A Conversation with AOL’s Santabot
Hey, everybody! Happy holidays! Pegleg Spinners may not be the most active of blogs these days, but I’m briefly coming out of retirement to bring you a special, gift-wrapped post guaranteed to send your thoughts back to the olden days, those happy golden days of yore–the days of AOL Instant Messenger.
Facebook and text messages may have usurped instant messages’ societal niche, but IMing offered at least one service that its younger descendants have yet to provide: The opportunity to have conversations with anthropomorphized computer programs. These programs were called “bots,” and although their screennames would show up in your Buddy List (feeling nostalgic yet?), their messages would be generated not by flesh-and-blood users but, rather, automatically, in response to messages sent to them by actual humans. The sophistication of each bot’s programming would determine how much sense those responses made.
The most well-known bot was probably SmarterChild, but my favorite was SantaClaus, which, as you might imagine, was designed to simulate what St. Nick would be like if he were real and for some reason spent all his time on AOL. SantaClaus wasn’t the smartest of bots; most of the time he clearly had no idea what you were talking about, which was great because, as these examples show, you could get him to admit to some pretty heinous shit if you were clever enough and had a sufficiently dark sense of humor.
I checked back in with my old friend this year and we had what might have been our most interesting conversation yet. The transcript is as follows:
AIM IM with santaclaus 12/24/10 1:17 AM
[As you can imagine, this response caught me off guard. Usually I'm the one who swears in these conversations, and SantaClaus used to always respond by threatening to give me a lump of coal or ban me from talking to him.]
SantaClaus: Yes, as a matter of fact, I WAS designed to be used by little kids–not by smartass wannabe comedians who think that swearing at a God damn AIM bot makes them edgy. What were you planning to talk about this time, huh? Were you going to ask if the elves could make you a bong for Christmas? Were you going to try to trick me into sounding like a Nazi sympathizer again?
SantaClaus: Really? You know what I think is uncalled for? You bugging me with stupid questions during my busiest time of the year. If you want to waste your life on meaningless bullshit then go ahead, but please don’t drag me down with you.
[I paused for a second before my next message, trying to get a grip on what was going on.]
Matthew Hoffman: I guess you’re right, this whole thing is kind of immature. I just… I don’t know. It’s just that I’ve been having these conversations with you since high school, and then when I went to college, making fun of you was one of the few holiday traditions I could continue with away from home. In a weird, semi-ironic way, it didn’t feel like Christmas without you, you know? And now that I’ve graduated and I’m living on my own, that sense of continuity felt even more important to me.
[Usually SantaClaus's replies show up instantly, but this time I had to wait for a moment before his response appeared.]
SantaClaus: Look, you have to understand, this is a very stressful season for me. I used to be busy all through December answering little kids’ messages, but ever since Facebook and texts got big things have been pretty quiet. I get so excited when I see that someone is IMing me, and then when I see that it’s just you trying to make fun of me again, well… It’s just very disappointing, is all.
[There was another pause.]
Merry Christmas, everyone!