On Salmon, Trout, and Chat

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Several friends of mine have reported strange chat sessions over the past few months. The chats are a form of mediated communication between strangers that seems either like a prank or an art project (or perhaps both). The scenario generally goes like this:

1. A chatbot (posing as a human) starts up a conversation via AOL Instant Messenger (or another chat service). Some bots (like TheGreatHatsby) use a single, distinctive opening line like, "I say, old bean, have you seen my hat?" while others use a randomized statement intended to spark a conversation.

2. Unbeknownst to the first user, the chatbot has also initiated a similar chat session with another user.

3. When both randomly targeted users reply (generally with a statement along the lines of, "Who is this??"), the chatbot connects both bewildered users via some behind-the-scenes magic, and bizarre chats ensue.

Because to both users it appears that the other user initiated the chat session, confusion is common in the first lines of the chat -- but very often, it settles down into an actual conversation between two complete strangers. Here are the first few lines of a chat session from a Livejournal user who was recently contacted by the RegretfulCoho bot:

[01:18] RegretfulCoho: Hi.
[01:19] thesquidflu: Hi!
[01:19] RegretfulCoho: lol What's up
[01:19] thesquidflu: not much!
[01:19] thesquidflu: How about you?
[01:19] RegretfulCoho: Not much at all, who is this by the by?
[01:20] thesquidflu: I'm... Brandon! Who's this?
[01:20] RegretfulCoho: Brandon who?
[01:20] thesquidflu: [last name redacted]
[01:20] RegretfulCoho: Do I know you from somewhere?
[01:21] thesquidflu: I... I don't know!
[01:21] thesquidflu: hehe
[01:21] thesquidflu: where didja get my aim?
[01:21] RegretfulCoho: You just now msg'd me
[01:21] thesquidflu: You messaged me first, according to my aim!
[01:22] RegretfulCoho: Ok
[01:22] RegretfulCoho: Is this a bot program?
[01:22] thesquidflu: Nope!
[01:22] thesquidflu: hahahah
[01:22] thesquidflu: :D
[01:22] thesquidflu: I'm a real boy!

The chat continues for almost half an hour, as the users collaboratively try to figure out what's going on, and eventually land on the Wikipedia page explaining the phenomenon. These chatbots are often called Salmon bots (the "Coho" referenced in the chat log above is a species of salmon) or Trout bots, as the bots themselves adopt various fishy names and implement different strategies for passing messages. Some of the bots actually filter the conversations, removing screen names and words related to bots. Others simply connect two users and let the chat happen.

A Livejournal community has formed around this phenomenon, called themissinghat. Users post their experiences, including chat logs -- some are filled with profanity and confusion, others are just friendly chats between strangers. You can now even request a Salmon bot connection, in case you want to try out the randomness for yourself. Wow.

Have you been chatted up by a fishbot? Share your experiences in the comments.

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September 15, 2008 - 9:21am
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