A Guide to Making Your Own Tweeting Plant

Makes for first-rate GIFs.

Jul 11 2016, 1:55pm

A few months ago, I noticed that my fiddle-leaf fig plant was growing behind my back. Not that it needs my permission — but since I had always thought of it basically as an inanimate object that I had to water once a week, it caught me by surprise.

Watching the dramatic growth playing out over a few days was unexpectedly thrilling. And there was something special to capturing it in a photo, even just on my iPhone camera. I wanted to see its progress every day. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, if I had a computer automatically take a picture of my plant for me every morning?

So that's what I did. I made @grow_slow, which is a bot running on a Raspberry Pi that takes a webcam photo of my plant at 10:17 am every day and tweets it.

Now, watching your plant grow on Twitter is like texting your roommate from the other end of the couch. But I believe that there's a meditative magic to combining the slow pace of plant growth and the rapid clip of the internet. It's unusual to see things that move at this speed on the web, but @grow_slow follows the philosophy of the Slow Web, making it interesting only over the course of time.

My little fiddle-leaf fig isn't the only tweeting plant — there's now also @avocamera by Anthony Volodkin, which tweets photos of two avocado plants based on sunrise and sunset times. But let's make more.

The Twitter bot is pretty simple to set up for your own plant, so I'm here to tell you how to do it.

Step 1: Get a plant

Photo: Nicole He

I got my fiddle-leaf fig from Home Depot rather inexpensively. An easy-to-care-for and fast-growing pothos might be a good bet, but maybe a cactus bot would be more your speed. Unless you have no fear of public humiliation, it's probably best to make sure your new plant is thriving for a couple weeks before you put your plant-caretaker skills on display on the internet.

Step 2: Do the computer stuff

Photo: Nicole He

The bot is run on a Raspberry Pi, which a tiny computer useful for all sorts of tasks you'd want a computer to do without relying on your personal laptop. You can conveniently leave it on and running next to your plant forever. You'll also need a Wi-Fi module if it's not included, a webcam, and if you're setting up a Pi for the first time, an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

To get your plant tweeting, you make a script on your Pi that tells your webcam to take a photo, save it on the Pi, and then upload it on to Twitter programmatically. Then, you tell your Pi to run this script every day at the same time. After that, it'll take a picture every day and tweet it all on its own.

Don't worry — you can follow beginner-friendly, detailed technical instructions with all the code you need on Github.

Step 3: Spend way too much time positioning your webcam

Photo: Nicole He

This is the hardest part. Finding a place to put your webcam so that it captures your beautiful plant in the perfect way that also doesn't destroy your personal privacy can be tricky, and can take a lot of trial and error. Keep this in mind when you find a place for your plant — putting an automated webcam in your bedroom or bathroom might not be the best idea, unless that's what you're into.

I duct-taped my camera unceremoniously to a cabinet in the living room, but it's not foolproof; sometimes it moves anyway. Do whatever works for you.

Step 4: Watch your plant grow, make gifs

GIF: Nicole He

Now you can sit back and let nature take over, though it doesn't hurt to make a few gifs every now and then once your plant starts growing a lot.

Let's make an internet garden together! Just don't forget to water your plant.