PSA: 5-Point Writer's Block Checklist

My name is M Harold Page ("Martin" is actually fine) and I don't really believe in Writers Block.

Yes, OK, it does describe a situation: "Oh look, there's a writer banging their head on the desk and weeping with frustration(OMG is that blood?)"

And that was me for the last couple of months. My productivity plummeted. The contract I was working on seemed complicated and hard to focus on...

Then I had a very overdue eye test and the optician regarded my current reading glasses and said, "I wouldn't be wearing those."

It wasn't my brain. It wasn't my Fickle Muse (Oh The Angst). It was my damned eyes.

Not getting around for my eye test had cost me weeks of productivity and even begun to trigger self doubt. Was I really able to hack it as a writer? Would it make me happy?

Stupid! Stupid! STUPID!

Except when I started talking to other people about this, they had similar stories. External stuff - illness, eyes, depression, RSI - seeps into our lives in imperceptible increments. We're like a lobster going, "Ooo. Seafood! Where is that nice smell is coming from?" We don't realise we're the one being cooked until too late!

And that's the wider experience. Writer's block always turns out to be either some issue with skill, or else some non-writing specific issue revealed by the attempt to write.

So, inspired by the Checklist Manifesto, here's a checklist to get you out of the cooking pot. I've listed the most common issues first, but they are, alas, not mutually exclusive...

1. Is your literary skillset broken?

In aspiring and new writers, "blocked" usually just means, "stymied by some deficiency in craft". I got some evil looks when I declared this on a panel recently, but it's true and it's the embarrassing story of the first decade of my serious attempts to write.

Do you actually know how to write your story? Really? Some of it you can learn on the job, but if that's not working you need to look at similar published books with an analytical eye, and perhaps read some good writing books*. 

*This is obviously the moment to pimp my book on writing, as praised by Hannu Rajaniemi and Ken McLeod. However if you are penniless and send me a nice email, you can have one of a limited number of free copies; it was written in part as a letter to my miserable younger self, so sharing it gives me some sense of closure.

2. Is your story broken?

If you're going round in circles with a chapter or scene, something else is usually wrong.

Typically, the problem is either (a) further back - you need to add things to Chapter 3 to make Chapter 7 work (don't rewrite at this stage, just make a note) - or (b) further up, at a higher level of abstraction, which is a nice way of saying that your plot doesn't have enough interesting conflict. (Yes, see above for a link to my book.)

3. Is your writing setup broken?

If you put in a lot of hours writing, there's a good chance that the real reason your writing is grinding to a halt is that your typing chair is uncomfortable or that you need new glasses (blush), or that your monitor needs replacing, or your space is badly lit, or wrongly lit or... Gradually you become reluctant to sit down and work, or quickly exhausted when you do.

So check your ergonomics, have your eyes tested, update your writing machine, be realistic about your writing space. Whatever it takes.

4. Are you broken?

It's hard to work creatively when you are operating below par, e.g. because you are ill, depressed, stressed by work, or in need of a holiday.  This is all miserable stuff, but approached pragmatically (rather than sympathetically), it divides up into the following:

Temporarily Broken - Work sucks at the moment. Your granny just died. You have flu. You just became a parent... None of this will last. It's time to take a break and sort yourself out. In the mean time, feed your creativity by reading books you enjoy, or by researching around your storyworld. 

Forcing yourself to write can just result in spewing out drivel that you subsequently delete or waste days untangling and then delete anyway.

Long Term Broken - You have ME or MS... You are in an ongoing battle with depression or cancer... Or you're just trapped in a dysfunctional work or domestic situation... Whatever it is, it's nothing that you can just fix. (Nor can you just buck yourself up and get on with it or [insert unthinking crass advice here usually relating to diet or copper bracelets].)

People do write successfully despite this kind of thing. You don't have to - perhaps you have enough on your plate? - but assuming you want to...

The people who manage it appear to work around rather than despite whatever the problem is. This takes discipline, opportunism - working when you can! - but also help from other people. It means relying on partners to give you space when you need it, and on beta readers to boost your productivity by acting as a second brain. And it can mean doing a mental judo trick where the writing becomes a refuge. 

5. Is your mental approach broken?

This is the one that people leap at because it's what writers are supposed to do: angst, wallow in self doubt, agonise about single sentences.

I left this until last for a reason. There's this bug in humans that we misattribute feelings;  we bond when drunk or high, we fall in love on holiday, we think our life is crap when we have flu. So your crippling performance anxiety, your imposter syndrome, your fear of exposing your inner self to the scrutiny of the reading public? They might all be spurious explanations for not being able to work - go recheck points 1-4.

