In the Future, We’ll All Have Pet Bots


Right now bots are primarily annoyances; 98% are spammers delivering often commercial come-ons via inscrutable language meant to evade anti-spam algorithms.

But some bots are more playful—intentional or unintentional performance art. Some recent examples that have bubbled up into the public consciousness include poetic e-book spammer turned subversive art project @Horse_ebooks and playful Twitter bot-makers Ranjit Bhatnagar and Darius Kazemi.

Bhatnagar’s @Pentametron finds a tweet inadvertently written in iambic pentameter and then finds another with a rhyming final syllable.

Kazemi’s @TwoHeadlines scans the web for headlines and mashes up two at a time, with results that sound inadvertently plausible.

Follow @robotuaries and it will occasionally tweet out a fake twitter obituary for you.

While these bots amuse, others are useful, keyed to stock market movements or weather conditions. New York Times senior software architect Jacob Harris has created iron_ebooks, a utility that allows you to create “a _ebooks account tweets derived from a regular twitter account,” effectively giving you a bizarro version of your twitter self for you to observe and enjoy.


@tofu_product does the same, but you have to ping it first.

These are rudimentary creatures, but even at this early stage they appear capable of poetry that can elicit the same reactions that traditional (i.e. human-created) poetry is intended to elicit. In the controlled world of Twitter, each bot performs its proscribed function, but what could future bots do?

Certainly there are whole business models built on creating bots that are meant to learn our habits and help us in our daily lives (including, of course, pushing advertising our way.) Google Now is a leading-edge example of this. Even now, it’s offering me things to do nearby, giving me the weather here in Arizona and at home in New Jersey and showing me links to new articles on a variety of websites it knows I read.

Here’s someone else’s Google Now:

But might there also be promise in these bots in the worlds of art and literature? To take the Twitter example, could a bot learn enough to send me bespoke bits of poetry or personalized aphorism that it knows will elevate my mind and mood?

What about a bot that breaks the 140-character bounds of Twitter to send me personalized machine-generated art, snippets of music, or found and remixed narrative, all riffing on cues found in my online travels?

A pet bot just for me that sends me art made just for me.

Following the Path from Book to Book


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The question I get asked most often by strangers when they find out what I do: “What should I read next?”

The question is asked eagerly, and yet we are supposed to have solved this problem by now through the power of algorithms that ingest reader habits and learn reader behaviors and deliver book recommendations precisely calibrated to sate reader hungers.

Are these algorithms giving me the kind of life-changing book recommendation that I have received from other readers from time to time?

Is technology helping readers find better paths from book to book, with fewer false starts and pitfalls and more transformative and transporting experiences along the way?

The best book recommendation engine is the knowledgeable clerk at a well-stocked, well-curated independent bookstore. To this recommender you verbally input the last few books you read and liked, and she outputs a title, physically handing you the book which you can buy and read alongside a cup of coffee in the café next door.

This recommendation engine has been replicated in the online space via the very low-tech Biblioracle, an occasional feature of magazine In this feature, author John Warner, the son of an independent bookstore owner, gives bespoke recommendations to online commenters. They input the last five titles they read and enjoyed, he spits out a recommendation. To this eye, his recommendations are quite good.


Like the real-world experience it replicates, however, it is not scalable.

The question that I get asked so fervently from time to time—“What should I read next?”—is surprisingly fraught. Books represent a large investment for readers in money and especially time and emotional energy. Acquiring a book and investing the time to read 25 or 50 or 100 pages only to cast it aside is a souring experience, maybe enough to sour certain readers on reading entirely.

The stakes are high.

Part of Amazon’s business model hinges on the notion that it can mine your behavior to suggest products—for our purpose, books—that you will like and want to read.

In the real world space, this function is served by the “featured” front table in the bookstore, or by the books face-out on the shelves.

But these efforts are laden with commercial conflicts that seem bound to get in the way of providing a useful recommendation.

Publishers and bookstores engage in “cooperative advertising” by which publishers pay bookstores to secure prime shelf space and placement on front tables.

