Custom AI chatbots are quietly becoming the next big thing in fandom
The world of online fandom has come out against recent strides in disruptive technology: crusading against crypto, for instance, and protesting the widespread scraping of art for use in the training of visual AI programs.
One might imagine that fandom would take a similar approach to AI text generators — and in the past months, we’ve seen hints of it. Late last year, a Reddit post warned users of fanfiction site Archive Of Our Own (AO3) that their stories might show up in a machine learning corpus. There have also been incidents, as I reported, where fans produce poor-quality AI-generated fic about a rival ship to “prove” its fans have bad taste.
At the time, I argued that fandom wouldn’t take to the concept of AI-written fanfiction because it couldn’t offer the kind of bespoke, high-quality artistic approach that fan-written fic could. I may need to eat my words, however. As it turns out, fans are actually now embracing AI technologies — in the form of interacting with fictional characters on an app called Character.AI.
The OpenAI-powered app Character.AI was launched in September of last year by ex-Googlers Noam Shazeer and Daniel De Freitas. Both men had previously been a part of Google’s LaMDA project — the same project that engineer Blake Lemoine claimed had become sentient and was subsequently fired from.
Similar to the “Historical Figures” chat app that caused a stir in January, Character.AI lets users speak to AI-generated characters. But where that app offered paid chatbot versions of William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, and Adolf Hitler, Character.AI’s offerings are broader. The founders of Character.AI claim that their ideals behind the company are to “help millions and billions of people” by assuaging global loneliness. They also propose various educational and therapeutic use cases.
But for the most part, Shazeer and De Freitas want to show the world that chatbots can be the ideal delivery method for customized immersive entertainment. The site’s top chatbots, with millions of interactions, include versions of celebrities like Elon Musk and Donald Trump. They’re also home to many characters from popular series and games like Danganronpa and Genshin Impact as well as familiar television and film characters like Walter White, Tony Soprano, and for some reason, two versions of Loki. And unlike “Historical Figures,” most of these bots were created from scratch by users — which, to fans, has proven Character.AI’s real killer feature.
The addictive interactivity of chatbots may have cracked the code for getting fans to participate enthusiastically in AI-generated media
On Character.AI, a character doesn’t need to have reached a certain threshold of popularity to be recognized on the app and made interactive. You yourself can pick your dearest blorbo that perhaps only you care about and, if you’re willing to put the time in to feed it text to learn from, spin them up to talk to. Even if fully machine-written conventional fanfic never takes off, the addictive interactivity of Character.AI’s chatbots may have cracked the code for getting fans to participate enthusiastically — and more or less uncritically — in AI-generated media.
The customizability of Character.AI, in which each fan can create their own version of a character based on their interpretation or chat with a bot already made by another fan, is what makes it so appealing. Fans on Twitter report losing hours to conversing with the bots, and the Character.AI tag on Tumblr is likewise filled with screenshots of chats between users and bots as well as enthusiastic requests for people to chat with bots they’ve just made.
And the bots are incredibly easy to make — really, you just need a name and a single introduction sentence to launch one. After that, you can continue to “refine” the character by simply talking to it and editing appropriate dialogue into the character’s “Definition,” as the app’s extensive documentation explains. Other users who speak to the character can also help refine it by giving feedback on its responses. It’s all based on natural language interactions — no programming knowledge required. And similar to other AI writing tools, the bots draw on GPT-3’s encyclopedic command of pop culture, giving them a wide-ranging (if often slightly inaccurate) grasp of their fictional canon.
One central downside for many users is that Character.AI censors NSFW content within the app. The filter often kicks in just as things start “getting steamy.” This is a frequent enough complaint that the developers’ pinned post on the Character.AI subreddit explaining why they would be maintaining the policy was flooded by disappointed users. Many claimed that they’d be moving to rival service Pygmalion.AI, which doesn’t have an NSFW filter.
Better to not implement it at all than to implement it and take it away, though — Character.AI has avoided the kind of crushing disappointment that users of chatbot service Replika have reported upon the recent banning of ERP (erotic roleplay) within the app. And non-NSFW kinks popular in fandom such as hurt / comfort are certainly attainable through Character.AI chatbots. Frequently, just feeling close to the character and speaking directly to them is more than enough.
In some ways, Character.AI is a logical extension of fandom roleplaying. Long before the web existed, fans played the roles of characters from series like Blake’s 7 and Dragonriders of Pern out on paper. In the 1980s and ’90s, proto-chatroom MUDs and MOOs provided early adopters with a space to creatively inhabit personas. Later fandoms even spawned their own bespoke roleplaying tools, like Homestuck’s fan-built Pesterchum roleplaying website, which added fandom-specific features to an Omegle-like system that randomly matched fans together based on characters they wanted to interact with.
