1 I've tried whatwouldisay

What Should I Say?

In Blog by Naomi Shavin6 Comments

All images were generated on what-would-i-say.com from my Facebook account.

1 I've tried whatwouldisay

Two days ago, Ian Crouch explained the app whatwouldisay, or rather the experience that it creates for the user, for The New Yorker’s Culture Desk:

“I found myself quickly tired of the ones that other people were sharing, and drawn back to my own, sure that they were funnier or contained more depth. Narcissism and nostalgia are two of the driving forces of Facebook’s popularity, and this new app combines both quite neatly.”

I won’t try to emulate his description of the app– or maybe I will. According to my own experience with whatwouldisay, I discovered, presumably like anyone else who tried it, that my statuses have certain patterns or themes. This is because of how whatwouldisay works. A team of students participating in Princeton’s Hackathon this week created the app, which mines a user’s previous Facebook statuses to generate computer simulations of statuses they might post.

The posts are simultaneously irreverent and deeply revealing. If the Twitter handle @horse_ebooks, which was actually controlled by a human named Jacob Bakkila for the majority of its popularity, mocked the ways in which computers tried to connect with humans, then whatwouldisay mocks the way that humans use computers to try to connect with other humans.

2 Back at it

I’m as guilty as any of the other humans on facebook. My statuses fall into certain categories, but all of them basically seek the same end goal: a connection to another human.

That said, the most shocking pattern that whatwouldisay revealed to me about my social media use is that many of the humans that I’m trying to connect with aren’t alive anymore, and if they are, I’ve never met them (with only one exception). It appears that (and this is why I may begin emulating Ian Crouch) I have been subconsciously imitating the writers that I admire, often pretty overtly:

3 Hemingway status

There are direct references to times that I have made pilgrimages in order to better connect to these writers, like the trip, referenced above, that I planned through France and Spain based on Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, or a visit my father and I attempted to the Steinbeck house. (That was the second time my father tried to visit on a day when the house was not open).

4 Steinbeck house

For the most part, though, the statuses that whatwouldisay generated for me were less obvious. In their disregard for content or context, they better captured the way that I write, or rather, the ways that I try to write.



I try to write like Philip Roth:

5 Philip RothLike Ralph Ellison:

6 Ralph Ellison

Like e.e. cummings:

7 ee cumings

Sometimes I don’t quite capture one person, exactly.


Here’s what I can only guess is my impression of Kurt Vonnegut:

8 KV

Here’s my Nora Ephron:

9 Nora Efron

My Sylvia Plath:

10 Plath

My attempt at Orwell’s crisp irony:

11 Orwell

My F. Scott Fitzgerald:

12 Fitz1

Or maybe this is my F. Scott Fitzgerald:

13 Fitz2

And here’s what would happen if Jack Kerouac went back in time and had a baby with Joseph Conrad and then I impersonated their kid :

14 Conrad + Kerouac

On the topic of Conrad, trying to sound like him produced some pretty weird results:

15 False Starts Conrad

Eventually, though, I did all right:


Hemingway was another challenge. I made it pretty obvious that I was trying not only to sound like him, but to be him:

17 False Starts Hemingway

In the end, though, I think I nailed him:

18 True Hemingway

It seems that sounding like J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield came a bit more easily:

19 Holden Caulfield

Sounding like an insistent Tom Wolfe wasn’t terribly difficult, either:

20 Tom Wolfe

There are attempts at Primo Levi (“So proud of Jupiter!” and “Getting real life, no man’s land, from the International Space Station”), Franz Kafka (I #kafkaesque too often), Walt Whitman or maybe Johann Wolfgang von Goethe circa The Sorrows of Young Werther (“Best seats in the breeze” and “so much beauty”), and there’s one post that sounded like the editors of Albert Camus’ The Stranger might have struck it from the work for being borderline sentimental:

21 Camus

When my whatwouldisay statuses started to repeat similar words, then previous statuses verbatim, I wondered where the other writers that I loved were. I made lists in my head of writers and books that I loved, reassuring myself that yes, The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk and Death in Venice by Thomas Mann are two of my favorite books, even if they don’t bleed into my Facebook communication. Yes, I deeply admire Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, even if my social media introspection sounds nothing like their personal essays.


I wondered if my social media introspection sounded the way I wanted it to, and if I could change it if it didn’t. To a great degree, I found that I’m not so different from a machine. I basically mimic humans to connect with humans and occasionally mimic pure social media language itself.


But maybe that fact, that I subconsciously parrot what I hear and read, isn’t a bad thing. My whatwouldisay statuses capture how I’ve learned the language of good writing. They capture when I do it well, and when it’s clear that I still have a ways to go. This one sums it all up pretty well:

22 Fiction & Nonfiction

But maybe this is a better one to end on before you return to your own “narcissism and nostalgia” :


Naomi ShavinWhat Should I Say?


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