Sorry for doing what we in the business now call "pulling a Penn," but I'm going to briefly turn an article about someone else into a piece about me: A lifetime ago, I was improbably accepted to an elite magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, just outside of Washington, D.C.
It was a dream school for dweebs, a place where we could pore over CAD models, intern at the National Cancer Institute, and get our asses handed to us in football. My physics teacher was a former astronaut. One of my classmates is now a neuroscience professor.
Another of my former classmates is Internet artist Darius Kazemi. In addition to running his oddball tech company, Feel Train, Kazemi and his wife, Courtney Stanton, make bots.
If you use any type of social media, you know bots as the those things that introduce themselves, compliment your profile, then try to sell you drugs. But these lines of code can also amuse us, and Kazemi has been called "the Oscar Wilde of internet bots" by The Guardian. Some of Kazemi's more notable examples include the Amazon shopping bot, which he designed to send himself surprise presents, a humor professor who attempts to explain joke tweets and the Twitter Sorting Hat Bot, which will sort you into a Hogwarts house complete with a personalized rhyming quartet.
Kazemi recently moved to Portland. He reached out to his former classmate—there was a Mexican starlet involved—and we met up at Cathedral Coffee in St. Johns. Here's a condensed version of our reunion.
WW: Hi, Darius! How did you get from TJ to here?
Darius Kazemi: I worked in video games for 10 years and did that in Boston, which is where I went to school after high school. I transitioned to doing more Web stuff, and a few years ago started doing Web-based art projects. The Portland connection really came from being invited to speak at XOXO Festival in 2014. Courtney came along with me, and we'd been talking about moving. We'd sort of half-jokingly said, "If we fall in love with Portland on this trip, we'll move there." We did, so we moved here.
What's with your project's title "tiny subversions"?
The name came from an essay that I wrote about video games as an undergrad. It was two words in a row. It's only a coincidence that I ended up making these things that people would refer to as "tiny subversions." My projects are tiny. A lot of my thoughts, I'll have the idea for them and sit down and make them in an evening. It's a very improvisational process for me.
Can we talk about "lazy humor" and why Twitter is such a great platform for it? The only thing I can think of is Dada art. The bots are funny, and they don't make any sense.
A lot of it is definitely based in this surreal sense of humor. Dada is a pretty good word for it. Dada artists are direct predecessors of all this stuff. They pull words out of a hat. That's essentially what I'm doing. With the things that I build, they get funnier the more you engage with them. I have this bot called "AmIRite Bot" that looks at Twitter trending topics. If you tweet "Donald Trump", it tweets back "More like Donald Dump, amirite?" One of the long-running jokes is that it doesn't know that "art" rhymes with "fart." There are so many times when it'd be like, "state of the art, more like cart, amirite?" The jokes are funnier if you are, what I would say, algorithmically literate. I tried to build it in such a way so you can look at it and intuit what's going on behind the scenes, and then figure out for yourself what's so funny.
It's trying to mimic humanity, except not at all.
People ask me about artificial intelligence all the time. I'm the furthest thing from that. A lot of the stuff I build is purposefully stupid. "Two Headlines" is one of my bots. A friend of mine pointed out that people on Twitter tend to lean on this lazy joke format. "David Bowie's in the news, there's a Republican primary coming up, I'm going to make a joke about David Bowie being in the Republican primary." It's easy to automate, so I automated it. It's pretty easy to teach a computer to do a stupid thing that people do all the time. It's artificial stupidity. The joke is on us, pointing out that you're not as clever as you think. The stuff you come up with is so derivative that 30 lines of code could also come up with it.
Wow, it's really only 30 lines of code?
Well, I only had to write 30 lines of code. It relies on the entirety of Google News existing, this whole infrastructure, and that Twitter exists.
Why is the "Wow So Portland!" Twitter bot that couples breathless Portland exclamations with pictures of industrial and commercial zones so funny?
Wow So Portland! is a little bit darker than Two Headlines. It very specifically falls into procedural rhetoric, using code to hammer home a particular point that you couldn't otherwise. I love quirky Portland. But there are so many people and so much that happens here that is just like any other American city. It sometimes gets erased in public discourse, especially if you read The New York Times. I just wanted to literally show people that there's so much of Portland that could be anywhere in the United States, and that's OK. I love what's unique about Portland, but there are stretches of highway, too. Even if you live east of 82nd and work in a chain restaurant, you're still a Portlander.
I wanted to show this in a visceral way. I knew I could feed a latitude and longitude into Street View and get a fixer on that point in the map. As I drive around Portland, I notice places that are heavily industrial and commercial, and when I get home I draw a little rectangle on the map and figure out the coordinates and drop it into my bot. I don't do residential zones. I think that's kind of creepy.
How do these bots translate into making a living?
Most of these bots are stuff on the side. Some people paint, I make bots. One of the reasons that Courtney and I moved out here was to start our own creative tech cooperative. We moved out to Portland and we put up a sign that said "We're in business!" I'm lucky in that enough people follow my work that there were a lot of people waiting to see if they could engage our services. A lot of this is people who are familiar with things I've made before and want us to make things similar to that. You don't go to us to build a website. That's not what we do.
We've built a bunch of tools for activists. We built tools for DeRay Mckesson. He's done a lot of anti-police-brutality work. We built a bot that would essentially help him deal with the mass of haters he gets online. It's mostly activists who don't have a 10-person social media team, but still have millions of followers, and need to figure out what to do.
Were you surprised to find such an active tech community here?
Well, one of the main reasons Portland was at the top of the list was because we wanted a place where there was both a tech community and a creative community. Portland has both separately, and also a good intersection of the two as well. So it wasn't a huge surprise. We were expecting that community here.
– Hot Bots –
The Sorting Hat Bot (@SortingBot)
Indubitably Darius Kazemi's most popular bot. It tweets back a rhyming quartet to notify you of your house in Hogwarts. It recently tweeted a couplet to commemorate the passing of the most famous Slytherin, Severus Snape, as played by Alan Rickman. "Every day I see people talking to it, cursing if they get sorted into Hufflepuff," Kazemi says.
The Yearly Awards (@YearlyAwards)
For everyone who misses getting a certificate at the end of summer camp, the Yearly Awards give everyone an award. Everyone. Congrats for getting voted the Least Slate Tweeter of 2014! What a remarkable accomplishment!
Content, Forever (tinysubversions.com/contentForever)
Three minutes into a mini-work break, and you're already bored of Digg? Enter a time frame (say, two minutes) and a one-word topic (for example, "beer") and it will regale you with a limited amount of semi-related reading material ripped from Wikipedia.
Wow So Portland! (@wowsoportland)
It pairs breathless reports of Portland's uniqueness and trendiness with images of nondescript strip malls and soccer fields, pulled from a Google map that Kazemi personally compiles on his trips around town. This city consists of more than indie boutiques and a unicycling Darth Vader, people.
Best of Darius' Bots (@dariusbots)
Don't have the time to sort through all of these separate bots? @dariusbots retweets any tweet made by a bot when it reaches a certain favorite or retweet threshold. It's an eclectic mix of moon shots, museum pieces and surrealistically dumb jokes; for example, a recent favorite from Two Headlines goes, "Amy Schumer in U.S. Increased Last Week to a Six-Month High."