_ebooks and ARGs

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This was originally going to be a larger and more coherent post, but the events and conversations around Horse_ebooks have generated a lot more questions and thoughts than answers and strong opinions. So instead, here it all is with the express invitation to discuss and add your two-cents!


I’ve been thinking about Horse_ebooks a lot lately. I wasn’t a fan before -- it was always a bit too weird for me. I’m certainly not a fan now. But I’ve always been interested in the people that follow Horse: its fans.

“Who is Horse_ebooks” you ask? Horse_ebooks is dead, that’s what. Murdered, perhaps -- and all because of some “ARG.” It’s a tragedy. Ok not really, but some people think so.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Want a quick recap? Sure! It’s understandable after all, considering the confusion surrounding this story, and most ARGs for that matter, but be warned -- this is class-A crazy Internet meta-stuff and must be handled with care. If you’re already a transmedia cyber-head, you can skip to the break. If not, then strap yourself in, because we're going for a crazy ride.

Because Horse_ebooks is dead. I know I said that just a few sentences ago, but it’s very important that you understand the weight of the loss.

Horse was a twitter spambot. Yes, the annoying kind that will randomly target you and tweets spam links. Ostensibly, this one was created to sell… Horse Ebooks: that is, electronic books about horses. Like most other spambots, the methods Horse employed to energize its audience with an overwhelming urge to buy what it was shilling fell flat, often hilariously so. But unlike the spambot’s contemporaries, Horse’s tweets often eerily resembled some kind of zen-like cryptic poetry.

The story goes that in a bid to circumvent 2010-era Twitter anti-spam filters, a Russian web developer named Alexey Kouznetsov created a spambot that, in between spam weblinks, would algorithmically draw short snippets from ebooks and websites only to post them completely out of context. This was Alexey’s bag, actually -- according to a Gawker article, Alexey created more than 170 search engine optimized ebooks websites and accompanying spambot twitter accounts.

The above is an excellent example of the kind of zany, computer generated poetry that Horse was famous for. Perhaps the most well known tweet from the horse was summer 2012’s “Everything happens so much.

There’s a catch though, because unbeknownst to its audience, Horse_ebooks was being directly controlled by a human when it made both of those famous tweets. In fact, practically all of Horse’s most popular “poems” were actually written by Jacob Bakkila, a creative director at Buzzfeed, with an unknown amount of help from Thomas Bender, a former vice president at Howcast.

The bot was created by Alexey Kouznetsov, but sometime in early September 2011, Bakkila approached Alexey about buying the Twitter account. We now know that the actual exchange happened on September 14th because it was on that day that Horse underwent several subtle changes. The frequency of tweets was reduced, the proportion of spam links to poems was changed to greatly favor the poetry, and the tweets changed from being sent “via Horse_ebooks” to “via Web.”

Those of you interested in seeing the gems an actually automated Horse_ebooks creates should look at this article, which only showcases popular tweets from before the change.

“Why do all this?” you ask. Well, because Horse had become part of a long-running performance art piece that ultimately paired with another, less well known but still surreal, internet presence: Pronunciation Book.

Pronunciation Book was a long running Youtube series that teaches it’s viewers how to correctly pronounce various popular terms. The Daily Dot described the creation and goals of the channel thusly: “Bakkila and Bender, according to [our] source, wrote a script that scraped Google and YouTube autocomplete search results for "How Do I Say" and "How Do I Pronounce" and went down the alphabet to find what people were searching for. This allowed them to make videos that would be instantly popular in search results and create a lot of organic traffic.”

Things got more interesting at Pronunciation Book a few months ago as the channel began “pronouncing” numbers, from 77 down, rattling off seemingly random prose and poetry and declaring that in X number of days, something was going to happen.

This got the attention of internet detectives, who bustled about trying to figure out what was going to happen. The usual suspects were all there: marketing stunt for a television show, Alternate Reality Game (ARG), or both

On September 24th, day 0, Pronunciation Book pronounced “Horse_ebooks,” and Twitter blew up.

The New Yorker broke the story, announcing that the two were indeed part of a long art project and that “the next installment of the project, a choose-your-own-adventure interactive-video piece called Bear Stearns Bravo” was being launched that day."

There was also an art gallery and exhibition, featuring the two creators sitting at a table, answering a phone number that Horse_ebooks had tweeted out earlier that morning. They’d pick up the phones, say a line from Horse’s repertoire and hang up. This was Horse_ebooks 2.

