Save the Humanities Bot

Hi all! Sveta here. For my review assignment, I chose to take a look at Mark Sample’s Save the Humanities Bot.

Save the Humanities (@SaveHumanities) is a Twitter bot that, according to its bio, provides “Daily tips on how to stop the crisis in the humanities. Real solutions!” Here are several sample tweets from the past couple of weeks (the first one being the most recent post). Every tweet begins “To save the humanities we need” and finishes with the second half of an “I need” statement culled at random from a different public Twitter feed. (I am pretty sure, but not 100% certain that that is the source material for the second half of each post.) This produces results that are mostly ridiculous, but occasionally hint at something more profound. Often times, they inadvertently reference current events – as is the case with the second example below, which is referring to the Brian Williams scandal.

The bot is a response to the numerous think pieces about the relevance of the humanities (and perhaps also to the rhetoric around digital humanities as a solution to a crisis in the humanities). At the time of writing, Save the Humanities bot has 876 Twitter followers. Unsurprisingly, the majority of them seem to be  graduate students with a professed interest in digital humanities or related fields.

This being a bot, tweets are generated and sent automatically, according to an algorithm established by the bot’s creator. In this case, that person is Mark Sample, Associate Professor of Digital Studies at Davidson College (North Carolina). Sample makes a lot of Twitter bots – he’s also behind @FavThingsBot, @WhitmanFML, @blackboughbot and others. The practice of bot-making, which Sample characterizes as “creative coding” seems to be a considerable part of his broader academic project. He has written about the practice of creating bots as a path into theorizing digital media (here’s a blog post on this). Because Sample is a tenured professor and this work is part of his scholarship, his labor in relation to such projects is compensated as a part of his formal job description. I would venture to guess, although I can’t say for certain, that he has more freedom to focus on these extra-textual forms of scholarship now that he is based in a department of Digital Studies (as opposed to a prior appointment in English).

There is not a formal editorial process behind @SaveHumanities, as the content is generated at random. However, the content of the bot’s tweets are not necessarily how its success is measured. Rather, its utility lies in the process of “creative coding” and the way that process contributes to Sample’s theory-making. Additionally, in recent essay on protest bots (where he makes an analogy between protest bots and protest songs), Sample argues that the success of certain kinds of bots lies in their ability to, quoting Adorno, “present society a bill it cannot pay.” That is, that (protest) bots can potentially act as social critics. Although the extent to which this is true is certainly up for debate, @SaveHumanities and the practice of “creative coding” certainly offers a kind of cultural technique, or model for further inquiry. In fact, Sample is not the only academic whose scholarship incorporates the practice.

I cannot imagine something like the @SaveHumanities bot making a substantive contribution in LIS scholarship in the traditional sense. Unlike in a field like Digital Studies, I don’t necessarily see bot-making leading into theory-making. (Although, never say never, I guess.) I do however, see a place for this kind of work into the kind of digital pedagogies some in LIS are engaged with, especially around digital literac[ies]. Making Twitter bots –even utterly silly ones – is a way to get hands-on coding experience. Because they re-purpose something that was originally created for a different purpose (automated customer service, targeted advertising, etc.) the process of making one’s own bot could be a lens through which to reflect on computational culture more broadly. Although making a bot that collects and aggregates information in real time (like @SaveHumanities) is more complicated, building a Twitter bot based on a predetermined corpus is actually relatively simple.  To start, take a look at this tutorial post from Robin Davis, an Emerging Technologies Librarian at CUNY.