I am being tracked by robots. This is mildly disconcerting. The way it works is like this: I put out a tweet announcing another new comedy sketch by David Lovesy – this one, for example. The tweet is picked-up and retweeted by two or three Twitter Bots – software automatons that scour social media for postings relevant to a particular subject and retweet them. This seems fair enough. The things that we publish in this field would seem to be directly relevant to Comedy Bot. The presence of SitCom Bot amongst the retweeters suggests that these things are not particularly fine-tuned, and indeed they seem to be triggered purely by the words “Sketch” or “Comedy” appearing in a tweet. To illustrate the consequences of this, consider Writing Bot which seems to retweet messages containing the word “write” or “writing”. I found, for example, that it had retweeted someone’s complaint that “I will need to write a big cheque”. This is a direct application of relativism, the standpoint that, when taking a broad perspective, all writing is of equal value.
These bots are primitive. Someone putting the resource into it might be able to programme a learning algorithm to examine someone’s online presence and deduce the relevance of their output as a whole to a particular subject and therefore choose whether to retweet them on the basis of context, rather than just simple trigger words. That’s possible with today’s technology (though not necessarily with technology easily available to Twitter users).
I find this disconcerting when I think about the mechanics of Twitter. Twitter posts are public utterances, but they are received only by followers of the writer or by people (or robots) who go looking for them. So a robot retweeting content only matters to people who follow the robot. So who follows a robot? I can think of two easy answers to that question: journalists and obsessives. These are people who would be looking for content relevant to a specific area of interest and might legitimately want to cast the net as widely as possible. What these people will receive is a few nuggets relevant to their research amidst a raging torrent of noise. Robots are, of course, also followed by other robots. This happens when a twitter account is automatically set to follow accounts that have retweeted its postings. The result is that, over time, Twitter will become a robotic mutual appreciation society with minimal human involvement.