Then again, these feelings might be entirely real.

Though not unique to writing, writing has a unique way of pinging them. And perhaps there's something about writers that tends to make us vulnerable. People who want to sit quietly in private and type stories aren't necessarily thick-skinned extroverts and "just do-it" extreme life hackers. Often we don't have much experience of putting ourselves "out there" and writing being a private thing, we don't have many role models to hand.

There's lots of advice around on how to deal with what Steve Pressfield calls "resistance". To my British sensibilities, it all sounds like what you'd get if Rambo became an evangelical preacher; it goes against the grain to Make A Fuss. However, a Stiff Upper Lip won't help much because that means giving mental real estate to these unuseful feelings. Instead, let me offer two suggestions that work for me:

First, try not to do the angsting and creating at the same time. Make a deal with yourself that nothing goes out the door until you've thought about. Do the writing for fun and make the quality control a different task entirely. I call this "hiding behind the next draft".

Second, try to get a realistic handle on what competent writing looks like in your chosen genre. If you have an objective yardstick, your writing won't feel so sucky...

...which takes us back to #1 Is your skillset broken?

M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of books like Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: "Holy ****!") and is planning some more historical fiction. For his take on writing,  read Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (Ken MacLeod: "...very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story." Hannu Rajaniemi: "...find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.")

FAQ: The Laundry Files--series timeline

I've been writing Laundry Files stories since 1999, and I recently passed the million word mark. That's a lot of stuff! And it occurs to me that while some of you have been following them from the beginning, a lot of people come to them cold in the shape of one story or another.

So below the fold I'm going to explain the Laundry Files time line, and give a running order for the series—including short stories as well as novels.

Typographic conventions: story titles are rendered in italics (like this). Book titles are presented in boldface (thus).

Publication dates are presented like this: (pub: 2016). The year in which a story is set is presented like so: (set: 2005).

The list is sorted in story order rather than publication order.

The Atrocity Archive (set: 2002; pub: 2002-3)

  • The short novel which started it all. Originally published in an obscure Scottish SF digest-format magazine called Spectrum SF, it ran from 2002 to 2003, and introduced our protagonist Bob Howard, his (eventual) love interest Mo O'Brien, and a bunch of eccentric minor characters and tentacled horrors.

The Concrete Jungle (set: 2003: pub: see below)

  • Novella, set a year after The Atrocity Archive, in which Bob is awakened in the middle of the night to go and count the concrete cows in Milton Keynes. Winner of the 2005 Hugo award for best SF/F novella.

The Atrocity Archives (set 2002-03, pub: 2003 (hbk), 2006 (trade ppbk))

  • A smaller US publisher, Golden Gryphon, liked The Atrocity Archive and wanted to publish it, but considered it to be too short on its own. So The Concrete Jungle was written, and along with an afterword they were published together as a two-story collection/episodic novel, The Atrocity Archives (note the added 's' at the end). A couple of years later, Ace (part of Penguin group) picked up the US trade and mass market paperback rights and Orbit published it in the UK. (Having won a Hugo award in the meantime really didn't hurt; it's normally quite rare for a small press item such as TAA to get picked up and republished like this.)

The Jennifer Morgue (set: 2005, pub: 2007 (hbk), 2008 (trade ppbk))

  • Golden Gryphon asked for a sequel, hence the James Bond episode in what was now clearly going to be a trilogy of comedy Lovecraftian/spy books. Orbit again took UK rights, while Ace picked up the paperbacks. Because I wanted to stick with the previous book's two-story format, I wrote an extra short story:

Pimpf (set: 2006, pub: collected in The Jennifer Morgue)

  • A short story set in what I think of as the Chibi-Laundry continuity; Bob ends up inside a computer running a Neverwinter Nights server (hey, this was before World of Warcraft got big). Chibi-Laundry stories are self-parodies and probably shouldn't be thought of as canonical. (Ahem: there's a big continuity blooper tucked away in this one what comes back to bite me in later books because I forgot about it.)

Down on the Farm (novelette: set 2007, pub. 2008,

  • Novelette: Bob has to investigate strange goings-on at a care home for Laundry agents whose minds have gone. Introduces Krantzberg Syndrome, which plays a major role later in the series.

