In which we blog about the marvellous intricacies of writing and editing.

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Thursday, 13 February 2014

Chocolate Bot - Markov Chocolates and deliciously bad copy

OK, I'm hereby calling a halt to our toe-dip into the world of chocolate box hyperbole, because frankly, even our most unashamedly purple copywriting has been bested by an algorithm. Well, an algorithm and an extremely witty programmer.

I first encountered technologist and designer Tom Armitage when I interviewed him for Maker World magazine. The focus of the article was The Literary Operator, a cross-genre collaboration with sci-fi author Jeff Noon. Armitage created and programmed the Operator, a fantastic device that can scan a book in a moment and print a micro-remix of its contents. Taking inspiration from metatexts throughout history, the experiment was irreverent, sharp and audience-addicting. In addition to his literary operations, however, Tom has also been masquerading as the founder of fictional confectionary empire, Markov Chocolates.

Sound classy, doesn't it? A spot of Moscow mystique. They're probably served in gold-wrapped pyramids to silk-clad dignitaries by an ever-indulgent ambassador. Following them on Twitter treats the reader to mouthwatering, if completely over-the-top, descriptions of their wares. There's just one catch: they're not real. The company aren't real, (brace yourself) the chocolates aren't real and since imaginary companies don't employ staff, there's no earnest marketing bard coming up with those florid tweets. So what's the explanation behind the ghost in the machine?

It's actually fairly simple. @MarkovChocolate is a Twitter account inspired by sickly-sweet chocolate box copywriting, and run by a bot using Markov Chains. These are mathematical systems, used to model everything from games of chance to Google's PageRank mechanism. Each chain is a memoryless process, i.e. it remembers only the last thing it created, and bases its next creation on that. So each flight of fondant fancy uses the information from its last tweet, in combination with its overall pool of gooey phrasing, to create the next micro-message. The resulting descriptions are brilliantly odd and tongue-in-cheek, yet still strangely plausible.

There's a warning in this for copywriters. Lay off the liqueurs when composing for chocolate boxes, or you might find your florid phrasing immortalised in a Markov remix. Something a little like this, perhaps:

Just for fun, why not see if you can outdo Markov Chocolates (and our own nauseating attempts here and here) in the comments? Dollop on the saccharine and dial down the moderation for an excellent exercise in style.

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