Few TikTok users will have escaped @robotsdraw’s idiosyncratic videos in their For You feeds over the past few weeks.
The account, in which a robotic arm draws on a piece of paper with amazing accuracy before invariably messing everything up, has become hugely popular, garnering more than 15 million likes and a quarter of a million followers on the app, most of which have come into the last two months.
This success comes as a surprise to the person behind the account, San Francisco Bay Area entrepreneur and angel investor Joshua Schachter. Eventually, it all started simply by showing off his favorite hobby: tinkering with pen plotter robots.
If the name Schachter sounds familiar, you probably notice its age: The 48-year-old is the founder of the early web social bookmarking service de.licio.us, which users could use to save their favorite sites and share them with friends. Since the sale of de.licio.us to Yahoo! In 2005, Schachter spent his time financing startups in addition to serving as a consultant for HBO series Silicon Valley and a consultant to Walmart Labs.
Schachter’s interest in pen plotters grew out of an obsession with discarded technology. “I used to go to eBay and buy old, interesting, fancy gadgets that I could get for less than $20,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in evolutionary pathways that didn’t work.”
Schachter was particularly interested in computer-controlled processing. “Seven or eight years ago I built a whiteboard that could draw on itself,” he says. He later constructed a machine that applied ink to paper. “I became interested in the algorithms behind it,” he says. “I learned how to make procedurally generated art – where the computer makes different decisions using all sorts of techniques.”
He went on to collect vintage pen plotter machines – essentially robotic arms that draw in response to commands sent to them by a computer. In September 2020, he posted his first video on TikTok, which captured a 1989 Hewlett-Packard DraftPro DXL producing a beautiful array of squiggly lines, followed by several dozen more using the same machine.
At first, the videos were snapshots of the machine’s broader movements – small snippets of the pen drawing one of hundreds of similar shapes, accompanied by the hashtag #oddlysatisfying. But then Schachter began to waver.
It started with failed attempts to get a paint extruder to work. Then, in late April, Schachter released a video of this machine generating a square of dots in a seemingly random fashion, adding huge inefficiencies to what could be a simple process. The top comment on the video is “The most unsatisfying most satisfying thing I’ve ever seen.”
“People are really emotionally connected to it,” says Schachter. “They say, ‘He’s trying'” – “he” is the robot – “and stuff like that. There was an interesting connection.”
Finally, Schachter hit the premise that would take his report to the next level: robots that fail at things. “I realized that people will sympathize,” he says. “The movements of a thing are traceable.”
A video posted on May 5 of a robot drawing 44 perfect little circles in purple ink before fluffing out the 45th and wildly scratching out the whole picture has been viewed 3.8 million times. @robotsdraw almost doubled its followers overnight, from 5,900 to 10,000. Comments were received suggesting that he introduced other minor errors, such as misplacing a single circle – which Schachter was happy to comply with.
The reason for @robotsdraw’s popularity is simple, says Jonathan Aitken, Robotics Academic at the University of Sheffield in the UK. “As humans, we believe that robots are infallible,” he says. “When we look at robots, every mistake is a deviation from our expectation and ultimately catches our attention.”
Featuring the rhythmic rattling of a robot dotting paper or a dry-erase marker squeaking across a whiteboard, the videos also capitalize on the popularity of ASMR content online. “The shapes and sounds and the scratching of the pen trigger different memories,” says Schacter, “which then connect to other things. I try to take advantage of that.”
In May, Schachter’s video of a plotter drawing a perfect circle and lines crossing through its center only to screw up the last one was also viewed millions of times. “Now I have two narrative arcs to play on,” Schachter recalls, thinking, “A damaged pattern and an expressed emotion. I started picking at both of them.”
Schachter has kept the schtick going in the weeks since, spending about an hour a day conceptualizing and shooting videos with his plotters. The creator tries to read every comment posted on the videos – a challenge as the account grows in popularity.
He also developed a kind of manifesto for @robotsdraw: “Intrinsic to the plotter is position, speed, pen color and noise. What is extrinsic is that the pens themselves fail, the ink fails, the paper fails. Emotional: The ideas are angry, love, pausing, happy, hesitant, frustrated, different types of expectations and failures.”
It’s no coincidence that these emotions are many of the same ones that TikTok advises its top creators to create successful videos.
“TikTok fascinates me,” says Schachter. “I actually submitted my resume twice, but got the default rejection.” He sees echoes of the social web, which he pioneered on TikTok but improved by switching to short-form videos. “The story arcs, the standard formats, are just evolving, which means there’s a sudden shift and a democratization of who’s good at it.”
Schachter’s own success in figuring out what’s good on TikTok has helped him grow the audience for @robotsdraw, of which 60 percent are male and 55 percent live in the US – and nearly all seem addicted to what the machine will get wrong next.
“You’re not friends with the robot,” says Schachter of his viewers. “They often get angry about it.”