Classic Reads and Erotica Written by a Robot

On the 13th May this year we posted ‘Explaain(er) Journalism and Long Form Writing at Esquire’, in which we talked about a resurgence in publishing of longer reads. Nieman Lab writes that the experiment is proving to be successful for Esquire, and that other publishers are also digitizing their archives and resurfacing work of historic interest.

Esquire, of course, isn’t the only legacy publication that’s taking advantage of archival material once accessible only via bound volumes or microfiche. Earlier this month, the Associated Press republished its original coverage of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination 150 years ago. (They buried the lede!). Gawker Media’s Deadspin has The Stacks, which republishes classic sports journalism originally published elsewhere. For its 125th anniversary last year, The Wall Street Journal published more than 300 archival articles. The New York Times runs a Twitter account, NYT Archives, that resurfaces archival content from the Times. It also runs First Glimpses, a series that examines the first time famous people or concepts appeared in the paper.

Further evidence that publishers are backing the classic long form was perhaps provided by the interest surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s novel ‘Go Set a Watchman’, and the competition between The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, as they both ‘exclusively’ published the first chapter ahead of general release in bookshops. If it was a competition, the Guardian might be said to have won, with their interactive description of the journey home to Maycomb, taken by Scout, now portrayed as a 26 year old woman.

An interesting storytelling experiment with a relevance for journalists was carried out by Daniela Hernandez which she writes about this week in Fusion. Using Char-rnn - an open source recurrent neural network (an algorithm which predicts the most likely next word in a sentence), and hundreds of works of rights free digital erotic literature, she built her own ‘Erotibot’ and set it to work on writing a new steamy fantasy. Whilst the results are not great, she writes a good account of how a journalist with no coding experience can build a writing robot from scratch.

Erotibot is a simple AI, so he needed a little help to get the ball rolling. I asked Fusion colleagues to share the first line of the erotic novel they’d write if they had the time, and used those phrases as Erotibot’s prompts, including “Hi, my little nibble” and “shę had a strong back, like a teenage boy.” (Without a phrase from me to get his creative sparks flying, he’s silent.) In less than a minute, he was telling me a story about lovers “talking to the sperm at the carefully in love straight off as I started talking about the room.”

Is the journo-bot next?