I made a Twitter bot (on purpose!)

I started @OldFrenchCrime about 2.5 years ago. Every day, the account tweets an amazing/gruesome color engraving from a French crime tabloid from the 1890s to the 1920s. The idea was to highlight sensationalist -and often inaccurate- journalism of the past so we can feel better about the sensationalist -and often inaccurate- journalism of today.

It started with a collection of tabloids bought at Parisian flea markets

I originally scheduled the tweets manually using Tweetdeck. It was a ton of work; each post contained a tweet, hashtags, a Bitly link to the source material (from the French public archives), and photo and was scheduled with a date and time. It took me two weeks over the winter breaks to schedule each year’s worth:

Ironically, trees were killed for my @oldfrenchcrime Twitter project!

After more than 600 posts, I ran out of material, but I was loathe to let go of all this good stuff so I decided to do like a modern journalist and build me a bot. At CUNY J+, we had a class and webinar on news bots last year that got me inspired. A Twitter bot could cycle through my Old French Crime tweets one more time.

Here’s how I did it (it was VERY simple): I requested my archives from Twitter, and turned that spreadsheet into a Google sheet (for storage). My tweets now looked like this:

Then I googled some amazingly helpful instructions by Storybench and Zach Whalen (Thanks zach whalen!) and made a Twitter app and a bot that tweets for me every 12 hours, apparently in a random order.

(I went in the spreadsheet manually and removed holiday-specific hashtags since I no longer control the publication dates.) And it looks like I can still go in manually and interact with followers on Tweetdeck.

So efficient!

I am still really happy to have spent all these hours reading the old French tabloid (the Sunday illustrated supplement of Le Petit Journal, a pro-establishment, reactionary, populist, moralistic, racist, sexist, anti-Dreyfus, and prone to embellishments if not outright lies rag; basically the Breitbart of the time) because it gave me perspective on our time. Here are some of my takeaways.

Tabloids are not the first draft of history. Thank god. Let’s support newspapers of record.

We owe a debt of gratitude to news photographers. Imagine if we still relied on the wild imagination of illustrators for our “news?” (This, for instance, never happened.) In fact, reading Le Petit Journal made me appreciate the existence of strict ethical guidelines when it comes to editing news photos. Images stick with us. These images must tell the truth.

The farther away, the bigger the bullshit. Imagined scenes of atrocities in foreign lands, racist depictions of foreigners, beheadings… The Petit Journal illustrators really let loose when covering news outside of France (like the Boxer Rebellion for instance). Beware lazy foreign correspondants with no accountability to the locals they cover.

Trite is forever. The Petit Journal loved apocryphal morality tales of heroic children, heroic mothers, and heroic male public servants all neatly tied up at the end. You know who else eats that stuff up? People sharing “inspiring stories” on Facebook.

Crimes against children are not new. I tried not to include incidents of child abuse, kidnapping and murder in the Twitter feed because they are far too upsetting but trust me, there were just as many in the news then as there are now. The past wasn’t idyllic.

Older people freaking out is not new. About youth. Youth crime. Technology. Crime.

So, want more vintage journalism? Go on and follow @OldFrenchCrime! now in bot form!

Here’s an Ignite Talk I did on the subject in 2013 (I was nervous)