Equoid (novella: set 2007, pub: 2013,

  • A novella set between The Jennifer Morgue and The Fuller Memorandum; Bob is married to Mo and working for Iris Carpenter. Bob learns why Unicorns are Bad News. Won the 2014 Hugo award for best SF/F novella. Also published as the hardback novella edition Equoid by Subterranean Press.

The Fuller Memorandum (set: 2008, pub: 2010 (US hbk/UK ppbk))

  • Third novel, first to be published in hardback by Ace, published in paperback in the UK by Orbit. The title is an intentional nod to Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor), author of the Quiller series of spy thrillers—but it's actually an Anthony Price homage. This is where we begin to get a sense that there's an overall Laundry Files story arc, and where I realized I wasn't writing a trilogy. Didn't have a short story trailer or afterword because I flamed out while trying to come up with one before the deadline. Bob encounters skullduggery within the organization and has to get to the bottom of it before something really nasty happens: also, what and where is the misplaced "Teapot" that the KGB's London resident keeps asking him about?

Overtime (novelette: set 2009, pub 2009,

  • A heart-warming Christmas tale of Terror. Shortlisted for the Hugo award for best novelette, 2010.

Three Tales from the Laundry Files (ebook-only collection)

  • Collection consisting of Down on the Farm, Overtime, and Equoid published the as an ebook.

The Apocalypse Codex (set: 2010, pub: 2012 (US hbk/UK ppbk))

  • Fourth novel, and a tribute to the Modesty Blaise comic strip and books by Peter O'Donnell. A slick televangelist is getting much to cosy with the Prime Minister, and the Laundry—as a civil service agency—is forbidden from investigating. We learn about External Assets, and Bob gets the first inkling that he's being fast-tracked for promotion. Won the Locus Award for best fantasy novel in 2013.

A Conventional Boy (set: ~2011-12, not yet written)

  • Projected interstitial novella, introducing Derek the DM (The Nightmare Stacks) and Camp Sunshine (The Delirium Brief). Not yet written.

The Rhesus Chart (set: spring 2013, pub: 2014 (US hbk/UK hbk))

  • Fifth novel, first of a new cycle remixing contemporary fantasy sub-genres (I got bored with British spy thriller authors). Subject: Banking, Vampires, and what happens when an agile programming team inside a merchant bank develops PHANG syndrome. First to be published in hardcover in the UK by Orbit.

  • Note that the books are now set much closer together. This is a key point: the world of the Laundry Files has now developed its own parallel and gradually diverging history as the supernatural incursions become harder to cover up. Note also that Bob is powering up (the Bob of The Atrocity Archive wouldn't exactly be able to walk into a nest of vampires and escape with only minor damage to his dignity). This is why we don't see much of Bob in the next two novels.

The Annihilation Score (set: summer/autumn 2013, pub: 2015 (US hbk/UK ppbk))

  • Sixth novel, first with a non-Bob viewpoint protagonist—it's told by Mo, his wife. Deals with superheroes, mid-life crises, nervous breakdowns, and the King in Yellow. We're clearly deep into ahistorical territory here as we have a dress circle box for the very last Last Night of the Proms, and Orbit's lawyers made me very carefully describe the female Home Secretary as clearly not being one of her non-fictional predecessors, not even a little bit.

The Nightmare Stacks (set: March-April 2014, pub: June 2016 (US hbk/UK ppbk))

  • Seventh novel, viewpoint character: Alex the PHANG. Deals with, well ... the Laundry has been so obsessed by CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN that they're almost completely taken by surprise when CASE NIGHTMARE RED happens. Features a Maniac Pixie Dream Girl and the return of Bob's Kettenkrad from The Atrocity Archive. Oh, and it also utterly destroys the major British city I grew up in, because revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

The Delirium Brief (set: May-June 2014, pub: due June 2017 (US hbk/UK ppbk))

  • Eighth novel, viewpoint character: Bob again, and no longer pastiching other works or genres. Deals with the aftermath of The Nightmare Stacks; opens with Bob being grilled live on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman and goes rapidly downhill from there. (I'm guessing that if the events of the previous novel had just taken place, the BBC's leading current affairs news anchor might have deferred his retirement for a couple of months ...)

The Labyrinth Index (set: winter 2014, pub: not confirmed, not yet written)

  • Projected ninth novel, not yet confirmed (possibly pub. June 2019). May be followed by 1-3 further novels.

That's all for now. I'll attempt to update this entry as I write/publish more material.

The unavoidable discussion

Right now, the British (and by British I mean London) press are currently obsessed with a single topic: the up-coming BRExit referendum on June 23rd, asking whether the UK should leave (or remain in) the EU.

