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Twitterbots - Tony Veale and Mike Cook ***

This is an odd one. It's an in-depth look at Twitterbots - applications designed to post on Twitter making human-like pronouncements. We start with a really interesting, if highly verbose introductory section about these programs, introducing me to lots of examples I hadn't come across. I particularly liked the historical examples of condensing a message with humour (and a bit of intellectual oddity) in the Latin punning telegraph messages that seem to have been briefly popular amongst the British establishment in the mid-nineteenth century. For example, in 1856, when the British annexed the Indian province of Oudh (rhymes with loud), the governor-general sent the message 'Vovi.' This means 'I have vowed'... which sounds distinctly like 'I have Oudh.'

Then we plunge into the mechanics of Twitterbot construction. Tony Veale and Mike Cook, two British/Irish academics writing with a distinctly transatlantic style, give us detailed guidance on simplistic bot production using simple templates and collections of words or phrases, and also explore some more sophisticated methods using Java.

The book then turns into an exploration of the way that a program can build language structures - the kind of categorisation needed to provide a tweet builder with a 'Lego set' of appropriate words and phrases and the way it's possible to use some of the classic (if slightly hackneyed) academic breakdowns of stories, plots and characters to generate a pseudo-story format out of components (if you've read one of those 'how to write a novel' books that breaks down a hero's journey or whatever, into standard stages, you'll know the kind of thing).

What we end up with is a mix of an investigation of the world of Twitterbots, a how-to manual to get started writing your own code for them, and an analysis of just how much story can be broken down and built up in this component fashion. I found the presentation over-wordy and rather too academic in approach - but nonetheless interesting.

What the authors don't do - perhaps because they themselves are part of this scene - is some kind of psychological analysis of the nature of adults spending a lot of time on what is, in the end, the generation of rather weak snippets of writing that are only occasionally mildly amusing. The only reason the resultant tweets are of interest is because they're machine produced. It's rather like Samuel Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs: it's not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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