January 08 2014

***From the Listserve team: The previous email from Will Wybrow was truncated, so we're re-sending the full email. Our apologies!***

My friend Jamie, I met on Twitter. He was the friend of a friend and we hit it off right away, triggering our friendship groups merging. My friends on Twitter and his friends on Twitter all following each other in a virtual friendship ecosystem, all based on 140-character replies to each other.

There comes a point, though, where Twitter stops being useful for the number of people all trying to join in a conversation at once. And after an aborted attempt at linking everything using the hashtag #wangingout (forgive the juvenile dick joke; 2012 was a different era), and being geographically disparate enough to make regular in-person hanging out tricky, we took it old school and set up the IRC channel #wangingout on the Freenode servers. People keep a window open on their PCs during the day and in those little stretches of five-minute downtime everyone gets between tasks at work, we hang out.

And it’s awesome. There have been surges in my IRC use over the years, notably when I was 10 and used to rush home from school every day to get online and talk about Pokémon with other kids, and of course in the bash/qdb heyday of ten years ago. I always remembered IRC bots from those old days, little programmatic tools that could take on the role of channel op and curate a library of text-based commands to help out the channel or just entertain. So: wangbot.

From an initial twenty-line script with a handful of pre-set responses, wangbot has grown into a twitter client and a website and a chronicler of our lives. People in the chan can add greetings that he’ll parrot when people log on for the day. We hold votes: straw opinion polls, feature requests, even planning winter celebration events, and the results go into the online “statute book” for people to look up. We reward each other for good chatter, funny jokes, and winning games, all with #wangingout points. People can look up how much they reciprocate point-awarding and how aligned their voting record is.

But the feature that seems to have captured people’s imaginations and hearts is the !opine function. Every night, wangbot looks over the day’s chatlogs and puts groups of three words, and how frequently they’re said together, into his database. Then, given the command, he can try to link some of the three-word atoms into sentences. Try. With *very* varied success.

It’s not meant to be an attempt at a Loebner Prize competitor or anything; it’s just a little bit of fun. A minor experiment in how little code I can write to spout novel lines that, occasionally, have us all fighting to suppress out-loud laughter at our desks at work.

I’ve been into programming since I first touched my dad’s Commodore 64 as a young child. I went to university to study computer science and I code as part of my job. But I usually never get very far with personal projects. Motivation drops off after a while and I am left with yet another unfinished project. But with wangbot it’s different. It’s like I’m coding for an audience, but without the pressure of it having to be monetisable like you’d have with a software startup. At the start of April, wangbot will be two years old, and by far the creation I am most proud of.

If anything I do is worth sharing with thousands of strangers, it’s definitely my weird desire to make crappy jokey internet services for my friends to mess around with.

Will Wybrow
[email protected]
Basingstoke, UK

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