Twitter Bots and the Possibilities for New Identities
This bot randomly matches flags from different countries to create new imaginary ones.
"Djibouti + Eritrea = Eribouti" via @FlagMashupBot
Flags help us navigate the seas, demarcating friends and foes with tiny patches of line and color. They are graphic design in its primordial form, transmitting meaning with the bare minimum, and showing allegiances in symbols bold enough to be seen from very far away. They’re semi-sacred objects—especially in countries like the United States, Brazil, and Turkey—where the seriousness with which people take their flag and national anthem is extreme, and can be a little unnerving for foreign visitors. Flag desecration is a crime in many countries, and the guidelines for how to make, fly, and dispose of flags can be incredibly exacting. It's clear that these might just be symbols, but you should not mess with them.
Recently, a friend leaned in conspiratorially to me with his phone, and I expected a dirty text or an offbeat meme but, instead, there was a Twitter feed: Flag Mash Up Bot. As the name suggests, Flag Mash Up Bot is not a person but a Python script that cleverly smooshes two flags together, creating a new one with a hybrid country name. When Luxembourg and Australia are joined, the Aussie Union Jack and Southern Cross Stars are rendered in Luxembourg’s pale blue and white, and the tweet proclaims "this new country is called Austbourg." Similarly, Uganda and Sweden’s merger spits out a black Nordic cross on a yellow background, and the nation state “Ugaden” is born! The bot doesn’t stop there, it also reshuffles the imagery of historical flags in novel, funny, and provocative ways.
Part of the delight in meddling with the symbolism of flags lies with the ease by which lovers of the nation state can be provoked. At first, the Bot spit flags out every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day. However, when it dropped a mix of Iran and Israel, or “Islamic Republic of Israel,” flag at 2:30 AM it prompted several hundred angry comments, and caused the creator to wonder if he shouldn’t “turn it off at night.” A UK-Ireland mash-up, aka “United Ireland,” led to a series of replies so virulent that the Bot’s creator, a 21-year-old computer science student from Spain, had to step in and remind people that “this is randomly created by the Python script running the bot.” He later pinned a tweet to the top of the feed: “do not relate any mashup to politics or hate speech… I did this bot to generate random flags not to create a war about nationalism and politics in the replies / Lets just have a good time.” Yet, the script seems to favor neighborly pairings and continues to provoke, with the would-be residents of “Pakidia” and “Isranon” voicing their displeasure in 280 characters or less.
The Bot now spits out flags a bit slower (roughly once an hour), jumbling together the graphic forms used to distinguish political movements (like the Gadsden "Don't Tread On Me" flag), free states (including California's bear Flag revolters), and nations. A sizable following shows that flag enthusiasts are many and a sundry lot, they include: design geeks, armchair historians, and military buffs. Knowing a bit about heraldry is what makes scrolling through the feed fun, it becomes a sort of vexillologists' parlor game. Historic flags, including those of the Confederate States of America and the Japanese Empire, add a verboten element to the project churning up the dead states that we’d rather forget. Fortunately, the Bot’s creator has omitted the red and black banner of the Third Reich, perhaps sensing that some toxic symbols have such a strong shelflife that they can’t yet be released from quarantine.
Having fun with the flag form is something artists have been doing for a long time. Faux patriotism functions as art in the work of Neue Slowenische Kunst, a.k.a. NSK, the artist group whose projects include the long-running band Laibach, and the creation of graphic material for a (mostly) fake state with a totalitarian visual indentity. Another widely celebrated example of flag-creation is David Hammons’s “African-American Flag” from 1990, a piece that is both pop, but also deeply laden with meaning. Made for temporary display at an Amsterdam exhibition of African American artists, this fabric sculpture quickly proliferated and has been flown in dozens of contexts that extend beyond the world of art. Its success comes from its reworking the Stars and Stripes in the green, black, and red of the Pan-African movement, creating a new identity while sending up the United States' canned patriotism.
Even as we proclaim a post-national era, our captivation with flags betrays some essentialist ideas about countries and their inhabitants. One Bot-fan was inspired by the mash ups to create character art for ‘new’ countries like Ugaden and Costastan (Pakistan plus Costa Rica). The drawings read as ethnographic portraits of turban-ed warriors flexing muscles and hefty swords, and are a little bit troubling. It seems that new hybridity might not release us from stereotypes, so much as replace them with a whole new set. While the Bot’s creator was aiming "just to create the images,” he notes that he’s happy that many fans have reached out to say they love the project. In a world, and a Twittersphere, defined by flag-waving mouth-foaming nationalists, it’s heartening to see that identities can still be remixed.