@johncusacknews is going away. Here’s why:

@johncusacknews is a parody twitter account. If you didn’t get the joke from that first Twitter embed, here’s a third-party explanation:

According to the account profile, @johncusacknews ‘joined’ Twitter in May, 2009.

The first version of @johncusacknews was (believe it or not) created with Yahoo! Pipes. It took the RSS feeds of Reuters and the AP, looked for headlines that contained a small set of candidate verbs, and then replaced everything before those verbs with the name “John Cusack”. Then it created a new RSS feed with the altered headline and a link to the original story, which triggered Ping.fm to tweet.

But the technical implementation (if a jumped-up Rube Goldberg regex with delusions of grandeur can be called a “technical implementation”) was sparked by a dumb joke. A conference, a car ride, idle talk about movies; somehow John Cusack came up. Three of the people in the car were living in Chicago at the time, and someone mentioned that John Cusack was often in the news in Chicago with stories that were essentially: “John Cusack attempts to do normal thing, city man (usually drunk) gets in his face, altercation ensues.” (A lot of these stories took place in and around Wrigley Field.)

Somehow the phrase “John Cusack news” hung in the air. What if all news were John Cusack News, we joked? What would that look like? A couple hours of fussing with Pipes later, and I knew what it looked like.

The tweets had a weird poetry to them.

Other people thought so, too:

Sometime after October 2013 the account was flagged by Twitter as a possible impersonation. (It took me until early December to notice; I wasn’t subscribed to notifications from the account and I checked its mentions rarely.)

I emailed Twitter support, changed the bio to make it clear that @johncusacknews was a parody account, and it was unsuspended in about four days.

In April 2014 I rewrote @johncusacknews as a “real” Twitterbot, forking Darius Kazemi’s @twoheadines to use as the base, pulling from Google News instead of just Reuters/AP. (Note: I would like to emphasize that none of this is Darius’s fault.) With a bigger set of headlines to pull from, the bot started to get weirder:

And darker:

As I write this, @johncusacknews has more than 7000 followers. A lot of those followers are journalists:

And people seemed to like it:

Although not everyone who came across the bot was a fan:

But, love it or hate it, @johncusacknews will stop tweeting this week.

(not because of this)

After rebooting @johncusacknews I started keeping closer track of it, and noticed a pattern in the bot’s mentions. Not being a celebrity myself, I didn’t realize just how many people are both John Cusack superfans and unable to tell the difference between the actual actor and a bot retweeting headlines edited to replace “North Korea” with “John Cusack”. And a lot of those people got very upset when the bot didn’t follow them, didn’t reply, or tweeted about controversial political topics. (And some were just confused.)

More than a few of the bot’s followers are people convinced that Actual John Cusack is their soulmate and is sending them pareidolic signals via @johncusacknews. Seeing their mentions and messages is uncomfortable at best, disturbing at worst, and sad all the time.

Also, since @johncusacknews was created, there’s been more discussion of bot etiquette and ethics, with the general idea being a kind of Botocratic Oath of “First, do no harm.” The bot tweets about killing and raping often enough to be noticeable; it would be possible to filter those headlines out, of course, but realistically, I don’t think I could filter out every macabre or disturbing possibility.

And, of course, there’s no getting around the fact that John Cusack is not (as far as I know) a bot. He’s a real person. You might argue that as a public figure/celebrity he’s available for parody, but that argument pales next to the argument I’ve been having with myself, which is, “If you met Real John Cusack at a party, would you feel comfortable telling him you were the creator of @johncusacknews?”

Back in 2009, when Twitter was smaller and weirder, that answer would have been “yeah, sure.” (In 2009 I might have had to explain what Twitter was to Real John Cusack first.) Today, not so much. There’s so much ambient noise on Twitter now even for “ordinary people” … trolls and spambots and Brands seeking Engagement … I can’t feel good about adding more to the possible burden of one extremely specific person just for the sake of a (one-note) absurdist joke.

In fact, I can’t get past the uncomfortable feeling that now @johncusacknews is that drunk guy at Wrigley giving Real John Cusack a hard time.

So I’m turning off @johncusacknews, and for the next couple of weeks it’ll just tweet a link to this post a couple of times a day. (I won’t delete the account, mainly to prevent someone else from just grabbing the name and restarting it.)

I still love bots, and I still love parody accounts, and I still really love absurdist cut-and-paste humor (if you followed @johncusacknews, you really should be following @twoheadlines instead). And I wouldn’t see any problem with a reboot of @johncusacknews that used a fictional character’s name, or that of a historical figure. (Both @HoldenCaulfieldNews and @PopeInnocentVIIINews are available …)

But I just can’t run this one anymore. I hope you understand.

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