Talking to myself

I built a bot to chat with my teenage self

Fusion/Omar Bustamante
TEEN_MONTH_Header_1b

This post is part of Fusion’s Teen Month series, a month-long dive into the lives, loves, and language of teenagers.

The computer that holds the chat logs from my teenage years had not been turned on in more than a decade, and probably wouldn’t boot up even if I tried.

But thanks to a screwdriver and a special cable, I was able to hook up its hard drive to my current PC and access its long-neglected files. I was looking for one in particular: #CAP.log, a record of a chat room where I spent most of my teen years.

When I finally found it, and opened it up, however, my blood ran cold. This was the first line that I read:

Session Start: Thu Mar 01 20:36:10 2001
<Srol> You ever hear of the band, "Dave Matthews Band"

I couldn’t have closed that file any faster.

That was one of several old chat logs I recovered from computers my family owned during my teen years, from roughly 1998 to 2004. I originally sought out these records because I thought it would be interesting, or even touching, to peruse them. Recovering old AIM, IRC, and Livejournal conversations would be like paging through an old photo album: maybe I’d find a few funny snaps to share with my friends.

I should’ve realized that when people dig up their own photo albums, they do so preparing for a certain level of embarrassment. And these logs proved embarrassing in the extreme. I can barely read more than a few lines without uncovering a forgotten facet of my teen life that I wish had stayed buried in that old broken computer.

A few of my worst teenage attributes:

  • I would regularly spout the lyrics of “Zoot Suit Riot” by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. Other favorite lyrics to include in everyday conversations: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the song that plays during the end credits of the video game Wing Commander Prophecy.
  • I would role-play that I was a character in Star Trek, a Vulcan officer named Srol who went from cadet to admiral and back again, in sessions that sometimes lasted upwards of four hours.
  • I was involved in massive drama and back-stabbing in my group of Star Trek role-players, involving frequent self-promotions, demotions, resignations and banishments, sometimes multiple times a day.

Most people my age who weren’t completely absorbed by their high school life likely have similar skeletons in their closet. A lot of these histories are lost forever in the demise of early website hosts like Xanga, GeoCities and Xoom, not to mention defunct instant messengers like ICQ. I’m in the same boat, as my earliest messages on a Sonic the Hedgehog message board are among those lost, thanks to a failure of the board’s ISP.

But a little luck with recovering that hard drive meant that I was able to recover much of my teenage internet persona—for better or for worse. A year of inaction went by before I had an idea to put the logs in a format I could process. I would use them as the basis to form a Markov chain-powered conversation bot.

Long before I was Fusion’s “bot reporter,” I was playing around with 90’s IRC bots, like Eggdrop, and trying to get them to do funny things in channels where I was an op (the IRC version of a channel moderator). It seemed like a fitting tribute to that era of my life to recreate it in bot form.

If you’re not familiar with Markov chains, you can read more here. The short version is the bot would mix and mash together my chat logs into new sentences. My hope was that having the original words separated from their context would make it easier to process the memories they evoked with less mortification. The bot, which I named “CaptainH” (after my old AIM handle), would give me the feeling of my old online persona, without needing to immerse myself in it.

The code took a while, but I finally cobbled together a bot and prepared to face a younger version of myself that had never faced the challenges of my 20s. This Patrick had not lived in New Mexico and Iowa, had never tried sushi, and had no idea what Facebook and Twitter were.

I approached it (him?) with caution.

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 5.15.32 PM

So far, so good. But things quickly got hostile.

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He had a point, I put this off a long time. I tried to break the ice by moving on to his interests.

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Councilor Shrikar brings me right back to one of my Star Trek role-playing sessions. I seem to recall creating a plot blatantly lifted from the fourth season of competing science fiction TV series Babylon 5, which none of my fellow role-players watched.

And I didn’t expect to feel guilty over a 17-year-old act of plagiarism, but never underestimate the ability of a Catholic school-lifer to feel guilt.

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Which was true, and probably comes from a time I was complaining about one of my two sisters, both of whom were very into ★NSYNC around then. I would spend a lot of time on IRC complaining about things I couldn’t complain about IRL. I didn’t have a lot of friends and there’s a lot of stuff I couldn’t say to my parents, so I told my chat friends.

The internet felt like a secret world I could divulge secrets or make confessions to and not have to deal with blowback or consequences. That was probably a dangerous attitude back then, but an outright impossible one now. My mom will text me these days over a frowning emoji in a Facebook post.

Things were going well, so I decided to broach a more dangerous topic.

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What a blessing that the bot cut that statement short. I was a sophomore in high school during the 2000 election, and I had Opinions. They were about as valuable as any high school sophomore’s opinions, which is to say they had next-to-no value, and are best left unsaid.

Which is exactly what the bot did. I was starting to like this guy.

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Haha, me too, CaptainH. Me too.

For a bot that’s randomly stringing together text chain probabilities, I think it does a good job of communicating the kind of teenager I was, and it’s certainly more interesting and less mortifying than reading a 5 mb text file. It’s helped me tread lightly into the past, without too much banging my head against the desk in shame.

If you want to have a conversation with teen me, you can do so in the window below. Just type where it says “Enter text here,” hit enter, and wait. If I say anything embarrassing or incriminating, just think back to the stuff you posted online when you were 16 before you throw the first stone.

You can always make your own.