Lena Dunham has apologized so often that a new Twitter bot, @LenaDunhamApols, is rattling off satirical versions of her slip-ups – from “listing Rachel Dolezal as one of her most influential POCs while storming an Oscar acceptance speech,” to saying sorry she “modeled her Brooklyn apartment on the ‘minimalist industrial vibe’ of Auschwitz at the Holocaust Museum.”
For the creator of the account, it was simply a reaction to what he was already seeing in the news. “I’m not even really an avid follower of Lena Dunham, but every bloody second, I see ‘Lena Dunham apologizes for something culturally insensitive’ on my feed,” says Jess Wheeler, who built the application that creates the tweets – known as a bot – and runs the account while working as a partner at a creative firm in Melbourne, Australia. “I Googled ‘Lena Dunham Apologizes,’ and there were, like, 2.5 million hits. And I thought, ‘she almost needs an apology writer.’ I realized that I could make a bot to create her apologies for her.”
Wheeler was inspired to launch the bot after Dunham recently came to the defense of Murray Miller, a writer on her HBO show Girls who was accused of raping actress Aurora Perrineau in 2012. Dunham released a statement shortly after the accusation surfaced, saying that the event was one of “3% of assault cases that are misrepresented every year,” cracking open the social media floodgates of disappointed and angry Girls fans. She soon apologized for the apology, saying “I naively believed it was important to share my perspective on my friend’s situation as it has transpired behind the scenes over the last few months. I now understand that it was absolutely the wrong time to come forward with such a statement and I am so sorry.” That was enough for Wheeler. “She had been all about saying ‘trust women, believe women’, except when someone near her was called out. It was just crazy,” he says of the Lenny Letter founder.
But this wasn’t Wheeler’s first foray into the world of bots – back in 2016, he’d reached out to the creator of @Thinkpiecebot to gain the technical knowhow to make his own bot. That May, Wheeler launched @movierebootbot, an account that created fictional film projects, like “A reboot of Planet of the Apes written by Joss Whedon starring a drunken, racist Mel Gibson and no one wears pants, ever.”
So when inspiration struck him for Dunham, he and his colleague Liv Croagh were able to use that same script. Croagh and Wheeler are the editorial brains behind the jokes on the feed, even though the Twitter bot is the one assembling the jokes; essentially, the duo will create lists of settings, objects and names, and the bot randomly selects items from those lists and pieces them together. The result is fictional apologies that could very well be issued by Lena Dunham herself.
Wheeler has a history of Internet troublemaking. His previous endeavors include a viral advertisement on Gumtree (Australia’s version of Craigslist) for an old grill that Wheeler dubbed as an “Enchanted Barbecue” that held magical powers like “bedding Scarlett Johansson on the back of a unicorn.” The household appliance in question also came recommended by Albert Einstein, who said “Two things are infinite: the universe and this barbecue; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
“I’ve just kind of always been coming up with ideas for clients and thinking of stuff to make, and these bots are an extension of that,” One of those ideas hit the Internet as @GovGoogles, an account that spits out fictional searches from the Australian government; Wheeler says he got this particular idea about two years ago, when the Australian government decided it would take and keep its citizens’ metadata. “The joke here is that I’m somehow seeing what the government is Googling, and sharing those searches through the bot”––things like “how to negotiate with a giant hate carrot” and “is the rainbow scarf the new burqa”. Wheeler said he received pressure to make a Donald Trump version of the Google searches, but didn’t want to give Trump more PR during the election. Once he actually won, Wheeler launched @TrumpGoogles on Instagram (the feed also has a Twitter bot).
Although he admits that getting recognition for the bot is thrilling, Wheeler says the ultimate payoff is getting messages from followers who say the jokes serve as a much-needed dose of comic relief in what has quickly become a humorless social and political climate. “Humor is how I deal with this world and life, otherwise I’d just go insane,” he says, emphasizing that the personal connections forged with strangers on the Internet over a few shared laughs are a key driver for satirical accounts like this. “Ultimately, I don’t think the account has a long shelf life, but it’s hard to say. Lena Dunham might have something to apologize for next week, in which case people will keep reading. We input three or four new variables a day to keep the bot going. If the ideas dry up or if the joke gets tired, we’ll know that it’s run its course.”