In the wild, cynical world of "The Internet," where viral marketing hucksters lurk in the shadows, the @Horse_ebooks Twitter account was a rare gem.
It was an automated Twitter spambot, tweeting random segments of e-books once every few hours, in a scheme, it was thought, to avoid Twitter's spam detectors. The result was a beloved form of new-age bionic poetry. It featured short phrases that had been written by and intended for humans, but curated by and presented for robots. It was unintended art that spanned the digital divide. It had fans. It was proof that we could co-exist. Proof that we could like each other. Love, even. A reassurance of the future.
Or so we thought.
Cut to the heartbreaking scene I witnessed earlier this morning in a white-walled art gallery on the Lower East Side, where everything I thought I knew came crashing at my feet.
It began with a man in a suit waiting outside an art gallery's door, sunglasses on his face, and an earpiece in his ear. His name, he says, is Jared. Another inside is named Walter. They were hired "security guards," they say, though they don't really look the part. Are they in there? I ask. The security men nod. They're in the back, they say. But I already know that. Because at 10:00 a.m. on the dot, The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean had broken the news that the Horse_ebooks Twitter account, and a similar automated video account on YouTube, were fakes. Frauds. Worse: somebody's art project. Even worse than that: they were created by New York media people, one of whom works at the viral media powerhouse BuzzFeed, and the two of them would be holding court at an art gallery in the Lower East Side.
And so there I was.
There are a few projectors displaying a series of odd imagery and videos on the sun-drenched walls. Two reporters with cameras mill about, looking stunned, but other than that the gallery is empty. A sign, to the left, explains what we've come here to see.
"On September 14, 2011, Jacob Bakkila began the conceptual art installation Horse_ebooks," it explains. "He has since performed, in secret, as a spambot on the social network Twitter, posting a piece of spam roughly every two hours for 742 days. Each spam fragment is recycled information: an often incomplete sniper of text drawn from a previously published work, occasionally including a link to a website selling low-quality self-help books."
In the back, behind a wall, I can hear voices, and the sound of phones ringing off the hook. I head toward them. And then there they are: humans. Most definitely not the robots who brought us the automated joy on Twitter. They are answering phone call after phone call, responding with the same style of broken phrases spewed by Horse_ebooks for years, seemingly reading them off of stacks of white paper piled nearly six inches deep. The phones are ringing off the hook. The Twitter account had tweeted the number 45 minutes earlier, and the world demanded answers. Or, at least, they wanted to know what the hell was going on. One by one, and in rapid succession, the two artists and the writer pick up and answer with one line of text before rapidly hanging up.
Spectators slowly filtered into the gallery, some taking photos, others taking notes.
"There's even a section for intentional cuisine for your pooch."
The security guards continued to mill about, some of them whispering into their headpieces.
"Your confidence will soar."
The art, as it’s stated on a small piece of paper pinned to the wall, is simple: a table, telephones, chairs, and printed paper.
One of the men at the table, Jacob Bakkila, the BuzzFeed employee, is responsible for bringing us the Horse_ebooks tweets since at least September 14, 2011—six months before Gawker ran a widely read profile of the Russian spammer who had created—and then abandoned—the account. (Adrien Chen, the writer of the profile, tweeted Tuesday that Bakkila bought the account from the spammer.) Another is Thomas Bender, a onetime HowCast employee who created the YouTube channel Pronunciation Book. The third is The New Yorker writer herself, Susan Orlean, who, when accused by The Daily Beast of being "in cahoots" with the artists, responded on Twitter, "NOT in cahoots! Writing a story. Answering phones for a while to see what it's all about."
BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith, one of whose employees was involved with the project, claims to have been in the dark. "We have a total organizational separation between editorial and our often-brilliant creative team," he said, adding, "I didn’t know about it, and I don’t know of anyone in editorial who did."
If I could ask the two men a question of my own, I'd pull a Truman as he discovers his world in The Truman Show, where everything he's ever known is fake, created to please.
"Who are you?" I want to ask, saddened, angry, and yet impressed by the two artists working the phones. "I am the Creator," one of them would respond, "of a Twitter account that gives hope and joy and inspiration to millions." "Then who am I?" I ask. "You're the star." Its follower, at least.
But there isn't time to get in any questions.
So I dialed the number, 213-444-0102, and stood there as the phone rang, watching and listening as Bakkila read a bit of nonsense into somebody else's ear before quickly hanging up the phone, never making eye contact with any of us.
And then he answered.
"You were not created to fail," he said.
And then he hung up.
I walked out, hailed a taxi, and left the Horse behind.