Tim Hwang builds bots that try to trick you into believing they are real. Sorry, that’s a frightening way of introducing somebody. Tim Hwang wants to have fun, save the world and make people happy… using bots that try to trick you into believe they are real.
As we begin a mission to identify more people doing creative things with technology, highlighting Tim is no-brainer. Craig and I met up with Tim (@timhwang) at a coffee shop in San Francisco last week to talk social bots, comedy on the internet and nuclear power plants. We’ll spare you a magazine-length profile—that’s been done—and instead act like the blog that we are. Here come some fucking bullets!
- Okay, so social bots. Tim gave a 50-minute talk about his Twitter bots, so we won’t pretend we can summarize them in one bullet point, but basically they are automated Twitter feeds designed to successfully infiltrate communities without being called out on their bot-ness. Infiltrate carries a negative connotation, but let’s use the next few bullets to consider the positive potential of bots like this…
- Happiness injectors. It’s not hard for a program to take the emotional temperature of a given group, recognize key words or phrases that suggest sentiments are drooping downward, and try to insert a little joy into that space.
- “Social scaffolding” was a term Tim used that I particularly loved. Imagine bots trawling around to find every advocate on Twitter trying to curb gun violence in Chicago. Slowly (or very quickly) it could befriend them all and begin making them all more aware of one another. Eventually, the bot can simply disappear with its target community now more unified. (see more: Pacific Social Architecting Corporation)
- What’s the toughest test for a pre-programmed set of automated prompts and responses? Asking it if it’s a pre-programmed set of automated prompts and responses. To overcome that, Tim has created bots that drift out into the vast expanses of Twitter and accuse humans of being bots. However the humans respond is fed into a database, better enabling future bots to defend themselves like a human.
- Tim started ROFLCon back in the days before Tosh.0 and other shows that further blur the line between internet famous and real famous. His next idea is for a conference called PonziCon.
- We talked for awhile about a continually expanding genre of internet comedy that is building real online identities for not-real companies or services. Then casting them out into the internet and hoping for a bite (very much the mantra of Tim’s Hype Up Weekend last year). Along these lines, make sure to check out the Tacocopter.
- Tim is a member of the Berkman Center For Internet & Society. We got to visit it in Cambridge in January, and the folks there are constantly exploring the internet in ways few others are. You should pay attention to them . (They’ll know if you don’t!)
- And lastly, completely unrelated to anything mentioned above but equally awesome: Tim helps run the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, a group of people who take monthly tours of anything with a massive infrastructure. In January they toured a nuclear power plant, this month they’re visiting San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management (911 call center) and March will be a trip to poke around the expansion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
You should follow on Twitter (@timhwang) and on his web site (brosephstalin.com). We appreciate the hell out of him chatting with us, and if he winds up participating in our next Comedy Hack Day *cough April 6+7 in SF cough* we’ll be excited to see what he can create.
(Photo by Jesse Chan-Norris.)