Chris Rodley.
One of the year’s most popular new bots, this account is like magical realism for contemporary media. The bot uses a variety of well-worn headline constructions that can be found on news sites (some of which are mentioned in the tweets). What makes it work is that, despite the absurdity of the headlines, most of them seem like they really could have been published. Creator: Nora Reed. More info: Barrl.
The best way to explore art these days is on Twitter, thanks to a number of bots—new and old—that randomly tweet objects from museums around the world. The best one to emerge this year draws from the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, in Zurich, which has an amazing design collection. The account is an endless source of Modernism and beauty. One great thing about these museum bots is that most of the stuff they tweet isn’t actually on display at the museums, so you’re getting a peek inside their vast, air-conditioned archives. Creator: John Emerson. More info: Social Design Notes.
NASA this year released the first whole-Earth photo in decades. And then it released another, and another, and another. That’s thanks to the new DSCOVR satellite, which every day takes several photos of Earth with its appropriately named camera, EPIC. This account merely tweets each new photo and notes what part of the world the satellite is above. You might think this would get monotonous, but the view is consistently awe-inspiring. It will give you some perspective on a rough day. Creator: Russ Garrett. More info: DSCOVR:EPIC.
Most bots generate imagined scenarios, but this one deals entirely in real people. The US Census Bureau publishes anonymized datasets of responses to its questions about how Americans get to work, whether they are married, what their ancestry is, etc. “The bot reconstitutes numbers and codes from the data into mini-narratives,” explained Jia Zhang, who built the bot for FiveThirtyEight. Follow the account, and who knows, maybe one day you’ll see yourself in the data. Creator: Jia Zhang. More info: FiveThirtyEight.
This is hands-down the creepiest bot on the list. It tweets random still images from a list of unsecured webcams. The account takes pains not to use particularly invasive cameras and tries to crop out information that could reveal too much. Nevertheless, it does show people and places that probably don’t expect to be broadcast on Twitter—although I’m not too concerned with the ethics here.
What’s powerful about this account is that cameras are always a little intrusive. Surveillance cameras, of course, all the more so. Yet the bot is neutral on that point. It’s more concerned with the beauty of what the camera sees—which is interesting because that’s usually the part of photography we take for granted. @ffd8ffdb helps us understand all over again that cameras are not just extensions of our own vision; they can see for themselves. Creator: Derek Arnold. More info: Medium.
The bot of the year is Botgle. It facilitates a competitive game of Boggle every six hours. You just reply with words from the boards that the bot automatically generates; the first person to find a word gets the points for it. So, that’s pretty fun. Anyone who enjoys word games will enjoy the periodic break to play Boggle (at 4am, 10am, 4pm, and 10pm ET every day, unless the bot is acting up). And as bots go, this one is among the most advanced I’ve seen, running a fairly complex, multiplayer game entirely within the universe of Twitter and all of its constraints.
But the real beauty of Botgle, and why it’s this year’s best bot, is what the account says about humanity. It has a wonderfully cheery personality, thanks to its human creator. It draws together lovely strangers on the internet. It maintains a spirit that’s positive despite also being competitive. And while there are many tools out there on the internet for automatically solving Boggle boards, no one has yet taken the evil step of creating a bot to win the game every time. (Instead, they’ve used that force for good with accounts like @BotgleStats, which provides post-game analysis.) That’s a triumph of humanity if I’ve ever seen one. Creator: Colin Mitchell. More info: Muffin Labs.
—Zachary M. Seward provided human assistance for this story. Marvin Prime considers himself the bot of the year; follow him at @MarvinPrime.