Washington - In the beginning was “a”. Then “aah”. Then “aalii”. And in the end, on the weekend of June 6 – a date that will not, contrary to rumour, bring the rapture, the end of the internet, or the end of mankind – there will be, at long last, the final word.
After seven years and 109 229 tweets, the Twitter account @everyword will have finally completed its mission: to tweet every word in the English language – one word every 30 minutes – until there are no more words.
Since @everyword revved up in late 2007, the account has inspired a wave of copycats and spin-offs. The man behind @everyword, a programmer and New York University professor named Adam Parrish, 32, suspects his creation is the most widely read piece of conceptual literature in existence.
“Just the fact that it has so many followers is a constant surprise,” Parrish said from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “No one’s ever accused me of being accessible.”
Of course, to people unfamiliar with Twitter – or the longer, more robust history of creative computing – it’s hard to see the poetry. But as @everyword’s nearly 100 000 followers suggest, there’s something oddly hypnotic about the perpetual drip of the account.
The words, divorced from any and all context, seem to take on lives of their own: People project additional meanings and connotations onto them, retweeting and tweeting back to the account, even though they know it can’t understand.
Stefan Beckett, a social media editor at New York magazine, has followed @everyword since 2012 and has tweeted at it at least a dozen times; in that time, he says, the account has become something of a metronome – and an inside joke – to the people who follow it.
“I guess there’s comfort in having a perpetual, predictable presence in your Twitter stream that pops up every half hour, regardless of all the other noise that’s going on,” he said by e-mail.
Sometimes, @everyword’s random discharges coincide perfectly with events in the news. It reached “woman” just as Jill Abramson’s ousting from the New York Times leaked onto Twitter. Other times, the humdrum words – blended into a user’s usual stream of tweets from friends and celebrities and news organisations – create juxtapositions, little threads of association and whispered hints of narrative.
That’s part of why Parrish dismisses critics who say the bot he created simply tweets “contextless words” – just as he dismisses the thousands of people who have, over the years, accused @everyword of tweeting words that aren’t actually words.
The bot, contrary to its aspirations, is just using a script to pull text from a list of words Parrish found online in 2007. (He’s no longer even sure where the list came from.) As such, @everyword misses words. It also appears to make some up.
“But that’s the point,” Parrish said, adding that it’s a commentary on language, specifically language online, in its endless, imaginative mutation. “There’s an implied commentary there – it’s satirical in that it’s trying to do something impossible.”
That type of abstraction may not resonate with many of @everyword’s followers, who are just hanging around to retweet “sex,” “weed” and “vagina” – at this point, the account’s most-retweeted words.
But the idea of using Twitter as a medium for serious art and social commentary has caught on with a ragtag group of conceptual writers, generative poets and performance artists – to such a degree, in fact, that the “botmakers” gathered, in person and by video chat, at a summit in Massachusetts last year.
Today’s bots can mash up news headlines (@twoheadlines), imitate the affectations of a teenage girl (@oliviataters), and tweet accidental axioms on the human condition (@horse_ebooks, before its human acquisition).
Still, botmakers have had to contend with the scepticism of those who don’t “get” what they’re doing. Popular culture frequently associates bots with spammers, not artists and poets. Parrish, for one, is aggravated by the frequent suggestion that @everyword is somehow autonomous and self-sustaining, as if he didn’t write the code behind it.
“People are really eager to attribute agency to computers,” he said. “But I worked really hard to make that program. Would you say a typewriter wrote (Edgar Allan) Poe’s poems? Or a paintbrush made Jackson Pollock’s paintings? (Programming is) just a procedure to make art.” – The Washington Post