Writer Joanne McNeil went on vacation earlier this year, but didn't want to lose touch with people she knows online. So she set up a chatbot to carry on her friendships without her. And the results were intriguingly weird.

She first sent out this email:

I am going to be very busy over the next few months and will have trouble responding to correspondence without a major time delay. Please talk with my chatbot if you'd like to catch up. I've programmed her to speak in a manner very similar to my own. You will see the questions she asks are much like the kind of things I might ask you over drinks. And her responses to your questions are in what MyCyberTwin calls a "warm intellectual" style of conversation engagement.

If you are also busy you might consider setting up your own chatbot and they can speak to each other in lieu of an actual conversation between us. So you know in advance, these conversations will be recorded.

I like that she invites other chatbots to talk to her chatbot. Very friendly!

Then McNeil chose a bot program, and describes what she set it up to do:

First the bot offers visitors the choice of a private or public conversation: "Thanks for stopping by. If you'd like to keep the conversation off the record just type OTR." I wanted to give participants the option to keep responses totally private. But even public, there is the option of anonymity. Participants chose to enter real names or screennames. Some of my friends picked screennames I recognize from various online identities, some used aliases that kept me guessing. With a few of these conversations, I have no idea who the participant actually is.

What happens when you go on vacation, and leave a chatbot behind I deliberately chose a vague photo of myself, a screengrab of me on a webcam. I'm a vague apparition beamed from the ocean of Solaris, not a high-res glossy plastic thing here to leverage my personal brand strategy. I have a feeling we trust grainy images of people over crisp ones. That some remoteness makes one feel closer….more casual, less professional.

Mostly the bot would ask people questions about how they felt about technology. You can see some of the responses, and her analysis of the experiment on her blog, Tomorrow Museum.

McNeil told io9:

Since going public with [the bot], I've heard from old friends and readers of my blog who never would have otherwise reached out. Basically I'm using it as email with a game layer to bridge the awkwardness of contacting someone with whom you're not regularly in touch.

Just the other day, someone used the chatbot to tell an incredible science fiction story. I have no idea who the author is, but it's imaginative and really suspenseful.

You can read the chatbot-inspired scifi story here (it takes a while to get going, but about two-thirds of the way through things get really unhinged).

via Tomorrow Museum