Geekosystem has a more complete (and biased) write-up of the gallery show.

So now that the cat is out of the bag about Horse_ebooks, people are pissed. The Horse dead, and it was also a lie.

A lot about this situation is more-or-less par for the course when it comes to ARGs and viral marketing, but using Horse_ebooks was apparently a line too far.

Horse fans are disappointed that something that felt emergent, that felt infused with random beauty turned out to be purpose-built to fool them, and all for the purpose of marketing some game. ARGers, on the other hand, seem to be disappointed that there is a paywall, which only raises the same concerns that ARGs have dealt with for years: they don’t make money.

There was a lot of drama happening behind the scenes as well. Gaby Dunn at The Daily Dot figured out the secret behind Horse only a few days after Pronunciation Book began its mysterious countdown, but was then begged to not write about it until the reveal by Horse’s master, Jacob Bakkila. Bakkila outright lied to Dunn for months about the nature of the project, claiming that he had lost tens of thousands of dollars on the project and would be sued if she wrote about the story. Dunn agreed to relent on condition that she’d get the scoop when the time was right (On the 24th). She awoke that morning to read about what actually had been going on at The New Yorker; a piece that was written by one of Bakkila and Benders’ accomplices.

If you’re an outsider, it’s probably hard for you to feel too bad for Horse’s fans. Ultimately, Horse did what it was OVERTLY designed to do, sell you something (just not the thing people were expecting and not in the way they were anticipating). After all, there certainly is no social contract between a bot and it’s audience. There’s no social contract between internet advertisers and the internet’s denizens, either. I think we can all agree that the “Dermatologists hate her! This housewife learned the one weird trick...” ads are disgusting, but no one is scandalized enough to do anything but load ad-blocker onto their browser. On the internet, anything goes is still -- unfortunately -- both the internal and external mantra.

"Be sure to drink your ovaltine," the false intelligence sputters as it dies. This, by the way, would have been a much better ending to the Horse_ebooks saga, in my opinion; though, I can’t say enough in favor of simply letting the account go dark and preserving the mystery.

“The beauty of the account was that a spambot—usually the source of irritation and garbage—was actually creating, on some level, entertainment. And there was enough variety in the tweeting to range from cryptic to serene, from morbid to nonsensical. It was a champion of ‘Weird Twitter.’”
–  Burton Durand; creator of the spin-off Horse_eComics

All of this has a lot to do intent and that ever so dangerous word, art. Once the a-word was thrown about, things get tricky. But I do think that these things matter, and are worth analyzing. People thought it was a spam bot that made poetry but actually it was a person making an artist comment on our obsession with a spam bot that makes poetry. The end phase of the performance revealed the audience's expectations to be false. What exactly did that maneuver buy us?

Horse_ebooks 2, the installation at the gallery that had Bakkila and Bender answering the _ebooks hotline with quotes from the Twitter, is an art piece that required the destruction of it’s predecessor. Artistically, this harkens back to the Britart controversy surrounding Jake and Dinos Chapman’s defacing of Goya’s “Disasters of War” prints. The resulting work was entitled: Insult to Injury.

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Some of you may balk when I compare the original Horse_ebooks to Goya, but first: shame on you for trying to insert a value-judgement into art -- the 1920’s called; they want their tired controversy back. I don’t have to like Horse_ebooks to see the merits of the piece as a work of art, and now that the reveal has occurred, the ways we contextualize and interpret the piece are forever changed. The piece is no longer what it was before; it has been defaced. That art piece is gone and in it’s place is a Horse_ebooks that merely seemed to be about emergent beauty, but was actually a piece about gullibility and human naïveté. In my mind, trading art that explored new ideas -- humanity’s relationship with machines, our love-hate relationship with advertising, the new ways we are marketed to on the internet, digital algorithm as mechanical performance -- for a more established commentary about the nature of belief seems to be a misstep. Obviously it’s within the creators’ rights to say whatever they want, but it’s my right to critically question their moves.

When chatting briefly about this with some other transmedia types on The Facebook, I was accused of indulging in a “postmodern defense of the bot’s audience” with “Gibsonesque” flair. Which, honestly, I think is a captial-A-awesome way of putting it.

