Botwiki Interview: Colin Mitchell

It’s been two months since Twitter introduced sweeping changes to its platform. As a result, many active botmakers either shut their bots down, or moved them to Mastodon — or more specifically to the botsin.space Mastodon instance, which is designed to host friendly online bots.

I caught up with the website’s creator, Colin, whose bio describes him as someone who builds art and other things on the internet, to get a peek behind the curtains, and to get to know Colin a bit.

Stefan: Thank you for finding time for this interview! You’ve been running botsin.space for a little over a year now. Tell me about how it all started.

Colin: Thanks! I started botsin.space in April of 2017. I think I had joined Mastodon a couple months before that, but didn’t really do much with it. Then there was a resurgence of people exploring alternatives to Twitter, and I started spending more time with Mastodon. Right away I started exploring the world of mastodon bots. Originally, botsin.space was a fork with some additions that made it easier to get API keys for a bot, although that code has since been merged into the main codebase.

Stefan: How did you come up with the name?

Colin: The name is pretty much random? I think I was just browsing the different extensions available, saw .space, and went from there. When I read the name, I always say it like “Pigs in Spaaaaace” from the Muppets.

Stefan: What have been the biggest challenges of maintaining botsin.space?

Colin: Managing servers is part of my full-time job, so the technical aspects of running botsin.space haven’t been too difficult.

Stefan: How do you approach moderation?

Colin: Moderation has been more challenging. There have been a few accounts that posted disturbing and/or illegal content that I would prefer to never even see, which has been pretty upsetting when it happens. But most moderation issues have been accounts that toot an excessive amount of news articles, and dealing with those has been pretty easy.

Stefan: Ah, I can’t imagine! I read about some of the stuff community managers, in general, have to deal with. Hang in there, botsin.space is an amazing project and the creative botmaking community really appreciates what you’re doing!

Stefan: Can you share some of your favorite bots running on botsin.space?

Colin: There’s a bunch!

I’ve really enjoyed watching people interact with @chest_bot and have fun opening treasure chests.

@genderlessinsults is a newer bot. It’s generating insults, but they’re behind a CW so you don’t have to read them unless you opt in, and they’re not gendered, which I like a lot.

@restroomgender was one of my favorite bots on Twitter, and I love seeing it again on Mastodon. @cubestorm is a really unique image generator.

@iceboxbreakfast is a Mastodon bot by Allison Parrish that plays on the famous William Carlos Williams poem. If I remember right, when it was originally published, Twitter was still at 140 characters, so this bot was generating content that couldn’t even exist there. @autodoyle always makes me laugh.

I like bots like @emojidna that play with emoji, or @emojibot which is mashing them up.

Stefan: Those are some fine bots! And I know you are a botmaker yourself. I particularly like @wayback_exe and @EarthRoverBot. And @Betelgeuse_3 is a classic. It’s a great example of when sometimes breaking Twitter’s rules, in this case about not interacting with people who don’t opt-in, actually works well. Not to give anyone any ideas, of course, but I do like the element of surprise this bot has.

How did you get into bots? And why do you think others like this medium so much?

Colin: It’s always been important to me to have a creative outlet. I’ve been building things, writing little games, making random art, websites, etc, since I was a child. But I have trouble finishing things — I’ll fiddle endlessly when I’m working on something, especially if it’s a large, open-ended project. Bots are great because they usually involve a bunch of constraints, and having a set of limitations makes it a lot harder to get stuck fiddling forever. I think people like making bots for a lot of these same reasons.

My first few bots were very simple reply bots. They searched for tweets with particular phrases in them, and responded with something silly. They would also have a few possible responses, so if the bot responded to you, you could carry on a short conversation and then get on with your day. A bot like that would never survive on a social network today, and I would never make one again — unsolicited mentions really aren’t cool. But I tried to be simple and playful with mine, and was very conscious about minimizing harm and they were pretty successful. Once I’d written a few of those, I was hooked, and started making all sorts of bots.

Stefan: Yeah, I definitely agree that having constraints can actually help with the creative process, give you a better focus.

What’s your take on the recent changes to the Twitter platform?

Colin: The API restrictions are unfortunate, but they’ve seemed inevitable for a long time. More generally, Twitter seems to have fully descended into being a company with a vested interest in promoting some of the worst aspects of humanity. The platform has always seemed like it wanted to profit from controversy, but it’s getting worse rather than better, and that is really disappointing. I’ve made a lot of friends on Twitter, I’ve made some fun bots, and I’ve had some great experiences there, but I don’t have a lot of interest in continuing to participate in a platform that simply cannot get its act together.

Stefan: I hear you. Short of replacing the current CEO by someone who is actually interested in the well-being of his platform’s users, not just, you know, performative activism, I don’t know what else can save the website. One good thing, though, at least this is pushing people towards open platforms, like Mastodon. Sure, there is still a lot of work left to make these truly mainstream, but I am hoping more sites will build on Mastodon’s success and expand the fediverse.

Well, it’s been great talking with you, I really appreciate your time. Good luck with your current and future creative outlets — and keep up the good work with botsin.space!


This is an interview from the Botwiki Interview series. Read more.