A Twitter bot, by its very nature, cannot actually be “woke.” The term refers to an awareness of social injustice — and bots, well, they’re just lines of code.
But since early June, an account called @StayWokeBot has been doing its best to help keep others aware. The bot, a collaboration between activists DeRay Mckesson and Sam Sinyangwe and the tech cooperative Feel Train, is intended to protect and maintain morale among the black protest community.
As of this writing, the bot does two things, though it may do more in the future: When a Twitter user initially follows @StayWokeBot, it auto-tweets them a singsong affirmation; when a follower tweets at the bot with his or her state, it responds with contact information for that state’s senators and a prompt to ask them to vote in favor of two gun-control measures.
These sorts of repetitive, exhausting social media tasks — rallying the community, calling for action, facing down the angry @-replies of haters and critics — have long been the undertaking of activists themselves. But there’s a growing understanding that this work takes a lot of time, not to mention a profound emotional and psychological toll. And bots, of all things, could be the ones to absorb that kind of emotional labor.
“The best thing about bots is they never get tired, bored or upset,” said Darius Kazemi, a bot programmer and one half of Feel Train. “They have infinite energy, whereas humans need to take breaks to take care of ourselves. A human activist can’t be ‘on’ 24/7, but a bot can.”
This idea, that bots could serve as a sort of proxy or extension of human activists, is a subtle shift from the activist and protest bots of the past. Historically, the best-known and most-publicized ones have focused on one of two tasks: inserting themselves into strangers’ conversation to correct “bad” speech, or alerting followers to the latest occurrence of some repetitive, ongoing event. Those bots — @congressedits, @NRA_tally, @droptheIbot, the list goes on — are all about getting the word out to as many people as possible.
@StayWokeBot is still interested in awareness, of course — but it’s far more focused on the needs of the activist. Kazemi and his Feel Train partner, Courtney Stanton, made the bot according to Mckesson and Sinyangwe’s specifications.
“There’s a lot to activism beyond awareness-raising, which I think is what bots that invite themselves into conversations are trying to do,” Stanton said. “DeRay and Sam were interested in creating a tool to help connect current activists and provide information and support to people who were already looking for it.”
Thanks to their collaboration, encouraging people to call their senators on an issue is now as easy as updating a Google spreadsheet. In theory, that should cut down on the sheer amount of time activists need to spend cheerleading (and shield them from at least some of their inevitable hate tweets).
The big question, of course, is whether these bots actually work — and the jury’s still out on that. @StayWokeBot has only 3,000 followers after more than two months, and few of them seem interested in the bot’s current call to action.
In April 2015, a team at Microsoft created a project very similar to @StayWokeBot, which tweeted at users in Latin America and asked them to brainstorm solutions to government corruption. Overall, 45 percent of the bots’ tweets got a reply — which is good, but not quite good enough to replace humans.
Activists “are usually very empathic, caring, and have great solidarity with their public,” wrote one of the project’s creators, Saiph Savage. “Will it matter when these tasks are now done by an automated agent who by nature cannot care?”
In other words, can a bot really tell people to stay woke, when it isn’t woke itself?
Kazemi and Stanton certainly think so: In fact, they’ve open-sourced the code to @StayWokeBot so that other protesters and protest movements can use it. On their website, they encourage activists with a need for more web-based tools to get in touch with them. Who knows, with all the hype around chatbots lately, maybe Messenger, Kik or Slack will be next.
“I think bots can be ideal for this sort of emotional labor, especially in something as personal as activism,” Stanton said. “An alternative ideal, of course, would be figuring out what appropriate compensation looks like for the people currently performing this labor. But that’s a really different conversation.”
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