It Turns Out JesusLovingCoho Is Gay After All: You've Been Fishbotted
"You were right, dude! I am a repressed homosexual. How cool is that?" If you received a message like this one from an unknown AOL Instant Messenger screen name, your decision to reply was probably comprised of equal parts reluctance, curiosity and confusion. But you probably did reply. And you're definitely not alone.
A group calling itself Project Upstream is apparently responsible for the confused conversations onAIM. Project Upstream claims on their site to be "an organization dedicated to promoting social ideals through the use of exciting new technology." However, they do not specify which social ideals they promote, nor is this technology new. In fact, hatbots caused a bit of a stir on LiveJournal back in the summer of 2006. Project Upstream has simply started targeting users of micro-blogging site Twitter, connecting them via AIM bots with screen names ending in "coho," popularly called fishbots. It's probably safe to say Twitter's fast-paced nature and explosive growth have exposed a much larger population to these new "coho" fishbots than LiveJournal's hatbots ever did.
Project Upstream and other similar bots use a program to scrape recently updated public pages and profiles on social networking sites looking for AIM screen names, and connect people to one another randomly and unprompted. Unsuspecting AIM users receive a message from an unknown screen name and, if they reply, are connected to another AIM user whose screen name was also scraped from a public page.
A quick search on Twitter for coho or fishbot reveals the whole range of the community's reaction. Some people are excited by the serendipitous opportunities fishbots can create by bringing strangers together:
- Aestasbeyond writes, "IT'S STILL SNOWING. :( Also I was coho'd and enjoyed a rather pleasant conversation. Thanks, discord-spreading AIM bots!"
- Dreamnotoftoday writes, "My new #fishbot hobby - turning salmoning into drug deals. My success rate is alarmingly high."
Others express frustration:
- Middleclasstool writes, "Whoever these *coho fuckers are who keep bugging me on AIM, please go eat a shitbag made of dicks."
There is no indication that these connections are inherently harmful; communications from fishbots may include provocative text, but no links. One can safely ignore fishbot messages without consequence, as a connection to another person is only made after a reply, and it's easy to opt out of future communication from fishbots by replying to your next fishbot connection with "$optout" (as outlined here). Fishbot encounters might best be understood as a slightly more aggressive version of Twitter's own public forum. Rather than requiring users to actively seek one another out in the public feed, fishbots indiscriminately pick strangers out and push them towards one another. In the best cases, fishbotting may increase social cohesion among Twitter users by creating denser connections. In the worst cases, some feelings may be hurt and some screen names blocked.
If you haven't given it a chance yet, say hello to your next fishbot and be friendly. You might end up with a new follower.