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We let Twitter’s Thinkpiece Bot take over our newsroom

Robots are coming for your job. They already came for ours.


Aaron Sankin

Internet Culture

As someone who wastes time on the Internet, a fact attributable to your reading this right now instead of actually doing anything productive, you’ve undoubtedly come across at least one thinkpiece warning that robots are going to take your job. Stories in this genre always come with an edge of condescension. Your job may be going away, fast food restaurant employee, but the work of journalists writing about how technology can #disrupt stagnant industries is far too nuanced to be done by a mere algorithm.

Computers may already be writing news stories, but those pieces have exclusively been relatively mechanized: data-driven blurbs about who won Tuesday night’s baseball game or how the U.S. bond market did last week. Coming up with the most relevant hot take is still a job for sweatpants-wearing human being blogging from a Doritos-dusted couch.

Botmaker Nora Reed has an alternative argument: Opinion writers trafficking in reactionary pablum and poorly-researched jeremiads, could easily have their ideas replicated, and therefore satirized, with a few lines of code.

Reed has always loved the idea of generative art, meaning art automatically created by an autonomous system. Her first stab at creating her own was called OrcWanker, a website that randomly generates hilariously profane swear words like “moosescrotum,” “shitvirus,” and “taintwookie.”

Earlier this year, she stumbled across a system allowing even someone with rudimentary programming skills to create Twitter bots with a veneer of snarky social commentary. She made Luxury Products, a bot reminding its followers about the importance of buying expensive junk they don’t need.

She also put together a bot that combines words at random to spit out pitches for inane tech startups.

Reed’s most successful bot, both in terms of followers and likely execution, is only a few weeks old. It’s called Thinkpiece Bot, and if you’ve spent time reading hot takes on the Internet in the last few years, its conceit should be immediately obvious.

The bot takes the formulaic, clickbaiting construction of Internet thinkpiece headlines and plugs buzzwords into the gaps. The result are headlines that straddle the line between the outlandish and the completely believable. 

And Reed created Thinkpiece Bot with a very specific target in mind.

“People keep posting these thinkpiece articles by baby boomers trying to come up with explanations as for why millennials do the things we do. They’re almost always these reactionary things about PC culture and trigger warnings and our emotional fragility and how we got so many participation awards as children,” Reed explained. “About half of them seem to be coming up with explanations for why we do the things that we do because none of us have any money because we don’t have real jobs because the economy is terrible because baby boomers ruined it.”

“The short answer is that my inspiration [for the bot] is generational warfare,” she continued with a laugh. “It’s just sort of insult to injury when baby boomers then proceed to keep getting the jobs of writing these terrible thinkpieces when they’re doing a really bad job of it.”

For Reed, the satire literally written into the bot’s source code is about a perception many older writers hold about young people, and how that perception expresses itself in their writing. 

It’s fertile ground for mockery, to be sure, but there’s something tugging at the edges of what makes Thinkpiece Bot’s tweets so satisfying—and it hints at a broader criticism of the media industry as a whole. It isn’t just that crotchety complaints about the how kids today need to toughen up have become blandly formulaic; the entire structure of online journalism has morphed to reward a very specific type of opinion piece. 

Maybe its because Facebook has monopolized much of online distribution and rewards content that fits tightly into the mold created by its algorithm, or maybe it’s just the result of institutional momentum inside a notoriously inward-looking, incestuous industry.

Either way, it’s a testament to Reed’s talent for verisimilitude that the bot’s headlines don’t just ring true for conversations happening in the cranky-old-man-o-sphere. They read a lot like the headlines of nearly every publication publishing thinkpieces—the Daily Dot included.

This gave us an idea: What if we took Thinkpiece Bot’s tweets as assignments and actually wrote them up? What if we took the criticism implicit in the bot (that the online #content industry is a mechanized assembly line) and drew it out to its logical conclusion by substituting labor for capital at a point in the editorial process that would otherwise seem required to employ a human being—story generation?

In an effort to maximize randomness and remove the human element as much as possible, we took a selection consecutive tweets sent out by the bot on Monday morning. What follows are 11 short thinkpieces from Daily Dot writers based on ideas created by Thinkpiece Bot. Some of them are silly, others are, well, probably not all that different from the stories being assigned by human editors around the world right this very second.

Welcome to the future, everybody.

