@Preacher_Bot, You, and Me: An Update

Chris Cantwell

As some of you may recall, a while back I took a rainy afternoon and built a twitterbot in the hopes of exploring the contours of contemporary evangelicalism. Dissatisfied with theories that cast evangelicalism as a discursive construction with a lexicon determined by religious elites, I designed an application that remixed the tweets of Twitter's most prominent preachers in order to see if an evangelical really could be spoken into being. The result, @Preacher_Bot, has been churning out content for a full seven months now--nearly ten thousand tweets in all.

As a research experiment, @Preacher_Bot has been fun. In some ways it does confirm the argument of scholars like Susan Friend Harding who claim that evangelicalism is a language that allows individuals to narrate themselves into a movement. Even at its most nonsensical, a solid block of @Preacher_Bot's thoughts do read like those of an evangelical tastemaker--albeit one with terrible punctuation. The gospel according to @Preacher_Bot is one of grace and unending love that individuals must tirelessly seek to receive or make manifest in their own lives. And it always comes with a study guide you can buy at Wal Mart or Amazon.

But the experiment's limits have also become evident over the last several months.

For starters, there are ways in which @Preacher_Bot has said more about the study of evangelicalism than about evangelicalism itself. As the bot's creator, I am able to see how everyone interacts with the profile--who likes, retweets, or replies to a tweet. The response has been interesting. Often people approach the bot as a kind of evangelical gaffe machine, a project that unintentionally pulls back the curtain on what's "really" going on in those megachurches. When @Preacher_Bot has preached about money, book sales, and occasionally even sex, someone invariably chimes in with an "A ha! We've finally exposed them for who they are!" This was not my intent. The point was to test whether something akin to an evangelical could emerge from a program that merely copied, reordered, a pasted the words of an evangelical leader. The answer seems to be a somewhat qualified yes.

But I have also realized that I should not have been surprised that a program that draws from such a homogenous corpus would end up sounding like its source of origin. If you're only quoting Joel Osteen, Max Lucado, John Maxwell, John Piper, and Rick Warren, you're going to sound Osteen-Lucado-Maxwell-Piper-Warren-ish. As I explained in my original post on @Preacher_Bot, my concern with discursive conceptions of evangelicalism is that they often paint laypeople as dupes who unwittingly become a part of a religious movement by narrating their life a certain way. Such an approach downplays the contingencies, exigencies, and creativity of ordinary people who choose when, how, and if to employ the idioms they inherit. I thought that highlighting the instability of evangelical discourse en masse would reveal this gap. What I have come to realize, however, is that this gap can really only be exposed and explored by way of comparison. We need to juxtapose the collective pontification of religious leaders with those of their followers. We needed, in short, another twitterbot.

So allow me to introduce you to @Bot_Believer.
Built using the exact same program that runs @Preacher_Bot, @Bot_Believer remixes the tweets of five somewhat randomly selected laypeople in order to see how speechmaking from the pew might depart from pronounces from the pulpit. My criteria for selecting these laypeople was simple. First, their account had to be public. I wasn't going to bother someone who wanted some Twitter privacy. Secondly, they had to have tweeted at least 3,600 times. Anything less and there would not be enough for the bot to mash up. And finally, they had to be obviously and identifiably a lay person. No youth pastors, church employees, speakers, writers, evangelists, or anyone else whose professional identity and religious identity are the same. (Not that those two identities are entirely separate, but the distinction, I think, is important.) I had also hoped that these laypeople might reflect the demographic diversity of American evangelicalism, but finding people that fit the first three criteria was hard enough. Especially the high tweet threshold. Twitter claims fully 44% of users have never tweeted, so in the end I had to go with the most verbose people I found. As a result my sample is likely younger and whiter than your average Joel Osteen follower, but I can only spend so much time looking through the megapastor's 4.3 million followers. In the end I selected three women and two men, one from each of @Preacher_Bot's source accounts, plugged them into the the program, and set it free.
I have decided not to reveal @Bot_Believer's sources in order to respect the privacy of these individuals. While Twitter is a public venue, these individuals do not claim to be public figures and I want to accord them that respect. But I can tell you that two of the subjects are identifiably college students, one a recent college graduate, and the other two are parents of infants or elementary school children. All of them, however, appear to be white, between the ages of 18 and 40, and are in no way professional ministers. In addition to the two students, two are teachers, and one is an IT professional.

So if you're on Twitter and interested in how the digital religion of ordinary people might depart from the digital religion of ecclesiastical elites, give @Bot_Believer a follow. It's been running for a few days and already some trends are showing up--from the blending of sports commentary and Bible verses to the role friends and family (and not faith) play in sustaining an individual's religious identity. While we'll have to wait and see whether this additional voice will actually help analyze the discursive world of contemporary evangelicalism, it should be fun to follow along.

And for those of you who are wondering, "Why @Bot_Believer and not @Believer_Bot?" Well, I would have liked to have gone with the phonetically similar names, except @Believer_Bot is already a Justin Bieber fanbot that tweets out pictures of the pop star at regular intervals. So do *not* follow the Belieber bot. Unless you're into that sort of thing. But that's a digital religious phenomenon I'm trying to avoid.


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