Talking To @Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book IRL

September 26, 2013 | Andy Cush

The announcement came abruptly, with little fanfare, and from a seemingly unlikely source: @horse_ebooks, the internet’s most beloved spambot, and Pronunciation Book, a less popular but equally obsessed-over YouTube channel, were works of conceptual art.

Since 2011, the Twitter account Horse_ebooks has been run by Jacob Bakkila, an artist and creative director currently working for BuzzFeed (gasp!), and Pronunciation Book has been the work of artist/video producer Tom Bender since its inception. The pair have been working together since the mid-2000s as part of an art collective called Synydyne.

That was dizzying enough on its own, but it didn’t end there. Both pieces were parts of a mysterious larger work called Bear Stearns Bravo, their creators were staging some kind of art happening at a Lower East Side gallery, and, in a perfectly absurd twist, veteran New Yorker writer Susan Orlean was in on it somehow. It was a lot to process. (Watch an abridged version of our conversation here.)

For the uninitiated: on the surface, Horse_ebooks was a spambot like any other spambot, tweeting a steady stream of gibberish interspersed with the occasional link to purchase a product–in this case, cheesy, SEO-baiting ebooks.

But by the magic of some accidentally beautiful algorithm–or so we thought–Horse_ebooks was different. “As you might know, I am a full time internet,” it bragged. “You re About To Discover A Career Opportunity Where You Will NEVER Be Laid,” it mocked. “.RAVEL. .RAVEL. .RAVEL. .RAVEL. .RAVEL. .RAVEL. .RAVEL. .RAVEL. GRADING AND GRAVEL. .RADING AND GRAVEL. GRAVEL. GRADING AND GRAVEL. TOTAL,” it mused without explanation, possibly referencing an iconic 20th-century orchestral work. In other words, it was deep, and the internet responded in kind: there were comic strips, there were ballads, there were intercontinental investigative reports.

Pronunciation Book was no less impressive. Every day, beginning April 2010, it posted a new YouTube video that simply demonstrated how to pronounce a particular English word or phrase. It earned straight writeups in places like Laughing Squid and the New Yorker‘s “Elements” blog, which called it “essential viewing for people fearful of making a variety of conversational missteps.”

Then, two years to the day after the channel began, something changed. In a video entitled “How to Ask for Help in English,” the same voice that had dryly intoned things like “Ke$ha,” “Givenchy,” and “Nyan Cat” in the past was fervently pleading with the viewer. “Please help me escape from this place,” it said. “I need your help with something, Chief.”

Yesterday, Bakkila and Bender stopped by ANIMAL’s office to discuss the history, intentions, and scope of the works, as well as how they relate to Bear Stearns Bravo, the interactive piece of video art the pair released this week.

As was widely reported, something did happen to Horse_ebooks on September 24, 2011. That was the day Bakkila acquired the account from Alexei Kuznetzsov, the Russian spammer who started it, and began tweeting.

“It’s not as interesting a story as I think people wish it was,” Bakkila says. “It was just a matter of me tracking down the spammer behind it.”

How much did he pay for it?

“As per Twitter’s terms of service, there was no financial transaction.”

After he did that–five months before Adrian Chen’s exhaustive Gawker piece linking the account to Kouznetsov–Horse_ebooks the bonafide spambot ended, and Horse_ebooks the Kaufmanian art project began.

“I thought I knew what I was getting into, but, as is often the case, I didn’t,” Bakkila says.

For one thing, there was the schedule. Horse_ebooks tweeted every few hours, 24 hours a day, and Bakkila wanted to keep to that routine. Rather than using a scheduling app like Twuffer–and this is where an element of endurance-based performance art creeps in–he opted to send every tweet manually. As a result, he says this week marks the first time he’s gotten more than four consecutive hours of sleep in over two years.

There was also the matter of tone. The cult of Horse_ebooks existed, albeit in much smaller form, before Bakkila took over, and he worked to to make the transition relatively seamless. To do so, he drew his material from “a corpus of dozens of thousands of low-quality informational ebooks,” manually (manually!) searching for phrases that were “as authentically close to spam as possible,” then tweeting them.

Because spambots are designed on some level to operate like humans–not putting links in every single message, tweeting on a purposefully irregular schedule–Bakkila became a human imitating a machine imitating a human.

It’s worth noting that, though the specifics weren’t clear, Horse devotees noticed when Bakkila began his work. John Herrman took special note of September 24 in “The Ballad of @Horse_ebooks” as did Chen in his piece.

