The Damn Shames on bright space

How bots make good storytellers

I love bots. My career is about natural language and language generation, and bots (will) sit right in that realm, when they’re done well. And it turns out that having a bot as a co-author creates a unique marketing opportunity.

I know a lot about designing bot-like things, but not so much about building them. So when I decided this summer I wanted to experiment with a storytelling bot for the Damn Shames characters, I went looking for a simpler option than coding my own. I found cheapbotsdonequick.com, set up a fresh Twitter account, and granted all the necessary permissions.

Then I had a delightful exercise before me that was half solving a logic puzzle, half dissecting the elements of a story. I had to come up with the moving parts, such as the character names I wanted to use or the actions the characters would be taking, and figure out how to nest them to form proper sentences (such as associating male characters with male pronouns).

After that, I had to write a bunch of sentences like this:

#ShamesName# is happy to see #AllCharactersName#.
#ShamesName# is yelling at the oorhunds.
#ShamesName# is eating space oranges in an attempt to ward off space scurvy.

And so on.

Each of those sentences (and the [now] hundreds of others I’ve written) has some random chance of being chosen and sent out as a Tweet on @ShamesBot every six hours. The Cheap Bots Done Quick service does some helpful stuff to ensure the bot is only generating 140 or fewer characters, so what I end up with is four published micro-stories a day.

Crazy, right?

There are definitely limitations to this very simple approach. (I’m not even using the advanced coding options CBDQ offers.) Sometimes, characters will interact with themselves in odd ways — “Rahab is saying something mean to Rahab” — but that’s sort of what makes the bot an intriguing storyteller.

Because when I read “Rahab is saying something mean to Rahab,” I don’t actually think, “Oh, the bot just put that in there twice.” I think, “Rahab would be as mean to herself as she is to everyone else. That explains why she’s so angry all the time… poor thing.” And suddenly I’ve invented this entire context for what is really a random generator’s weird glitch.

Humans look for the narrative; it helps us organize life’s chaos into something resembling coherence. When the bot produces chaos, the brain fills in the blanks. (Especially if you’ve already read the story the Tweets are about.)

And that’s the genius of a bot as a storyteller. You fill in the blanks for yourself. Bots are powerful narrative tool because their limitations leave so much room for the imagination to play — and when the imagination plays, it often claims what it plays with as its own. (Readers and writers of fan-fiction understand this concept well.)

You can build loyalty with this kind of cooperative storytelling. You can get someone to ask questions, or chime in with their own contributions. And it’s a really fun way to make your stories work for themselves.