At this point, I think we’re all familiar with the shitshow that is Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and everything that’s happened since. So when I learned the sad news on Feb. 2 that Twitter would be killing their bots, I wasn’t surprised. This is what we’ve come to expect from Twitter over the past few months since Musk took charge. Musk has had many mishaps already: firing longtime Twitter employees and developers, the verification badge fiasco, ads suddenly appearing embedded within threads and even Musk himself getting voted out of Twitter on his own platform. But nothing has felt so dire, so dangerous to the very fabric of Twitter, as this decision.
The official announcement from Twitter was that they would be discontinuing free access to their API. At first, I didn’t understand why everyone was upset — or why I should (and would) be upset — because I had no idea what API was. Much like other tech-interested but humanities-oriented people out there, I wish I understood these things in depth, but my knowledge is limited to googling “what is API?” and hoping for the best.
I’ll let you in on what I learned if you’re as clueless as me: API stands for application programming interface, and it’s basically software that allows computers to “talk” to each other without a human to mediate. In the case of Twitter, free access to their API allows users to create automated accounts, or “bots,” that pull from datasets (like photos of Phoebe Bridgers or reminders to stop doom-scrolling) and post at specified intervals. Once a user creates the bot, they no longer need to post manually because the user has “taught” the dataset and the Twitter account to “speak” to one another. Twitter’s new policy would force these users to pay for access to Twitter’s side of the conversation between itself and the dataset, the latest in a slew of monetization efforts by Musk.
Twitter has long been a place for idiotic memes, well-researched threads, niche historical facts, weird fan art and people making fun of celebrities. But the part of Twitter that somehow encapsulates all of these facets and more is the bots. No, not the ones that spam or post obscene content: I mean the good ones, like Frog and Toad Bot, folklore lyrics bot, StampsBot, BirdPerHour, Surreal Memes Bot, Every Spongebob Frame In Order and Magic Realism Bot, to name a few. These bots are straightforward; StampsBot, for example, posts photos of stamps from around the world — as a follower, it’s like collecting stamps without the money or the nerdiness — while folklore lyrics bot posts lines from Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album. Surreal Memes Bot grabs images from Reddit threads dedicated to surrealist memes. All, of course, are welcome additions to my feed.
Some bots are even sillier — Every Spongebob Frame In Order posts, you guessed it, five frames every half hour from an episode of the long-running kid’s TV show in the order in which they appear. At the time of writing, they were at frame 2339 out of 4088 — meaning we will likely never get to the end of the episode. Some bots, too, are wonderful and creative. Magic Realism Bot tells us it “generate(s) a magical story every hour,” and delivers on that promise with ideas such as “In Michigan there is a grapefruit which is getting married in a grey crypt.” A solid amount of Magic Realism Bot’s tweets sit in my bookmarked posts because I think they would make good poem or story ideas. Automated accounts helped make Twitter a more accessible place, like Alt Text Reader, which allowed users to tag the account in an image and have it read the alt text to them. Similarly, Thread Reader App allowed users to “unroll” long and unruly threads while GetVideoBot allowed users to save videos to their camera roll.
These accounts were often run by normal people who just cared a lot about the thing they were posting about. They weren’t trying to monetize or advertise; they were just having a good time on the internet. And, like most things in life, I didn’t realize how much I appreciated their small part in my life until their disappearance was imminent. These small-time creators, too, are feeling the loss. My timeline is full of their goodbyes, quote-tweeting the original announcement from Twitter. “Well, y’all, it’s been nice knowing you,” Every Spongebob Frame In Order wrote. “The bot will end when (Twitter’s new policy) goes through. It’s been my honor serving you.” Creators of automated accounts interrupt their regularly scheduled content to say farewell: “If this change goes ahead, this bot will stop working,” queer lit bot said. Frog and Toad Bot wrote “It’s been a lovely ride, all,” followed by a frog emoji. VitaVirginiaBot, which tweets snippets of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s letters, left the platform at the beginning of this year in anticipation of the move by Twitter. They all have a few things in common: disappointment in Twitter’s decision and acknowledgment that the hobby of running their bots is not worth paying Twitter an unspecified amount of money to continue.
There’s something deeply sad about these bots at their end. There’s the simple joy of why they started in the first place: users who just wanted to make Twitter a sillier, artsier, more interesting, happier place. There’s also the inevitable humanization of robots doing things that we imbue with deeper meaning because we can’t help it. Like the now-viral art installation “Can’t Help Myself” in which a robot leaks fluid and cleans it up while trying to dance, knowing a robot is just a robot doesn’t stop us from feeling for it. I know the Every Color and Name Every Color bots don’t know each other — that they’re just robots responding to a set of commands — but watching them interact day in and day out, I still can’t help but feel that they are friends, or maybe antagonistic siblings.
And, of course, there’s the inescapable existential drama of these bots posting, hour after hour, approaching the day of their demise bravely and without fear. The bot of Edward Cullen doesn’t know the end is nigh. It’s a sort of dramatic irony tinged with melancholy. Even as users mourn the automated accounts, the bots respond as though nothing has changed: “why r ppl saying goodbye to u @conceptsbot :’((” asked a Twitter user, only for the bot to reply in the same way it always has — “i’ll have to think about that. you could read a book about me for a week.” Humans say goodbye, but the bots keep tweeting, blissfully unaware that the end is near.
Daily Arts Writer Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.