“The Tweets were immediately weirder,” Hermann wrote. “The kinds of Tweets that used to take weeks to show up — the perfect truncations, the ominous declarations — were now coming fast and hard.”

There was also the time Bakkila’s name showed up in a BuzzFeed post about Pronunciation Books, pictured in a screencap of an earlier project the pair had worked on. His co-workers either didn’t notice or turned a blind eye–no one ever asked him about it.

The artists weren’t immune to anxiety about keeping the secret, especially after journalists began actively searching for the human behind Horse.

“It’s naturally a little panic inducing,” Bakkila says. “I would have fevered nightmares of trying to escape Adrian Chen and [Gawker writer] Max Read, both of whom wrote a lot about Horse, or trying to escape the abstract concept of ‘journalists,’ but them in particular.”

When he decided to go to a journalist with his story, it wasn’t Chen, Read, Herrman, or any of the other arts and tech writers who have been chronicling the saga of Horse, but Orlean, a writer the artist has admired ever since coming across her work in a New Yorker compilation as a teenager and whom he calls a “fantastic longform journalist.”

Orlean came into contact with Bakkila and Bender over a year ago, after Bakkila reached out to her in a decidedly clandestine fashion, emailing her with a prediction of the next Horse_ebooks tweet. “Let me know if you’d like to talk about this more,” he wrote. She did, and has a profile of the pair coming.

Bakkila and Bender talk a lot about the concepts of “performing as a business” and “performing as a machine.” The fact that Horse_ebooks continued to tweet spam after they took it over, and that Pronunciation Books operated as an actual business, using clickbait-y SEO tactics to determine what words it featured, is an absolutely crucial part of the work.

To hear them tell it, Bear Stearns Bravo is no different. On the surface, it’s a bizarre, silly, hopelessly tacky video game that takes the bank Bear Stearns to task for its role in the 2007 financial crisis, but dig deeper, and thematic ties with Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book begin to emerge, they say.

“We wanted to create something that surprised people with a complex narrative, which is very similar to Horse_ebooks, which is very similar to Pronunciation Book,” says Bakkila. “At a glance, it seems innocent, it seems harmless, it seems stupid.  But when you look closer, you notice that there’s a lot more going on.”

The game itself is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style video, and takes about 90 minutes to complete (the first of two chapters is free; the second costs $7). Depending on your choices, however, there are several full-length films worth of material to play through. “You get your dollar’s worth,” says Bakkila with a laugh.

And Bender points out that the ties between Horse_ebooks, Pronunciation Book, and BSB aren’t only thematic. Horse tweeted often about “Dalton” –the game’s fictional head of Bear Stearns–and there are “years-old Pronunciation Book videos that clearly describe specific scenes” from the game, he says.

Responses to the revelation have run the gamut from praise to disappointment to all-out excoriation. In a piece titled “@Horse_Ebooks Is the Most Successful Piece of Cyber Fiction, Ever,” at the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer speaks of “the promise of the horse” and the joy of following it. In “Eulogy for a Horse,” Dan Sinker says “fuck” and “shit” a lot while trying to process his feelings.

Both of those responses are valid, says Bakkila. “To be entirely honest, we’re not sure what to think of it either,” he tells me. ” A lot of this is just playing out decisions that were made quite literally 25 months ago.”

The disappointment people are feeling isn’t directed at the artists, precisely–though the fact that Bakkila is employed by BuzzFeed does seem to have struck a nerve–but a reaction to the thought that this beautiful, mysterious thing that they loved isn’t so mysterious any more.

But should that matter? Horse_ebooks had only about 1,000 followers when the changeover happened, according to Bakkila, and Pronunciation Book only truly became a phenomenon after it became clear that something was bubbling under the surface over a year ago. In other words, the human element, whether we were aware of it or not, has been a part of the charm all along.

Max Read eloquently summed this up last year.

If you’re an atheist (or a beardo hacker) that does everything that a Christian (or horse_ebooks) would; if you go to church every Sunday and tithe and confess and Tweet randomly-selected text snippets; you are a Christian. Or horse_ebooks. It doesn’t matter; “intent” (or “belief” or “authenticity”) is irrelevant.

Bakkila seems to share that sentiment. “The broad question is: did anything change?” he wondered aloud during a discussion about suspension of disbelief surrounding Horse.

“Am I a spambot? Is a spambot a human?”

(Video: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)