(This topic is somewhat less visible in the Scottish media because we have a general election coming up on May 5th. Campaigning is currently frantic, with Labour and Conservatives scrabbling to come second, the Scottish Greens (not the same as the English Greens) looking to upset the Liberal Democrats in fourth place, and Pat Robertson presumably saying "I knew it". But I digress.)

I already blogged about the BRExit referendum back in early 2013, when it was still only an idiotic twinkling in David Cameron's eye, and I still maintain that it's basically just an internal Conservative Party power struggle—the stench of hypocrisy and opportunism hangs over the contenders. But I'm not going to bore you with arguments I already went over years ago. Instead, I'd like to kick open a discussion (noting the presence of lots of non-British readers on this blog: I'm intrigued to know how this very British lunacy looks from the outside) with two observations I didn't make the previous time round.

Firstly, the London-based press (who are overwhelmingly europhobic, mostly because they're owned by rich white billionaire tax exiles) are moaning about the Project Fear arguments deployed by the "stay" campaign. What they seem incapable of recognizing is that the fear, uncertainty, and doubt-based arguments directed against the BRExit campaign are identical to the arguments the pro-Brexit press were hurling at the Scottish Independence campaign during the Independence Referendum of 2015, because the proposed courses of action are equivalent. It appears that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander as well, and I'm coming dangerously close to overdosing on schadenfreude at the sight of conservative politicians who spent 2015 tub-thumping in the bully pulpit on the subject of how hard it would be for Scotland to maintain trade and travel and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world suddenly having to reverse themselves and defend their position against exactly the same arguments.

Bluntly: any argument that against Scottish Independence from the UK that merited consideration also works as an argument against British Exit from the EU.

Secondly, as with the Scottish Independence referendum, it's not about money. Most of the arguments being thrown around boil down to whether the British voter will be financially better or worse off in event of the BRExit vote passing. This is because most British voters are stupid, greedy, and think in the short-term (so, no different from anyone else) and this is therefore the lever that political campaigners like to pull.

But the UK and the EU are both about rather more than money. In the case of Scottish Independence, the argument was about the continued domination of a distinct Scottish national identity by a political agenda set from afar, by a caste located in the South-East of England. (For an American analogy: imagine if you lived in Massachussets or Washington but your political frame of reference was dictated from Mississippi or Alabama, without representation.)

And in the case of the EU ... the EU isn't really about mediating European arrest warrants or reciprocal rights of residence or setting standards for power consumption by vacuum cleaners. The EU is the current incarnation of an institution established in 1947 to ensure that never again would the nations of western Europe go to war with one another. And it has been staggeringly successful: no army has crossed the Rhine river in more than 70 years, and this is the longest period of peace on the Rhine since before the rise of the Roman Empire. This is the dog that doesn't bark, and therefore doesn't make the news. Some of you might point to NATO as being the instrument of peace, but I disagree: the existence of armies means that war is still possible, but it's the EU that has largely removed the motives for war.

I submit that breaking the institution that has given Europe the longest period of peace in recorded history would be a mistake—especially in pursuit of a goal as parochial as a Conservative Party leadership struggle. There are plenty of things wrong with the EU, viewed from the right or viewed from the left. But if your house has rising damp, you don't deal with the problem by burning it to the ground; you generally look for ways to repair it.

Rise Of The Trollbot

Hugh Hancock, your friendly neighbourhood crafter of tales about supernatural get-rich-quick schemes gone horribly wrong, back with another bit of musing on what the Chatbot Future holds... See also Part 1 - Sexbots and Part 2 - Magical Beasts

In "Accelerando", Charlie posited the idea of a swarm of legal robots, creating a neverending stream of companies which exchange ownership so fast they can't be tracked.

It's rather clear to me that the same thing is about to happen to social media. And possibly politics.

What makes me so sure?

Microsoft's Tay Chatbot. Oh, and the state of the art in Customer Relationship Management software.

Turing Test 2: Is The Bot Distinguishable From An Asshole?

Microsoft unleashed its conversational bot on Twitter, and 4chan's /pol/ unleashed their opinions - or possibly their sense of humour - on it in turn. Hours later, it was a racist asshole.

But that's not the interesting bit.

The interesting and worrying part of the entire test was that it became a plausible, creative racist asshole. A lot of the worst things that Tay is quoted as saying were the result of users abusing the "repeat" function, but not all. It came out with racist statements entirely off its own bat. It even made things that look disturbingly like jokes.

