It’s 2017, and this Twitter bot reflects our disappointment in the present

I made a bot that retweets everyone who writes “it’s 2017.”

It’s 2017, and this Twitter bot reflects our disappointment in the present

I made a bot that retweets everyone who writes “it’s 2017.”

In April of this year, I collaborated on a Twitter bot with a friend. Once every hour it retweets people using the phrase “It’s 2017.” The results are diverse: some are political (“It’s 2017 respect women”), some personal, (“It’s 2017 and I still don’t understand Twitter #sad #socialmedia”), and some are mildly apocalyptic (“It’s 2017 steal everything”).

There have been 979 “it’s 2017” retweets since we set up the bot, with more arriving by the hour. Basic text analysis of the feed paints a bleak picture: a sentiment analysis tool tracking use of the phrase “it’s 2017” on Twitter comes up 69 percent negative and 31 percent positive.

A word cloud tool informs me that the bot’s most commonly used terms include “y’all,” “believe,” “can’t,” “shit,” and “bitches.” Meanwhile a text mining tool tells me references made in the tweets are most often negative, including talk of Apple, the city of Charleston, and Jesus Christ (the sole “Very Positive” reference was to rapper Lupe Fiasco).

Another theme I’ve noticed among the “it’s 2017” tweets is how few of them are answered: often when these accounts complain, they’re shouting into an online void.

Lately I feel like the atmosphere on Twitter is one of futility. It feels like the party is over, and all the jokes are references to old ones. The site feels like more of a filter bubble than ever: the messaging of empowerment and a “democratized media” which characterized social media’s earlier days has faded away.

Still we continue to complain to Twitter about modernity, about technology, about the noise that fills Twitter itself.

Some time ago — a year or so back, I suspect — we reached peak Open Letter. “Dear women,” new headlines read each day, “Dear men,” “Dear Liberals,” “Dear Millennials,” “Dear Donald Trump.” The trend continues, and has seeped into everyday online life (“Dear Europe, It's 2017. Please invest in AC units. Sincerely, Spoiled Americans everywhere”). Anyone can “Dear” someone, regardless of whether their target is listening.

On Twitter, searching “@Jack” reveals a similar tendency — users who call on Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and CEO, for reasons including reporting abuse, protesting shadow bans, calling for the return of Milo or for Julian Assange to get verified.

The immediacy of social media platforms feeds our hope that celebrities, Silicon Valley CEOs and even “millennials” (yes, all of them) are listening, and consequently, today everyone complains to the internet. We are flattered by brands into offering them our opinions, as if “crowdsourcing” were anything other than doing marketers’ work for free. Increasingly social media takes to the role of customer service, albeit one without human attention; when you complain to a brand online, a bot is there to answer back.

But the odds are against those who complain on Twitter: surveys suggest that U.S. companies ignore 80 percent of the tweets they receive (they’re far more likely to reply on Facebook). Other studies indicate that 71 percent of tweets get no reaction at all. It’s significant, too, that recent measures brought in by Twitter focus on noise reduction, including the ability to auto-mute accounts and for celebrities to skip the Timeline entirely and only read their mentions. Brands, meanwhile, are increasingly encouraged to use private DM chatbots rather than addressing complaints in public.

A sentiment analysis tool tracking use of the phrase “it’s 2017” on Twitter comes up 69 percent negative

In 2013, Dorsey said of the site he had created, “When people come to Twitter and they want to express something in the world, the technology fades away. It's them writing a simple message and them knowing that people are going to see it.” Do people read messages on Twitter? Do people take them seriously? Or are our tweeted hopes, dreams and demands the world’s largest collaborative fiction?

The tone of the “it’s 2017” tweets is fascinating when we ask who exactly they’re addressed to: Most often, it’s to no one at all. Twitter becomes a home for the thoughts we cannot express in everyday life. We speak to Twitter as we speak to God: in frustration, optimism and anger, without expecting our calls to be answered. Still, we call and call again for change, but see none of it; in this sense, Twitter users meet the popular definition of insanity.

In 1972, Samuel Beckett’s play Not I debuted at the Lincoln Center in New York, a 24 minute monologue (later productions would get it down to around 15 minutes) delivered by actress Jessica Tandy, positioned eight feet above the stage in a purpose-built black box. Her ears and eyes were covered and her face was shrouded in darkness, apart from her mouth.

As Mouth, Not I’s only speaker, the actress attacks her listeners with dialogue, rapidly narrating her life from birth to this hazy on-stage afterlife (“the brain . . . raving away on its own . . . trying to make sense of it . . . or make it stop . . .”). Mouth tells us she was quiet for years, but an unnamed event led her to speak, and now she cannot be halted. Mouth has no body; Mouth is only a mouth.

I think of Mouth when I think of Twitter; a voice long suppressed, driven to blindly spew its consciousness. Social media initially went through a wave of optimism, “activism,” and public confession; not long ago, sharing the details of one’s life was revelatory. Now, like the rest of the internet’s “first person industrial complex,” it is deemed stale.

It’s interesting to think of protest against Twitter being expressed within Twitter itself, made part of the cacophony of a disordered hive mind. We made the Current Year bot find “it’s 2017” tweets every hour, even though they come along every minute. But its users have fallen out of time: Last year Twitter announced the introduction of an algorithmically curated feed, meaning we no longer see events as they happen. We allow ourselves to be manipulated, censored, and occasionally misled by social media. To reassure ourselves, then, we repeat it as mantra: It’s 2017. It’s now.

Sometimes I find the internet emotionally exhausting. I worry that to be burned out now augurs badly for the future, which will demand an emotional resilience, a confidence and moral plasticity I suspect I do not have. It will also likely require a generosity of spirit, enough to put up with an ever-scrolling feed of complaints.

Sometimes I want to complain to Twitter myself. Dear Internet, why can’t you hear me? Is it because you’re made of noise?

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