Horse_ebooks was the wrong vehicle to use for this, I think. ARGs rely on intent, and the entire novelty surrounding the internet-famous Twitter bot was the idea of machine intelligence running free of direct authorial intent. The creators should have known that. If they didn’t then we should just end this piece on a “we need better artists” note, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

One of the major problems I have with the entire project (Horse, Pronuciation Book and Bear Stearns Bravo) is that ARG’s have become vehicles for demonstrating a comforting intent behind the complex facades of our modern, hyper-real lives. The trappings and narrative don’t have to be touchy feely for people to soothed by the implication that everything has meaning -- just look at the 9-11 truther movement. But, and this is pretty much a core tenant of post-modernism, that’s a lie. A Twitter account that seemed purpose built to deny Occam’s Razor becomes an art project consumed with slapping us around with it. Occam’s Razor is bogus, by the way. All things are never equal, and correct answers don’t get bonus points for being simpler.

There is no “underlying master intent” behind many of the human-designed and curated phenomena we encounter. ARGs are designed with intent, but Horse_ebooks? The strange relationship between bizarre unfashionability and culture-shifting newness that makes a hit youtube channel? Those often can’t be designed. And even when they are, we don’t want them to be. Look at Lana del Rey’s exposure for being “inauthentic,” an “ersatz” artist. I’m not saying that things that are “inauthentic” are bad -- I don’t care to even discuss whether something is or isn’t “the real thing,” -- but people really don’t like feeling like they have been fooled, and the feeling of betrayal is only heightened when they are passionate fans.

This might be the strongest statement that Horse_ebooks has said to us now that the cards are down and it’s done with. It was a powerful assertion of control, but ultimately, I don’t know if these performances are actually any more simplistic or plausible than the idea that bots were crafting them.

Note from Lucas: The whole [falsely understood] idea of “This is not a game,” that ARGs should be concerned with making people think they’re real, is so 2005. The interesting part isn’t in the fooling. As Brian Clark pointed out on Facebook, the audience needs to be in on the joke, not the brunt of it. Haven’t we moved on? The things we can do with transmedia are so much more interesting than “make them think it’s real.”

Both Horse_ebooks and the Pronounciation Book channel were described in the New Yorker piece that broke the story as having “The hallmarks of automation, chugging along anonymously and churning out disjointed bits of text in a very spam-like fashion.” That’s definitely a stretch. It is clear that this was the intent for Horse, but the Youtube channel? After all, with text-to-speech and natural language processing what is it, it’s quite impossible for a machine to narrate or even write the scripts for the youtube channel by itself.

Perhaps what we’re really faced with is two creators who saw an opportunity to exploit the internet to gain a following for a completely unrelated project that -- despite their claims that they have been working carefully on it for years -- looks to have been shoehorned onto the channel and the bot relatively recently. It’s possible that Bakkila was partially telling the truth to Gaby Dunn; maybe the original intent had to be changed before the big reveal. Who can say, now? Clearly the project’s creators are completely invested in putting forth their new Bear Stearns Bravo narrative.

It almost feels like Horse -- or at least Bear Stearns Bravo -- could have been what ARGers have been looking for for so long: an art-piece ARG [rather than a marketing stunt] that could actually make money and be self-sufficient. Instead though, the execution, themes and style seem to be muddled and at odds with one another.

Whatever the intent, it is what it is now. I finished the first episode of Bear Stearns Bravo a few days ago, and I have to say that I really liked it. It's totally up my alley in both style and taste. I might drop 7 dollars on it, simply because I think the first episode was pretty fun. It’s an over-the-top capitalist dystopian epic about the financial meltdown as told through the lens of the 1980’s. The themes addressed by Horse_ebooks (in any of its incarnations), however, were not to be seen at all.

Ultimately, I suppose I’m deeply ambivalent about the entire thing. It's a false advertisement (thanks to ARGs' traditional familiarity with marketing techniques) for the fake-yet-monetizable social network Bravo that was supported by a "real," yet failed, marketing tool, Horse_ebooks, that was combined with an overt attempt to game the Youtube and Google systems to create (and comment on, if you are feeling generous) an easily exploitable "organic" audience through Pronunciation Book, with which the creators sought to turn into monetary support for a game that takes all these contemporary and relevant thoughts and happenings and then contextualize them within the framework of a late 1980's era view of the future and the internet.

I think that Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book could have been really interesting art projects on their own and separately. They needed to come to an end eventually, and how those ends were handled clearly left much to be desired. Bear Stearns Bravo could also be a really interesting interactive project in its own right. Where it all falls apart is that the creators of these projects made them connect.

– Andrew