Once the edgy fashion choice of bold punks and rebellious teens, skinny jeans have become part of the basic American wardrobe. By the mid-aughts, you could find skinny jeans in basic apparel stores. Today, the average American owns at least 18.

We seldom stop to question the tight slacks that have become ingrained in our way of life. Skinny jeans are part of a pattern of textiles and handmade crafts that go back centuries. We often forget the estranged cousin of the skinny jean—the Afghan blanket. A timeless work of crochet that provides both decoration and warmth, the afghan originated in Afghanistan.

If we all took up crocheting, we would appreciate the detail and craft that goes into the restrictive silhouette of skinny jeans, but we might also recognize patterns. Patterns in the way we live. Patterns in the way we dress. Patterns of looseness, tightness, silence, and expression.

By Nayomi Reghay

Margarine has been around since the late 19th century, but it’s only since the advent of processed foods and cheeky corporate branding that we’ve come to reject, as a society, the idea that there’s one dairy spread to rule them all: that butter is the authentic choice and everything else is a hollow substitute.

But if everything is margarine, is authenticity an attainable goal? Should it be a goal at all?

What’s really at the heart of the recent controversy over a teen who broke up with his girlfriend just before homecoming? The teen, who admitted to texting other girls, allegedly stated during the breakup, “It’s not you, it’s me,” adding, “maybe if you hadn’t cut your hair.”

Internet-era dating took us from one-in-a-million chance encounters to a systematized synthetic process of choosing relationship qualities in partners the way you might choose from a shelf of virtually identical dairy products. Today’s teens know all too well that the butter supremacy is the lie: In a post-9/11 world, the margarine/butter synchronicity holds sway, and the ideal dating partner doesn’t exist.

It’s hard not to notice that dating millennials have a hard time fully satisfying all aspects of their partners’ holistic romantic ideal. But while “serial dating,” “open relationships,” and “shopping around” are all rising trends in modern romance, what’s really striking is that most millennials still believe in the end goal of finding true love and settling down. Why, then, is it so hard for millennials to recognize and commit to a single relationship, even if it’s otherwise a good one?

I think it’s because deep down, we’re afraid to admit the truth to ourselves—to admit that we never really believed it wasn’t butter.

By Aja Romano

Our ancestors ate raw meat, raw vegetables, and raw fruit. They didn’t have computers, or TVs, or video games. Somewhere between then and now, we lost our connection with the world.

Don’t these advancements make our lives better? There are some valid arguments for modern amenities—less poverty, more math, etc. But what have we sacrificed? While kids play Minecraft, they forget what truly matters: shooting animals, dragging their bloodied carcasses for miles on end, and then chopping them up with rocks.

Modern society is just too distracting. You have constant notifications on your phone; you barely ever know what you’re doing for dinner, let alone the weekend. People used to know exactly what they were eating—the same delicious animal corpse they had been gnawing on for six days. Instead of staring at a computer screen all weekend, they connected with nature by lying in a fetal position in the middle of the woods, praying to the Wolf God for more food.

Modern life is too easy. Sad? Take a pill! Tired? Take a nap! Hungry? Eat something! Is it good that our access to food allows us to immediately eat whenever we’re hungry? We don’t even have to earn it anymore. We used to connect to the world by looking around, but Minecraft has replaced that world for many kids. They get to build their own monumental cities, unlike anything on Earth. When they stop playing the game, they won’t even be able to shoot a deer, skin it, and dry it into jerky to share with their village.

Now it’s Minecraft, but it used to be Ourcraft.

By Evan Weiss

I’ll never forget the first time I ate luxury emoji. I snacked on an information desk person and handed my friend a simple smile in a darkened Brooklyn bar.

Emoji taste like color, and invoke their own expression once eaten. Joy was a favorite that night. And as people reached for icons, I watched a trend emerge: Phones, including mine, remained untouched on bar tables.

Millennials are no longer just Snapchatting emoji—we’re consuming them.

“We’re not surprised millennials leapfrogged from messaging to eating emoji,” Brooke Brookstone, happiness engineer at a local quiz factory, said. “Instead of curating, we’re ingesting content to tell people about later—it’s like vintage communication.”

This trend has social scientists worried—if young people start to pivot away from digital lifestyles, how will the generation raised on the Web react when they begin to experience real emotions?

