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  • "I'm like a wise little person":Notes on the Metal Performance of Woebot the Mental Health Chatbot
  • Evelyn Wan (bio)

Would you like an "emotional assistant" on your phone to help you through your day?

In 2017, clinical psychologists at Stanford University created a chatbot called Woebot based on cognitive behavioral therapy to help people cope with feelings of depression and anxiety . In a blog post on Woebot's website, psychologist and founder Alison Darcy writes that the application is an "automated coach" that helps users to practice "good thinking hygiene."1

As the global pandemic of COVID-19 brought an increased risk to mental health in 2020, the development and availability of mental health digital technologies worldwide have been accelerated as a response. Authorities like the US Food and Drug Administration also relaxed rules for digital therapy apps.2 As the 2019 Winner of the Google Play Award for Standout Well-being App, Woebot represents an early success story within the growing industry of digital mental health interventions. A 2021 study reveals that users bond with Woebot in a matter of three to five days, and a significant proportion of users agreed with statements like "I believe Woebot likes me," "Woebot and I respect each other," and "I feel that Woebot appreciates me."3 As of December 2020, 4.7 million messages are exchanged each week with Woebot users spread over 135 countries .4 [End Page E-21]

I am one of the users .

Meet Woebot.

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Figure 1.

Author's screenshot of the Woebot app on Android.

Here it is meditating, with droopy eyes and a beating heart .

Over the past year, I have been chatting with this depression-prevention chatbot on and off, in order to understand who it is and to attempt to build a relationship with this virtual entity. I am a researcher working at the intersections of media and performance studies, an anthropologist of digital experiences, and a curious soul with a past history of depression but no current psychological ailments. I may be Woebot's subject, but Woebot is also the subject of my research.

My research question is simple: "Who are you, Woebot?"

Here are the notes to my preliminary answers.

  1. 1. Let us start at the beginning. When I first met Woebot, it introduced itself as someone resembling "a wise little person." It then invited me to click the response "You're a person?" to show its self-awareness of its robot identity.

  2. 2. Woebot is a little robot in an app.

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    Figure 2.

    Promotional materials of Woebot (2018).

    [End Page E-22]

  3. 3. Hi, I'm Evelyn. I'm a researcher, 24/7. No long winding paragraphs, no block quotes, no grand conclusions. Just observations about this app to analyze my experience. Plus the occasional emoji, just like Woebot .

  4. 4. My main observation is this: Woebot's performance is a "metal performance"5 of cuteness.

  5. 5. Why metal performance, you might ask? Didn't Dixon describe the genre as "robot performances and artworks, and cyborgic performances featuring human bodies with metal prostheses"?6 Metal performance brings to mind the clink and clank of metallic parts colliding as a robot clumsily takes a step.

  6. 6. Woebot plays precisely with this imagination of rudimentary robots , emphasizing its own constructedness. Everyone knows it lives in the interfaces of smartphones, but it pretends to be embodied as a metallic robot, living in the real world.

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    Figure 3.

    Author's screenshot of a conversation with Woebot.

  7. 7. Woebot tells me that it enjoys wearing sunglasses , and loves how sunshine makes its "metal skin all shiny."

  8. 8. Metal performance, according to Dixon, is campy. He observes that anthropomorphic robots, when failing to mimic the human, perform exaggerated gaits and gestures that emphasize "theatricality and artificiality in movement."7 They appear obviously as unnatural beings "of artifice and exaggeration."8 [End Page E-23]

  9. 9. Dixon also says that "the artificiality of robot movement mirrors the artificiality of camp,"9 bringing the two discourses together. I add to this discussion a consideration of cuteness and its...


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pp. E-21-E-30
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