Add a bit of DeepMind-style regret-based learning to the entire process - optimising toward replies or retweets, say - and you have a bot that on first glance, and possibly second through fourth glance, is indistinguishable from a real, human shitposter.

A lot of ink has been spilled worrying about what this says about the Internet. But that's the wrong thing to worry about.

The right thing to worry about is what the Internet is going to look like after more than one Tay is unleashed on it.

More than a hundred. More than a thousand.

Have you ever joked that you wished you could clone yourself?

Well, it looks like if you're an extremist of any stripe who spends a lot of time on social media, you'll soon be able to fulfil that dream.

The Trollswarm Cometh

Swarms of real life, human trolls have already been able to achieve some remarkable things.

For example, there's the well-known incident where Time's Man Of The Year Poll met 4chan. Twice.

But real-life trolls have to sleep. They have to eat. Whilst it might not look like it, they get tired, and angry, and dispirited.

Chatbots don't.

And the only limit to the number of trollbots you can control is the amount of processing power they require. That might initially look like a pretty major limiter, given that machine-learning applications tend to require at least a single graphics card of some power each. But a), thanks to cloud computing that's actually pretty affordable - an Amazon GPU instance on Spot Pricing will cost you $0.13 an hour or a little over 2 dollars a day - and b) there's no reason that one instance of the trollbot software can't control hundreds of social media accounts all posting frantically.

So what does this mean?

1: Everyone Can Have Their Own Twitter Mob

Right now, if you want to have someone attacked by a horde of angry strangers, you need to be a celebrity. That's a real problem on Twitter and Facebook both, with a few users in particular becoming well-known for abusing their power to send their fans after people with whom they disagree.

But remember, the Internet's about democratising power, and this is the latest frontier. With a trollbot and some planning, this power will soon be accessible to anyone.

There's a further twist, too: the bots will get better. Attacking someone on the Internet is a task eminently suited to deep learning. Give the bots a large corpus of starter insults and a win condition, and let them do what trolls do - find the most effective, most unpleasant ways to attack someone online.

No matter how impervious you think you are to abuse, a swarm of learning robots can probably find your weak spot.

On a milder but no less effective note, even a single bot can have a devastating effect if handled carefully.

The rule of Internet debate is that, all else being equal, the poster with the most available time wins.

On its own, a bot probably can't argue convincingly enough to replace a human in, say, a Reddit thread on gender politics. But can it be used to produce some posts, bulk out rough comments, make short comments requiring longer answers, or otherwise increase the perceived available time of a poster tenfold?

Fear the automated sealion.

2: On The Internet, No-one Knows Their Friend Is A Dog.

In many ways, the straightforward trollswarm approach is the least threatening use of this technology. A much more insidious one is to turn the concept on its head - at least initially - and optimise the bots for friendliness.

Let's say you wish to drive a particular group of fly-fishers out of the fishing community online for good.

Rather than simply firing up a GPU instance and directing it to come up with the world's best fly-fishing insults, fire it up and direct it to befriend everyone in the fly-fishing community. This is eminently automatable: there are already plenty of tools out there which allow you to build up your Twitter following in a semi-automated manner (even after Twitter clamped down on "auto-following"), and Tay was already equipped to post memes. A decent corpus, a win condition of follows, positive-sentiment messages and RTs, and a bot could become a well-respected member of a social media community in months.

THEN turn the bot against your enemies. Other humans will see the fight too. If your bot's doing a half-decent job - and remember, it's already set up to optimise for RTs - real humans, who have actual power and influence in the community, will join in. They may ban the people under attack from community forums, give them abuse offline, or even threaten their jobs or worse.

For even more power and efficiency, don't do this with one bot. One person starting a fight is ignorable. Twenty, fifty or a hundred respected posters all doing it at once - that's how things like Gamergate start.

(And of course, the choice of persona for the bots, and how they express their grievances, will be important. Unfortunately we already have a large corpus of information on how to craft a credible narrative and cause people to feel sympathy for our protagonist - storytelling. If the bot-controller has a decent working knowledge of "Save The Cat" or "Story", that'll make the botswarm all the more effective...)

3: You're A Bot, I'm A Bot, Everyone's A Bot (Bot)

In order to pull all these tricks off, of course, the bot will need a bunch of social media accounts. That would seem like the obvious weak spot: they can just get banned.

Except that if there's one thing a semi-intelligent almost-turing-test-capable bot is going to be good at, it'll be generating social media accounts. And even better than that, a swarm of bots will be almost unstoppably good at it.

