If you don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, you might not have noticed a death in the family this week: a widely-followed Twitter account known as @Horse_ebooks — which randomly tweeted bizarre snippets of text and appeared to be a “bot,” or automated spam account — was revealed by the New Yorker to be the work of two writers, who used it to launch a marketing campaign for a separate project.
That hardly sounds like the kind of thing most people would be up in arms about, and yet the news caused an outpouring of angst and in some cases real grief. I think that response says a lot about how both Twitter and the internet have changed — and not always for the better.
Some might wonder why anyone in their right mind would care about a random Twitter account that posted bizarre text fragments like “Everything happens so much,” or “For The Highest Price Possible, No Matter How Much Time You Have Had To Prepare!” — or why anyone would bother following such an account, let alone put one of those phrases on a T-shirt. But the account seemed to fill some kind of deep-seated need for many Twitter users, something that went beyond just laughing at the odd juxtapositions of text. As Bianca Bosker put it:
We were rooting for the robot. We loved the idea that something we thought was meant to be a nuisance — to sell us things — could be so charming. Here, finally, was an algorithm that wasn’t just efficient, but actually was weirdly insightful.
Not a random bot, but a marketing pitch
As New Yorker writer Susan Orlean was the first to point out, both Horse_ebooks and a similar project called Pronunciation Book were the work of Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender — the former a creative director at BuzzFeed and the latter a vice president at the tech company Howcast. At a public event last week, they announced that the two accounts were the launchpad for a new interactive “choose your own adventure” video project called Bear Stearns Bravo.
I told you you'd all be annoyed when that stupid-looking thing started pitching whatever it was going to pitch.—
William Gibson (@GreatDismal) September 24, 2013
Some of the followers of both Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book congratulated the two writers on their conceptual art projects — one post called Horse_ebooks “the most successful piece of cyber-fiction ever.” But others were incensed: they said it was a tragedy, and that the two who created and engineered the two hoaxes were monsters. But why? Dan Sinker of Mozilla’s OpenNews project — who ran his own parody Twitter account at one point — argued that Horse_ebooks actually represented something beautiful:
For all of the absurdity of @Horse, I think that there were many of us who would also admit that it was often also beautiful and, in a way, meaningful. Beauty and meaning, built from randomness.
The Mechanical Turk problem
Among other things, many seemed to feel hoodwinked by the revelation that Horse_ebooks was run by a human being, and so their response was similar to those who have been snookered by a clever con man or a magician’s tricks. In that sense, Horse_ebooks was much like the original Mechanical Turk — the 18th-century machine that purported to be a robot capable of playing chess and solving puzzles, but actually turned out to have human beings inside it. As Robin James at the website Cyborgology put it:
“The source of a lot of the discomfort is discovering that the story doesn’t mean what we thought it did – that, in fact, we weren’t the ones deciding what it meant (by the way, I think we still were), and even that we were unwitting parts of someone else’s story.”
The con-man angle appears to have more than a little bit of truth to it: according to a writer for The Daily Dot — who suspected that Bakkila and Bender were behind the two accounts — Bakkila engaged in a long and emotional campaign aimed at convincing her not to reveal their secret, a campaign that built up a large trail of lies and fakery and involved the writer crying on the phone, saying he was out $40,000 and the whole project was on the brink of failure.
But more than just that, I think that the Horse_ebooks account symbolized something that we’ve lost since the internet and Twitter were both young: namely, a sense of the bizarre, the random, the odd and/or hilarious — the bits of both human and automated weirdness that used to float through the ether and broke through the mundane world that most of us live in. It’s why some people enjoy Reddit, or even the deranged rantings on 4chan, or use Stumbleupon, or like “weird Twitter.” As On The Media put it:
“People felt safe to love [Horse_ebooks] as a thing that was genuinely weird, instead of deliberately, artistically weird… there is no wonder in the world beyond our capacity to creatively deceive each other. Never love anything you meet on the Internet again.”
Another piece of the weird internet disappears
What was most depressing for many (including me) about the Horse_ebooks revelations was that this magical bot, which appeared to have no purpose other than unintentional hilarity and randomness, was just a marketing pitch for a book or movie deal. It’s a bit like hearing your favorite old rock-and-roll or punk tune used as the backdrop for a shoe commercial — there’s almost an implicit sense of betrayal. One writer at The New Republic said “the truly pathetic thing about @horse_ebooks was that it was so drearily old-fashioned.”
The other thing that was obvious was that whatever product was eventually attached to it would be utterly mundane and uninteresting.—
William Gibson (@GreatDismal) September 24, 2013
In the early days of the web, there were bizarre websites and blogs and other corners of the internet where people just ranted or posted their favorite accordion music or whatever interested them. Not everything was a pitch for a book deal or a marketing gambit aimed at building a “viral” success, but now that seems to be the norm. Sociologist danah boyd (who spells her name without capital letters) at one point said she enjoyed Chatroulette — which became well known for naked people using it to flash others — because it was a flashback to the randomness the internet used to consist of.
Twitter has gone through much the same kind of evolution, in a way: the service used to be a niche tool where some people just said whatever was on their minds — secure in the knowledge that hardly anyone was following them anyway. Now, it has hundreds of millions of users, the company is trying to cozy up to TV networks and brands to generate value for an IPO, and much of the content seems to consist of thinly-disguised (or not so thinly disguised) marketing messages.
Loading Horse_ebooks up with all of that freight might seem like overkill, and I genuinely hope that the writers who created it are successful with their new project. But for me at least, the news felt a little like the death of randomness — one last piece of the weird, random internet that I used to enjoy.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of 4gifs.com and Wikimedia Commons