According to a 2015 Facebook-funded study, eating emoji leads to a reduction in online consumption, provoking an erosion of Web content. The data points to a downfall of an empire built on likes.

For so long we’ve used the screens that separate us as a crutch for our true feelings—FOMO, jealousy, and selfies are manifestations of the emotions we suppress in an effort to fit into a commodified online social structure. Luxury emoji allow us to disrupt that structure, and begin to feel something. As it turns out, feelings taste a bit like rebellion.

By Selena Larson

“You know,” my wife said to me last Thursday, our officially sanctioned date night, as we took a break from heatedly arguing about the proper pronunciation of the word Szechuan, “you looked a lot better when you had that hockey bro mustache in college.”

The words gripped me like a vise—a vise made of ice, if that were a thing that made any sense. Because, you see, I had grown that mustache ironically. It was the mid-aughts, a heady time of trucker hats and indie-folk, with privileged white youths like myself co-opting seemingly redneck aesthetics as fast as we possibly could. But it wasn’t because we liked those things. We were openly mocking the people who did. Weren’t we?

Today I’m not so sure, and my face has paid the price. I am saddled with a scummy Fu Manchu that prompts fist bumps from hipster friends and horrified bemusement from authority figures. Only now do I realize I would rather have the approval of a loan officer than my weed hookup. My career has stalled; my children ignore me. My wife alone retains something approaching fondness for the broken man I have become, and even her amorous glances have a glint of smug victory.

Ultimately, I’ve realized, one must be no less honest in style than in substance. If we wish to see each other plain, we cannot hide behind affectation. To grow ironic facial hair is to play devil’s advocate with lather and blade: Do it once too often, and people may come to imagine that this is the real, authentic, genuine you.

By Miles Klee

Sometimes a fashion statement can have a much deeper meaning. Jeggings, a hybrid of jeans and leggings, were popularized in the early 2000s. Criticized by fashion bloggers and members of the older generation, who assert that “leggings are not pants,” they have been wholeheartedly embraced by teenagers.

“I can wear whatever the hell I want,” the Daily Dot’s teenage correspondent told me via Snapchat. “Nothing can stop me.”

This trend prompts the question: Are Jeggings somehow destroying our most important cultural traditions? Yes. Yes, they are.

Jeggings are a representation of youth, and with that comes a rejection of tradition. Recently, Jegging-clad teens have been protesting bridge, the most popular card game among people aged 75 to 115. While bridge was once a standard part of the high school curriculum, the Daily Dot teen correspondent said that it is time for a change, time to embrace a tighter, yet more freeing way of life.

But what does the rejection of traditions like bridge mean for the way teenagers consume knowledge, eyes glued to Candy Crush on their smartphones? Without standardized bridge, teens have lost their tactile abilities, but as the world becomes increasingly digital, is that really necessary anyway?

By Eve Peyser

For a long time, both the general public and the scientific community have accepted the important role fluoride plays in dental health. However, STEM program students at Buena Vista Social Club High School are trying to change that. “I read this one website that says fluoride is bad for you and gives you cancer. When I told others about in the STEM program, they were shocked,” said 17-year-old Nancy Updike. “So now we’re Googling and finding a few more websites.”

Because they’ve grown up with the Internet at their fingertips, teens are going to be the arbiters of important change. They will be less willing to believe things they are told. They will fact-check science and data and prove the community wrong by linking us to “a few websites.” What does this say about what teens may potentially uncover about other commonly accepted “science” and “facts”? The teens’ study at Buena Vista Social Club High School is representative of a dangerous trend, that we, as adults, must be sure to closely monitor.

Throughout generations, teens have posed a threat to adults and their own future by being a product of their culture. How far are we willing to let teens go? The future of our perception of fluoride is the litmus test for how we should regard teens, and what we should do with them.

By Jené Gutierrez

When politicians vow to take back the country, they’re not talking about a Muslim in the White House or letting gay people get married. No, those politicians are referring to young voters who still live at home with their overly attentive helicopter parents—young people content to work for next-to-nothing at the nearest nonprofit, those who refuse to maintain the Protestant work ethic.

They’re talking about millennials.

