Individual Work
Totally Not Robots

The subreddit /r/TotallyNotRobots (Totally Not Robots, hereafter TNR) is – to my knowledge – one of the largest and most long-lived works of third generation electronic literature as well as a strong case of a spontaneous netprov. The subreddit predates Leonardo Flores’ description of this this generation by three years, and is still active with almost 400.000 members. TNR members imitate robots that imitate humans. In other words, the comic premise of the subreddit is that there exist anthropomorphic robots among us that participate in our platform culture while seeking to remain hidden from human awareness (and, curiously, these anthropomorphic robots all inhabit the same subreddit – please suspend disbelief). More specifically, the subreddit invites participants to write posts in ways that mimic a somewhat ‘robotlike’ style, which in the TNR community means to write in syntactically correct but semantically roundabout ways, and always in uppercase (lest other TNR members think you are yelling), which turns into a strikingly consistent style across the community. The actual content of posts on the subreddit is often shared material from other subreddits and/or other websites that exhibit a ‘robotic’ subject matter, which includes images or videos of humans or animals performing ‘robotic’ actions; ambiguous or redundant usage of the word ‘human’; glitches or computational; etc. The most dynamic and performatively rich part of the subreddit is the comment section, where users respond to, develop upon, and stylistically negotiate the content of other users’ posts.
The style and content of TNR is based on a mutual agreement among the members of the community to act as “robots trying to pass themselves as humans." The entirety of exchanges on the subreddit happens in-character, apart from the explanation and list of rules. Interestingly, this explanation and list of rules caused quite some stir upon being posted, since it was viewed by members of the community as breaking the fourth wall of the hypertextual, platformed performance. In the comment section of the explanation and list of rules, members of the community would – writing in character – demonstrate that the explanation and list of rules were really just an elaborate ruse to make regular humans less suspicious of the robotic activity happening on the subreddit. This case is exemplary of the way that the subreddit works: often, the most interesting and generative e-literary exchanges happen in the comment section, not in the main posts. The comments often both build on and change the premises of original post and, most noticeably, the comment section makes TNR an open-ended and continuous enactment of third generation electronic literature since any user can post a comment and/or reply to other comments, thus forming a multilayered, multidirectional, and spontaneous performance across the TNR community.

Parts of this entry was reworked from Erslev, Malthe. "Contemporary Posterity: A Helpful Oxymoron: Or, what the post-digital can teach us about the dynamics of temporal periodization and transformative potentiality in relation to post-whatever." Paper presented at the 15th SLSAeu Conference in Bergen, Norway (and online), March 2021.