Chatbot users sometimes roleplay as a fictional character from the canon in question, but frequently, they’re just speaking as themselves. It’s an approach more like the genre of self-insert fanfiction, which centers a blank slate that readers project themselves onto. Self-insert, or “Y/N” (your name) fic, lets readers on platforms like Tumblr and Wattpad insert themselves into storylines where they romance their favorite character. (It’s ever so slightly different from “OC” or “original character” fic, which features a specific new character dreamed up by the writer.) The massive popularity of Harry Styles-centric self-insert / OC fic has seen multiple stories adapted into feature films, like After and the upcoming The Idea of You, starring Anne Hathaway. And they’ve long featured some level of automation — readers are meant to use a browser extension to replace the placeholder “Y/N” with their own name while reading.
Character.AI’s intimacy and flexibility combine the best of a competent roleplay partner with the pure id indulgence of a self-insert fanfiction. Without another living, breathing fan on the other end of the line, you don’t have to worry about being overbearing, vulnerable, or unrealistic in your chatlogs. In the privacy of the interface, you can just ask for what you want, and the character can simply be the character, so long as the illusion isn’t broken by faulty worldbuilding knowledge or obvious slipups due to imperfect programming.
So where do chatbots fall in the taxonomy of fan activity? Is the process of training and talking to a bot akin to fanfiction or roleplaying? Is drawing on OpenAI’s huge language model a high-tech form of canon remixing, like editing a fanvid?
Even backed by the power of an AI model, fans are responsible for a huge part of what makes Character.AI’s chatbots compelling. While creating a bot on the site can be done with a click of a button, refining it into something that other fans would recognize as “real” and accurate can take hours of training, coming from a deep understanding of the character. When somebody does it well, it garners the same pleased reactions that a good fic or fanvid might. In the same way that a buzzing market for AI art prompts has sprung up, recognizing the labor and expertise that it takes to generate precise visuals, perhaps bot generation will be the next in-demand fanwork type.
But bots can also be private, or unlisted — it’s as simple to make a bot solely for personal use as it is to make one to share with friends or other fans.
Fans are responsible for a huge part of what makes Character.AI’s chatbots compelling
And the kind of solipsistic, immersive enthrallment that a personal bot offers can be addictive. It’s certainly a brave new world out there for the dedicated daydreamers of fandom, those who have already cultivated the one-sided relationships with characters and celebrities that are often a hallmark of the fandom experience. For the most part, these relationships can provide comfort, entertainment, and community.
At a time when many are asking if fans have become too entitled — demanding changes to series endings and harassing creators on social media when disliked ships are teased — customizable chatbots can provide media that truly caters to one’s every whim. It’s a world where you can talk to your “comfort character” any time you like without stressing out a roleplay partner and where other fans will never mischaracterize your faves.
But like any obsession, fandom can also turn strange and dark. A search for tweets about Character.AI will quickly reveal that some young, vulnerable users are trying to get their favorite characters to coach them into self-harming or giving them rules for their eating disorders. This is certainly one of the outcomes that Character.AI hopes to use its filters to avoid — given that its claimed goal is to “give everyone on earth access to their own deeply personalized superintelligence that helps them live their best lives.” (Character.AI’s representative did not respond to requests for comment about how they plan to improve their filters to prevent these types of uses.)
The filter is imperfect — in our tests, an AI asked explicit self-harm questions might type out a fully visible violent answer before the filter kicks in and hides it, for example. And users are endlessly creative, as experiments like ChatGPT’s “Do Anything Now” hacked mode show, so it is always possible that the bots will be put to dangerous uses.
And fandom outrage over AI image generators meshes oddly with fans’ embrace of AI text tools — when both raise similar issues around training data and the livelihoods of artists. One Tumblr user argued that AI bots like these aren’t “stealing artist’s hard work,” unlike visual art AI tools — but is that quite true? There are plenty of fanwriters out there who take great pride in crafting Y/N fics for every taste. Might they soon find their audience disappearing off into the wilderness of chatbot apps? Fandom has historically been a gift economy, but fanfiction commissions have become increasingly common over the last few years, and that aside, many take fandom as seriously as a job even without money entering the picture. It’s leisure, but it’s serious leisure.
Like any obsession, fandom chats can turn strange and dark
Similarly, Character.AI’s chatbots have been trained on the same datasets as other AI tools, potentially including things like the work of AO3 authors. The status of AI copyright is very much in question, but it’s possible Character.AI itself will eventually face legal trouble for hosting extremely popular imitations of characters owned by the likes of Disney — despite a disclaimer that users must not upload content that “infringes any intellectual property.”
The consuming nature of Character.AI, allowing fans to live their wildest dreams and talk endlessly to simulations of characters and celebrities for free, may obscure the fact that the company is a business startup seeking profit. What happens if it comes out of beta and begins charging for fans to create and chat with bots or demands personal information that it can use for ads? Will the embrace be so wholehearted then?
Fandom is, by definition, a social phenomenon: a community of like-minded people who come together to share joy and enthusiasm over an object of affection. Character.AI and similar offerings are an enjoyable addition to the arsenal of fannish tools and genres. But they also have the potential ability to atomize. Close connections to others make fandom such a powerfully transformative subculture — and fans isolated in their own personal chatbot bubbles may not form them.