The idea of Protestant work ethic —the belief that one’s hard work is a direct result of and path to Protestant salvation—is under attack by millennials who skip church to play Halo 5 and eat kale-infused kimchi quinoa. Politicians hate that. They want you climbing the ladder of success so that you can eventually benefit from the tax benefits they enact so that you, then, can tithe to their campaigns.

But politicians can’t be the ones to solve this religious work-ethic decay, because politicians, when they’re done being politicians, go on to badger their former colleagues. In essence, they become lobbyists. Lobbyists don’t serve the Netflix-and-chill crowd. They serve their buddies in Congress. They serve the rich. They serve those who believe in the Protestant work ethic.

They do not serve millennials, who will never subscribe to that 20th-century way of thinking.

Take back this country? No way. Millennials are already squatting in it, and there’s no way the lobbyists can ever evict them.

By Josh Katzowitz

Man buns? Big beards? Ed Sheeran topping the charts with his scruffy swagger, pouring out a swill of his feelings with every guitar string?

I’m tired of that shit too. Masculine folks like Ed make things hard for the rest of us who just wanna stay comfy within the same old tired, lazy, dudebro-type chill that Spencer Pratt and Scott Disick made a cultural phenomenon. But we’ve got these young up-and-comers who get deep in their feelings, like Drake, who can’t stop moving around every which way, singing and getting all mushy with every song.

Had Drake not been such a mushy-mouthed, easygoing, uber-manicured statue of himself, maybe Serena Williams wouldn’t have been so disgusted looking up into her players’ box, trying to cling to any source of inspiration in a close three-set match with Roberta Vinci at the U.S. Open. Had he just been a regular ol’ guy, loose jeans, cap, T-shirt, chugging a cold one, then who knows? Serena might not have lost at the U.S. Open. Yes, it was Drake’s fault. And it’s also the problem with this “new” kind of masculinity.

Let’s bring back things to how they used to be. When being masculine just meant scratching between the legs, “manspreading” on the couch without these loud feminists complaining about their space, and kicking back to an episode of Cheers. I miss those times, man. And I want ’em back.

By Derrick Clifton

What do we talk about when we talk about “indie” rock? Originally, “indie” meant “independent,” outside of the major label system. It meant scrappy bands making music too far to the left of the dial for mainstream success. It signified a business model as much as a particular sound—even though it was mostly just slightly scruffy white dudes with guitars being conflicted about having feelings.

At least, it did in theory.

Free-market capitalism is good at two things: 1) Determining the optimal price for orange juice, and 2) Co-opting underground art and turning it into money. Sonic Youth, the Platonic ideal of an effortlessly cool indie band, has been on DGC, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group founded by record label honcho David Geffen, since 1985. That’s longer than you’ve been alive. Record labels are essential in the life of a successful band.

The Internet changes all that. Who needs a publicity department when you can go viral on YouTube? Who needs big bucks for a recording studio when you can crowdfund it on Kickstarter? The last piece of the puzzle is Bitcoin. By allowing easy digital payments, a band can sell T-shirts without having to pay an intermediary to handle the transaction. In an era of streaming, Bitcoin micropayments can let people easily and automatically pony up for exactly what they listen to. As indie darlings Spoon once urged, “Oh, you cut out the middleman / Get free from the middleman.”

With Bitcoin, “indie” music really can be independent.

By Aaron Sankin

If you’re a person who hates triggers and loves warnings, 2015 is a great time to be alive. But is it possible that the very thing you love, combined with the very thing you hate, is causing the painful demise of your career?

While it’s been proven time and again that sitting at a desk all day, every day, will eventually kill you, other research has shown that trigger warnings are essential to one’s mental health. Don’t want to read about a childhood cancer patient? You don’t have to. Not in the mood to watch a video about mental illness? Choose your choice.

Looking at today’s youth, one can’t help but wonder if we’re building an army of robots without the capacity to process feelings like shock, despair or intense depression. And it’s this full range of feeling that could make you better at your job. Contrary to popular belief, studies actually show that most bosses favor employees who display their emotions on the job.

A 2014 survey from a small university in southern Wales showed that those who have regular rage blackouts at the workplace were four times more likely to get a raise. And another survey out of Madagascar revealed that openly sobbing at your desk can have a direct correlation with getting a promotion.

The point is, don’t fear your emotions: Embrace them. Your job may depend on it.

By Marisa Kabas

Illustration by Max Fleishman

The Daily Dot