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What the "What Would I Say?" App Tells Us About Ourselves

What made this game of algorithmic MadLibs so popular? Maybe our desire to understand ourselves.
 
 
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Photo Credit: http://what-would-i-say.com/

 
 
 
 

Trending on Google and Facebook this past week, what-would-i-say.com is a new app made by Princeton graduate students during last weekend’s Princeton Hackathon that creates Facebook statuses to sound like users based on their past posts. After going live November 10th, the site crashed on Nov. 11 and Nov. 13 due to heavy traffic. But what made this game of algorithmic MadLibs so popular? Might we learn something about ourselves, if not from the statuses, then from the site’s wild popularity?

Here's a sampling of what I would say, according to the app:

lookin straight out of the gun lobby, the idyllic notion of American (and its later variation) lookin straight at times uncomfortable home(preach!)

my first developing a sense of routine, climbing into writing.(I can relate)

hey everyone, thinking about seeing IceT's The arguments made by the model, the enigma(no comment. I’d definitely see it though.)

(my favorite) the lady knows how To Be

Having discovered the status-impersonating robot yesterday, I felt way more entertained/embarrassed by robotme than seemed appropriate. But logging into Facebook, I saw that I wasn’t the only one. (This new trend of posting the results of What Would I Say as Facebook statuses is a meta-appropriate appreciation of the phenomenon, much like if a Miley Cyrus parody video were to influence Cyrus’s next single).  

The “What Would I Say” app is immediately delightful and embarrassing. And that’s key to its of-the-moment success (as is the fact that our own statuses are the main draw; those of others are of little interest).

It taps into the narcissistic pleasure of self-definition—the “I am this, I am not that”/“I like this, I don’t like that” game, mechanized by Facebook but originating in the very real desire to define ourselves as individuals separate from others, and to have these specificities recognized. The app provides you with an uncanny displacement from yourself – a sort of wonderful self-alienation that lets you see yourself from the outside to recognize that inner-stuff you’re so familiar with that it usually goes unnoticed.

It also allows for a shared admission of embarrassed ambivalence about this narcissistic pleasure.  "What Would I Say" is a vehicle to discover what you’re most often yammering on about, and calls you out for it with the soft blow of poetic non-apology. Many of mine had to do with writing, or at least mimicked a sort of lofty prose (either that or gerunds turned informal, sans apostrophe) both of which made me cringe a little. I got more than one imitation of promoting my own, and others’, writing: “my first piece on Facebook [Friend’s Name] !!” – an interesting double entendre of either sweetly naïve combination of self and other, or a very obvious shout-out for my friend to read my writing (!!); and “Get it, reporter [Friend’s Name], get that evoke the world” – a subdued exclamation that, I might argue, encapsulates the ecstatic urge to write itself. Still, I was reminded of my self-centric postings. As Ian Crouch writes for the New Yorker, “Self promotion is an ugly game, and, so, mea culpa.”

Unlike and beyond the word cloud, a precursor that just offered terms as preoccupations, the formulations of the app’s impersonations create a robotic grammar, a kind of dazzling dreamlike phrasing that is central, I think, to our delight. It’s oddly nonsensical yet attractive, like some good poetry. Or, rather, its meaning is often subjective and opens us to the possibility of poetic interpretation, something that the everyday Facebook status – news, opinion, promotion: in each case, straightforward self-representation or proclamation – typically does not. It’s interactive, it’s art. It can be very funny. (One from, again, Ian Crouch: “Back to the habit of eating flecks of things”.)

What "Would I Say" also raises the computer-era-old question of artificial intelligence – in other words, the potentiality to program consciousness. Since the Turing Test, first introduced in a paper by Alan Turing in 1950, the proposition that we might create a machine that can think has centrally positioned itself in our psyches (one part hopeful, two parts frightening, the idea of machines-gone-autonomous is manifested in much modernist literature and film of the 20th century). It may have been the Modern American Preoccupation, before twerking. Though of course robotme is obviously far from conscious, the imitation makes one consider just what the difference is between this algorithmic approximation of me-ness and the everyday shared me. What patterns do we adopt – nay, become – in constantly broadcasting our Selves?

In conclusion, we love and hate ourselves – old news made hyper-current. Thank you, "What Would I Say" app!

Lucy McKeon is an editorial fellow at Salon.