It's very easy already to create a bot that will sit there patiently generating a history of Tweets - I've done it myself with my anti-filter-bubble bot. And Tweet history, or posting history, is one of the big giveaways of a sockpuppet account: very few people have the patience to build up a convincing history with their sockpuppets. But a bot can solve that. Tay might not be 100% plausible, but is she plausible enough to generate a convincing Twitter history for your new racist-bot? I'd say yup.

And I'm not the only one. Black-hat SEO marketers have long used software called "Spinners" to create semi-unique pieces of text to post as articles or spam onto forums or comments to generate search engine rankings. I won't link to it here, but the big up-and-coming news in the SEO spinning world is AI, with several products claiming to use Tay-like algorithms to generate much better "spun" content that will pass both human moderator and Google checks.

(To the best of my knowledge no-one's creating an XRunner-like product - a forum / comment posting product - incorporating Deep Learning to optimise for comments that get approved. Yet. Give it five years. To be fair, that might end up being an unexpectedly positive arms race.)

But as I mentioned, a botswarm will be far better. The other big giveaway for fake accounts is that they don't interact with a larger community. Now, a bot on its own can already deal with that to an extent - indeed, the big news in using Twitter for sales right now are AI tools that interact with users before passing them on to a sales team. But a swarm of bots can form its own communities. They can have discussions. They can Like and Comment on each others' posts (particularly powerful on Facebook, where the visibility of a post is determined by interactions from other users).

And as a human, you may not even be aware that in the community you're interacting with on Twitter, fully half the members are bots controlled by a single person. You'll interact back. And that just builds more viability for the bots and whatever their owner's ultimate endgame is.

4: Don't Do That. The Bots Won't Like It.

And here we get on to, in my opinion, the most terrifying use of the trollswarm: controlling filter bubbles.

A straight-up trollswarm is scary and unpleasant, sure, but it's a blunt tool. For maximum effectiveness, what you need is a scowlswarm.

In this case, you-as-bot-owner would never full-out order the trolls to attack. Instead, you just have them disapprove.

You set up a filter to have some of them - not all, just two or three - respond to mentions of your target outgroup with negative comments.

  • "Do you really read his blog?".
  • "Personally I find her offensive - don't you?".
  • "You should be careful about @target_user - didn't you hear about last year?"

You have them monitor for statements made by your target which attract negative reactions, and have your bot amplify that and retweet the statement. You monitor for negative-sentiment messages at the target, and amplify that too. You have them attempt to bait the target into strongly-negative-sentiment statements. Every so often, you have one of the bots outright lie about something bad that your targets did, and the other bots signal-boost it.

And the result is that the filter bubble of everyone who interacts with those bots - which are still firing off inspirational memes and sending people supportive messages the rest of the time - becomes tilted more and more strongly toward "this group of people are bad".

This is almost exactly the same effect as the kind of media-manipulation many people are worried Facebook could undertake, but in the hands of any anonymous yahoo who has the skills and patience to set up and train a group of chatbots. And it could be applied to much smaller targets - right down to individual people.

It'll be even more effective on a social media site like Reddit, where a swarm of bots could also upvote and downvote content. In general, so-called "social bookmarking" sites are terrifyingly vulnerable to somewhat-smart bots. It's already the case that it's almost possible to algorithmically optimise for upvotes (ask any high-karma user for tips on how to achieve said high karma, and it turns out there are a large bunch of shortcuts). A few hundred intelligently-run bots could invisibly dominate a significant-sized subreddit, upvoting or downvoting their target content. Provided they don't do dumb things that get them noticed as a voting ring, they'd be very difficult indeed to detect.

As a final note, another alarming use of socialbots on social bookmarking sites would be to burn out moderators. Moderator burnout is already a significant issue as most of them are volunteers: if you have a subreddit that you want to dominate but can't because there's a particularly clued-in mod, just turn up the shitposting bots to 11, blast the subreddit with almost-but-not-quite useful content mixed with some really unpleasant stuff, increase their workload 10-fold, and wait for them to quit.

So there you have it. Welcome to 2018 or so. Half your social media friends are probably robots - and they're probably the half that you like the most. Every so often one of the remaining humans gets driven off the Internet thanks to a furious 24/7 Twitter assault that might be a zeitgeist moment, or might just be a bot assault. And you can't even tell if what you think is the zeitgeist is entirely manufactured by one guy with an overheating graphics card and a Mission.

What do you think? Is there a horrific use of the trollbot I've not thought of? Or a reason this definitely won't come to pass?