When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was scared of earthquakes. I had heard they happened often, but the ones I always read about online were the Big Ones — ones that caused property damage, ones that killed people. It wasn’t until I came across a Twitter bot, named LA QuakeBot, whose only purpose was to tweet each time there was an earthquake, that I realized that there were small quakes all the time. Once I started following it, my anxiety over the Big One decreased with each additional tweet. They were happening all around us; the bot was a constant reminder.
Unlike an earthquake, this Twitter bot wasn’t naturally occurring. It was the word of self-proclaimed “superdeveloper” Bill Snitzer, who, as it turned out, was a prolific maker of (usually funny) internet things. He’d once crafted an application called BFFs Forever that mimicked the MySpace “Top 8” but in Facebook. He recorded a series of “super short” podcast episodes that each lasted just about a minute or so. His website includes lets random people post text that is pinged to a screen in his house. (Best of all, he used to work for Tom Green.)
So what do you actually do for a living?
I work for a company that makes websites for car dealerships. I’m a back end developer.
Where does the term “superdeveloper” come from?
I think I was reading a bunch of Kanye West tweets and figured I’d be really cocky with my website. I threw that in there; it was just kind of silly.
What’s your most favorite thing that you’ve done on the internet?
Probably an app that I made a while ago called my BFF — which was an app for Facebook, back when they let you put apps in your profile, and all it did let you put your best friends in a little box. It was a copy of MySpace’s “Top 8”. That was the first app I was able to really monetize. It became really popular in Malaysia, with somewhere between 6 and 8 million users.
When did you start thinking of these funny internet things?
I’ve always been into the weird internet art. Even before I was doing serious coding, I was just making funny videos with my friends and it just kind of naturally transitioned. It was always something I was doing, making something strange and putting it out there for people to look at.
Does what you do change with the internet?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think as Twitter became more popular that changed the way things worked. Things now have to be compressed into the character limit for them to take off.
Do you ever feel like you’re working so hard on something that people are going to care about for, like, one minute?
Of course. The also reason why [my co-host] Matt and I do our super short podcast is because it was too hard to edit a long one — we were so busy! And we figured people on the internet just want to hear a quick thing, we’ll knock out five of them at once on Monday and edit them throughout the week.
Maybe a commentary on how long podcasts can be these days?
Sure, but it certainly fit really well with not wanting to work hard.
Tell me a little about the earthquake bot.
I started it back in 2009 when Twitter was relatively new. I saw that a whole bunch of people had tweeted about an earthquake, that everyone was tweeting #earthquake. I thought: You know what, the information from U.S. Geological Survey is free, I can write a little script that checks every so often and just dump it on Twitter.
What’s the best response you’ve gotten from people?
William Shatner retweeted the robot a while ago. I always like when I get celebrity followers or [when] people I really respect follow or retweet it.
I personally followed because I had just moved to L.A. and was terrified of earthquakes. I felt like seeing the tweets normalized it for me.
I’ll get tweets like, “I wish I never followed Earthquake L.A.” Because it’ll make them more scared! But you’re right, the proper thing to do is relax about it, there’s nothing you can do about it.
You have a thing on your website where anyone can input text and it’ll show up on a screen in your house. Has anything weird happened?
Someone kept putting up the same text — I don’t even remember what the text was — but they kept putting up the same thing and coming back to my website and changing it to this thing. It was going on for months. And I was like, “What kind of weird, stalker mentality do you have to have to do that?”
Not all coders are necessarily creative — those qualities don’t often go together.
When I first moved to L.A., I was working on Tom Green’s television show, so that’s kind of where I started to make the connection between entertainment stuff and computer stuff. He mainstreamed the whole idea of pointing a camera and doing something ridiculous.
It was a web show out of his house, back in 2006. This was early, early video on the internet. YouTube just started and we were like, “Where should we post it? Our own server?”
It feels like Tom Green was super ahead of his time.
Right, you put something out there that people aren’t ready for and that trend starts to get popular later on. I think a lot of it has to do with software or hardware problems and most people not having access to see the kinds of things Tom was doing. It’s a huge problem, especially in development. I want to use all the latest API — everything that companies like Apple and Google make available — but no one has the devices to appreciate the work.
As the web grows and changes, how do you see the future of internet pranks?
Coding is becoming easier and easier. It’s becoming more and more accessible — Google even has a programming language that they’re developing right now called Blockly where you just drag and drop blocks of text to the screen to make your code. The easier it gets to do, the more that creative people can do it. They can get their ideas out there and really turn them into something.
Lindsey Weber is an editor at MEL. She last interviewed Dr. Zhana, Periscope’s top sexpert.