#TeamRhetoric, Time, and In(ter)vention: Twitter Bots, Tactical Media

This medium post serves as a sort of artist statement and how-to for @RhetoricTweeter, a tactical media Twitter Bot that aims to prompt reflection and wonder from academic rhetoricians on Twitter as we consider how digital media technology, advances in AI, and online communities influence our work.

I created this twitter bot as a final project for a Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities Intro to Digital Studies Seminar taught by Jason Farman.

I’m a graduate student in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland, and I’m to blame for any of the errors/issues from the bot. You can contact me on my twitter @matthew_paul or at salzano [at] UMD [dot] edu.

The bot will tweet once every three hours for 4 days starting on May 12 (around 5:30 p.m. EDT). I let it tweet every hour for a few hours on Monday, May 13, because I wanted to drive a little more attention and see if it would randomize a bit more. It’ll either stop tweeting with the hashtag—or simply stop using it as often so that it doesn’t annoy everyone—on May 16.

How’s it made?

My bot uses a javascript language called Tracery, originally written by Kate Compton. I used the Tracery Visual Editor to assist in writing the code, and the app Cheap Bots Done Quick automates the tweeting. I would highly recommend using these resources to make your own—it’s quite fun.

You can read the full code for my bot here. This website also lets you use the generator so you don’t have to wait for the account to tweet something new. I am updating/editing the code as it tweets—as I find new words to add to its lists and as I remove words that the bot has either somehow “got stuck on” or that I spelled incorrectly.

RhetoricTweeter uses a few origin sentences that serve as the grammar for the tweet. Each origin sentence is made up of rules that have expansions. It works somewhat like a Mad Lib — a sentence is filled with a blank rule marked by hashes (e.g. #theory#) and I fill that rule with expansion words (e.g. Lacanian psychoanalysis).

For example, the bot tweets from these origin sentences:

“In my next paper, I will use #theory# to #prove# that #object# #verbs# #end#. #hashtag#”
“My reading of #object# will #prove# how #convention# was #use-verb# and #verbs# #end#. #hashtag#”

I chose expansion words pretty randomly: by looking through academic articles I had saved in my Zotero account, by remembering what people in my department were studying/had studied, looking at syllabi on academia.edu, googling lists of rhetorical conventions and theories… thus, the words chosen reflect the limits of my knowledge (as a first-year grad student) and biases (as a young white gay man in a communication department). I also asked a few rhetoric friends to check out my list and make suggestions.

The bot, using Cheap Bots Done Quick, adds the hashtag #TeamRhetoric, randomizes the expansions, and tweets. The result is a page of Tweets that resemble research project titles, theses, or proposals for a rhetoric project.

Why’s it made?

The project is inspired by a few readings I’ve encountered in my first year of graduate school.

Inspiring criticality

In general, I envision this bot as a form of tactical media. Rita Raley, author of Tactical Media, uses the term to refer to digital art and activist practices in neoliberalism.

Combining an analysis of social contexts and media texts, my book will address the varying response of new media artists to the neoliberal condition in all its aspects — political, economic, cultural…my interest lie in articulating the aesthetic strategies of artist-activists producing persuasive games, information visualizations, and hybrid (we might even say “new”) forms of academic criticism. (Raley 2009, 5).
In its most expansive articulation, tactical media signifies the intervention and disruption of a dominant semiotic regime, the temporary creation of a situation in which signs, messages, and narratives are set into play and critical thinking becomes possible. (Raley 2009, 6)

I was struck by her noting that tactical media “create situations ‘where criticality can occur’” (Raley 2009, 9).

The next two sections detail the ways I hope the twitter bot opens spaces for criticality and play. First, space to consider the pressures for scholarly productivity and how this cultural dynamic is influenced by / influences academic twitter. Second, space to imagine new ways to do criticism in response to multidisciplinary discussions about its perils.

Ideally, @RhetoricTweeter suggests that academics should think critically not only about the current state of our labor, personal insecurities, and exploitation — but about the future of criticism as AI develops and as we increase our reliance on technology for our scholarly work.

Publish-or-perish?

I was struck by Melissa Gregg’s exploration of time management in her book Counterproductive. Gregg notes that:

Today’s productivity performances are therefore characterized by the porousness of work’s physical and temporal architectures, exacerbated by new technologies and platforms. (Gregg 2018, 7)

The bot highlights the publish-or-perish (and related) pressures of the neoliberal academy; a structure that pre-existed academic Twitter but is exacerbated by its fast pace.

I find myself occasionally trapped in fear watching the whirlwind of brilliant ideas some of my graduate student colleagues appear to have on-the-fly in their everyday tweets. The bots nonstop tweeting of “new” ideas points out how intimidating the scholarly lifestyle can be and how the platform of Twitter and community of academic Twitter can intimidate one’s creativity.

Of course academic twitter community is also incredibly generative and helpful—whether for griping about meetings gone long or finding new research. And the bot hopes to participate in that conversation, too, by asking people to laugh at its wildest moments and wonder at its ability to (occasionally, hopefully) post as if it had a sense of kairos.

Intervention/invention

Finally, I was struck by Linda Walsh and Casey Boyle’s provocation in their introduction, “From Intervention to Invention: Introducing Topological Techniques.” They write:

Climate change, gender and identity, genetic engineering, globalization, homelessness, and automation and agency. Each of these discourses is consequential. Each is wickedly complex, resistant to traditional social analysis, and stubbornly persistent. […] The authors collected in this volume are all deeply interested in wicked discourses and deeply dissatisfied with the results of the critical reflex. They are also rhetoricians, which means they share a goal of working toward justice in public deliberation. […] In short, how do we move beyond intervention to invention in the wicked discourses that entangle us in our common lives? (Walsh and Boyle 2017, 1–2)

They (rightfully, I think) suggest that the critical reflex has not produced much change in these wicked discourses. They build off scholars like Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway to suggest that we are in need of asking—and experimenting with the answers to—some critical questions of ourselves. What does it mean to do criticism that moves from intervention to invention? How do we do it?

As @RhetoricTweeter spews out formulaic criticism, it pushes on an existing paradigm of intervention. The tweets try to seem like they intervene in some ongoing theoretical or conceptual conversation in rhetorical criticism or in academic literature more broadly. In this way, I hope it asks us to think about how the form of academic writing might encourage a specific interventional approach.

But at the same time, as its tweets develop, it may be an inventional resource. The strange pairing of expansions that may not otherwise be placed together (e.g. in a test case, the bot wrote: “In my next paper, I will use decolonial theory to claim that Hilary Clinton’s emails frustrated the public sphere. #TeamRhetoric”) may lead to interesting new critical ideas. It may encourage a way of playing with how rhetoric and criticism happens on twitter, whether directly with the bot or inspired by it.