Amazon engages in similar practices, with promotion in its online bookstore often contingent on payments from publishers. Whether or not these considerations come into play with regard to Amazon’s book recommendations, they are opaque to the reader, and a temptation to push books or categories based on outside factors is undoubtedly strong.


Amazon’s recommendations are also curious in that they are, by default, based on what readers have bought and not necessarily what they have read and loved.

What should a recommendation engine strive to do?

  • Be transparent
  • Ignore retail considerations
  • Base recommendations on a reader’s reading habits
  • Seek clues to what factors might make reader enjoy a book that they wouldn’t otherwise pick up

Neither a human nor an algorithm can meet these requirements perfectly, but a human is better suited to grasp the intangibles in play.

So what can algorithms strive to do?

Cataloging sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing seem best placed. The sites give the reader control over which books they catalog and therefore which books are the basis for the recommendations. The sites also do not have an explicitly retail function (though Goodreads is now owned by Amazon), hopefully lessening the possibility of conflicts of interest.


But the human element shouldn’t be dismissed as unworkable in the digital era:

Book communities may hold the most promise. Like-minded readers can offer recommendations that have the human touch, while crowd-sourcing makes the process scalable.

These idea may have to suffice until technology allows us each our own personal Biblioracle.

Aggregating Audiences Around the Book


1993: I am a freshman in high school, a newly avid reader just discovering a world of books. I haunt the local used books stores looking for titles by my favorite authors and discovering new ones to try. This is a solitary pleasure until one day, visiting a friend, I see some of my beloved books on his shelf. Soon we are trading books, haunting the same bookstores, by chance having become a tiny, two-person audience for our favorite authors.

Most cultural forms aggregate their audience into a common physical space. For example, films and theater bring people together into a viewing space. Art is typically viewed in common spaces in the company of others. Music is often consumed via a live performance, in a concert setting.

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Interestingly, while we now increasingly have de-aggregated the audience for these other cultural forms—thanks to an explosion in technology that has allowed for sophisticated theater and stereo systems to be had at a relatively affordable price in the comfort of our homes—books are moving in the other direction. Long a form consumed in a solitary fashion, books are now aggregating their audiences. But this isn’t entirely new. How have books and stories sometimes aggregated an audience? – In pre-book times, stories were an oral tradition, with an audience of listeners. – Following the advent of a written tradition, scholars discussed important texts in many eras through history, adding and sharing commentaries and marginalia. These were a feature of scholarship in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages and were important to the rediscovery of Classical works by the humanists during the Renaissance (Greenblatt 2011). – Growing out of a salon tradition developed in Europe during the Renaissance, authors would read from their work to small groups. – This tradition of public readings has become a staple in bookstores and certain academic settings, and have evolved in some places to become almost a performance art, including readings in public places and marathon readings of long books. [youtube youtubeurl=”Le0pLSFLkkQ” ][/youtube]

Now, the advent of technology has enabled the aggregation of audience around books like never before. Social networks and online communities have made it trivial for fans of certain books and authors to form ad hoc (or even “official”) communities around the work they care about. A book may have a large distributed  but connected “audience” creating a social reading experience that can manifest in a variety of ways, including:

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– Having easy access to the commentary of others, aggregated and depersonalized as in “most highlighted passages” keyword tagging and other crowdsourcing of metadata. – The proliferation of online communities where vigorous books discussions can occur over email listservs, on message boards, in Facebook groups, in the comment sections of blog posts, and even on Twitter. – There have long been publications writing about and offering critiques of books in a one-to-many fashion, but many of those same publications, now online, have tools like comment sections that allow their readers to congregate and join the discussion. – The creation and sharing and swapping of fanfiction (which interestingly is a phenomenon hardly limited to the world of books, with writers commonly riffing on movies, TV shows, and even real-world events and people.)

There is great potential in how publishers and book communities can continue to look for ways to use technology to aggregate audiences around books. What may be missing is an open-source venue to facilitate and house these communities. It should be simple for readers to easily find and interact with the aura of information and reaction that may surround any book. Each book has the potential to be a mini-community of its own.