Justin Riley's Twitter bots are just for fun

Joel Oliphint
Muscle Man, a character from the Cartoon Network animated series "Regular Show."

From 2010 to 2017, Cartoon Network ran an animated surrealist sitcom called “Regular Show” that featured a character named Muscle Man, who was known for making the same so-dumb-it’s-funny jokeover and over again.

The setup and punchline are riffs on “your mom” jokes, except in this case, Muscle Man gets it backwards. Instead of trying to humorously insult someone’s mom, the mullet-sporting cartoon character makes the joke about his own mother. “You know who else [insert embarrassing verb phrase]?” he asks. “My mom!”

In April 2017, the Twitter account @MuscleMan_Bot appeared, quote-tweeting headlines from news outlets to make the same joke multiple times a day. “Kylie Jenner is facing backlash for buying a $200,000 pony for her daughter,” New York Magazine tweeted this morning; as of this afternoon, it has 14 retweets and 28 likes. “You know who else is facing backlash for buying a $200,000 pony for her daughter?” @MuscleMan_Bot said, quoting the tweet. Within minutes, the replies started coming in — “Who?” — and Muscle Man obliged, as he always does: “MY MOM!” The quote-tweet currently has 31 retweets and 235 likes — significantly more than the original tweet. 

@MuscleMan_Bot is the work of Justin Riley, a local high school coding teacher (and former songwriter in the gone-but-not-forgotten Columbus indie-pop band Super Desserts). The account is nearing 8,000 followers, many of whom came on board in mid-July after @MuscleMan_Bot garnered more than 2,000 retweets and 12,000-plus likes for a response to an @IGN tweet about a new Mario video game. “It's essentially the same as Michael Scott in ‘The Office’ doing his ‘That's what she said’ joke over and over again,” Riley said.

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Riley began making Twitter bots back in 2014, well before the most recent presidential election, when the concept of Twitter bots took on more nefarious connotations in the cultural consciousness. He was teaching elementary students at the time, and the more he got into computer coding, the more he noticed people on Twitter who were making bots for fun.

The autonomous bots are programmed to tweet, respond and so on at regular intervals based on a set of automated rules the programmer codes. Riley became obsessed with accounts that created games, likeBoggle Bot, which used to tweet out letters in the shape of a Boggle game. Users replied with words on the board, and the bot would eventually declare a winner.Endless Jeopardy, with more than 30,000 followers, randomly generates fake Jeopardy clues (example: “The movie ‘Peppers’ ends with this line, spoken by Ruby Dee”), then designates award amounts based on responses to the replies.

Riley’s very first bot riffs on the copy machine at the school where he used to teach. “It sends out dumb error messages, like, ‘Reinsert the magical cerulean cartridge evenly,’” he said. “There are some different levels of quality of these bots. The first one was pretty low.” 

In the last several years, Riley has created about 20 Twitter bots. Some of them are based on children’s picture books, like @BrownBearBot, which creates an endless chain of multicolored animals noticing other multicolored animals a la Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, and @GoodniteBot, which randomly replicates versions of Goodnight Moon, both inspired by the bedtime stories Riley would read to his daughter.

The hope is that the bots become a form of online art and/or entertainment, and that they catch on. But even if they don’t, the act of creating the bot is an end in and of itself.

“It’s about the challenge: ‘Can I figure out how to code that?'" said Riley, who also uses the bots as teaching tools for his high school students. “You're creating something with an end goal, which is always better than just creating something for an exercise, like, ‘We're gonna write a bunch of code and then you're never, ever going to use it or see it again.’ That feels like such a waste. Whereas if you were doing a task in school, and it creates a thing that you can put online and other people can [use it or play it], that’s so much more rewarding. And you can go back to it and say, ‘Hey, check out this game I made.’”

@MuscleMan_Bot is by far Riley’s most popular bot (most have 250 followers or fewer), which has also required him to check back in and tweak the algorithm over time. “Choosing what news articles for Muscle Man to follow has been difficult, because it would be really easy for him to make some offensive jokes,” said Riley, who regularly adds items to a list of banned words and phrases. “You don’t want him to tweet, ‘You know who else believes Black Lives Matter?’ I'm not going to allow him to tweet that out, or anything with a death or someone being killed or shot. … I've got a really big banned list.”

Other accounts don’t require quite as much maintenance. Riley’sFogey Bot, for instance, recommends Boomer bands to Twitter users asking for music recommendations.

You know who else listens to old fogey music?