The Ballad of @Horse_ebooks
Of the accounts that follow me on Twitter, half are spambots. About 15% are companies or organizations whose social media interns found me on a list somewhere, and another 15% are something in between: not definitely bots, but not exactly humans. Whatever they are, they’re not “listening” in any meaningful sense. Among the remaining group are some people I like, some people I like a lot, some people I don’t know, and a bunch of technology PR professionals who don’t really have a choice.
My “Follow” list, in contrast, is cultivated with great care — it’s almost exclusively people I think are funny. But the funniest account I follow doesn’t belong to a comedian. It isn’t a parody account and it doesn’t tell jokes. It’s a spam bot that sells shitty ebooks about horses, and it might be the best Twitter account that has ever existed.
Horse_ebooks is having a moment. It’s recently surfaced on Buzzfeed, Metafilter, and the Daily Dot, not to mention every social news site. It even got an on-air mention on Attack of the Show. This last weekend, it was conferred with one of the capital-I Internet’s few honors: NYT tech writer and resident meme sieve Jenna Wortham blogged about it on the paper’s site.
The coverage was oblique and indirect — it was about one of the many horse_ebooks-inspired projects on the Internet, not the account itself — but horse_ebooks fans seemed to know exactly what it meant. Lindsey Weber, Buzzfeed writer and longtime horse_ebooks booster, posted on Twitter: “#dontforgetmehorseE”
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Here’s what I know about horse_ebooks, I think:
1. It is a spam account. It tweets snippets of semi-promotional text throughout the day and night. Unlike most spam accounts, which trawl for Tweets relevant to their pitch and automatically respond to buzzwords, horse_ebooks doesn’t respond to anyone. Horse_ebooks doesn’t mass-follow, another common spamming technique. (Since new follower notification emails — which contain profile information, including links — users receive aren’t stopped by spam filters, but most of the people followed by horse_ebooks are people who chose to follow it first.) The reason it hasn’t been shut down yet is the same reason it’s so hilariously terrible at its job: It doesn’t bother anyone who doesn’t want to be bothered.
2. It’s part of a much larger network of spam accounts, all controlled by the same entity, and all of which serve the same cause: To sell awful ebooks. The site linked to by the account, horse-ebooks.com, is registered to someone named Alexei (or Alexey) Kouznetsov. He owns roughly 170 other domains, nearly all of which are connected to current or defunct horse_ebooks-style spam accounts. His listed email address doesn’t work, and messages sent through his sites’ comment forms apparently go nowhere. The phone number linked to the registration does not connect. The address on the account points to a lovely looking neighborhood in the outskirts of Moscow:
The other accounts that list “11 Lenina” as home include company_ebooks, action_ebooks, and mystery_ebooks — a personal favorite. Most have been Tweeting unnoticed and undisturbed for a year or more, though never much more. Some have been suspended — rest in peace, @depressionbook — and a few, such as the fabulous @men_and_woman, have fallen into a state of disrepair. They don’t Tweet, but haven’t been banned. Maybe they were warned.
3. It basically can’t be working, at least not as it’s intended. Every few Tweets these accounts post a link to accounts on Clickbank, a shady-seeming affiliate marketing site. It’s supposed to work like this: You create (or select) some kind of digital product; you send it into one of Clickbank’s ecommerce site templates; you promote the product book and, in exchange for cross promotion, the books of others; you get money. These products are all digital (ebooks, PDF guides, etc) and, as far as I can tell, universally terrible. Horse_ebooks’ Tweets originally sampled from the books it was meant to promote, which, judging by their content, are mashed-together guides for raising, racing and betting on horses. I can’t imagine buying one, except out of novelty.
The awful presentation, the bumbling bot-speak, the unbuyable books — it can give the overall impression, despite the accounts’ prolific outputs, that they have been abandoned. Ebooks accounts seem as though they have lost their operator, not that he was ever really doing anything in the first place. It’s probably that @horse_ebooks uses some variation on one of the many programs designed to automate Clickbank promotions.
4. It was “discovered” in April of last year. Jon Hendren, known on Twitter as @fart and at work as Johnny “DocEvil” Titanium, posted a whole bunch of Horse_ebooks Tweets on the front page of SomethingAwful.com. (They probably came from the SomethingAwful forums before that.) His description of the account pretty well sums it up:
@Horse_ebooks is a Twitter bot designed and automated by apparently some Russian guy to sell worthless, horrible ebooks about horses. In order to avoid being detected as a spam bot, it occasionally posts a text snippet or two from one of its ebooks, chosen at random. I will never buy an ebook from it, but I will follow this Twitter account until I die or horses become extinct, whichever comes first.
Something Awful is the gravitational center for a small and loosely knit group of Twitterers, who in turn sit at the center of a larger absurd, surreal and mostly wonderful Twitter subculture. What they do is hard to describe, but these people — Twitter folks like @katienotopoulos, @agentlebrees, @cheesegod69 and @tricialockwood, to name a few — are of a know-it-if-you-see-it sort. If they have a single easily discernible trait, it’s that they know and love @horse_ebooks.
These are the kind of people that professional Internet-scrapers love and depend on. Their jokes and memes eventually manifest as Top 10 posts on one site or another, only sometimes with credit. (Here’s an example of how that process goes, from the other week.)
5. People love it. I don’t remember exactly when I became a fan — probably about June — but by then, @horse_ebooks & co were a regular fixture, via retweets, in my Twitter feed. Every few days I would get a message from some horse Horse. Usually it was a silly truncation:
Often it would be something close to a kōan:
Sometimes it was a a simple and stirring command: “Ride”
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John Darnielle, who most people know as the man behind, or more accurately just as, The Mountain Goats, came across horse_ebooks the same way the rest of us did: “I think somebody told me to follow them — I also feel like there was a non-horse one in the mix, but I don’t really remember.” I asked him what he saw in horse_ebooks:
To me it’s just found poetry, which is kind of the poetry virtually everybody loves — who hasn’t seen a stray phrase jump out of a billboard or something and just sort of relished free-floating ideas in phrases? Combine that with the way that our own experience of Twitter, most people’s experience, is: “I type something and hit the ‘Tweet’ button” — there’s this presumption of autonomy, of a sentient mind.
We know there are bots, see ’em all the time, but all of them are visibly trying to sell us something with every tweet — GIFT CARD CLICK HERE — whereas the e_books accounts, while their idea is to get you to someplace where you might buy a book?? or maybe just to get ad revenue from the site they link you to, they sort of behave like androids in Blade Runner: they do a decent job of appearing dumbly sentient. Which can be hilarious.
It can be! In fact it reliably is. Ed Zitron, another horse_ebooks fan, says “the magic is borderline slapstick. In the same way a honk of a horn might make you laugh, so would Horse_Ebooks tweeting ‘frog’”
I tend to liken horse_ebooks to some wacky public access show you might have watched in college. There’s no comedic motive — as with the weirdo doing a foreign events call-in show at 3:00 in the morning, there’s no irony — but it doesn’t carry that guilt of mockery: you are not, and couldn’t be, making fun of Horse_ebooks. If anything, it’s making fun of you.
Whatever the appeal — explication does more harm than good — it’s stuck with people. Someone started a genuinely good horse_ebooks fanfiction site. There’s Horse_ecomics, which posts comics inspired by the account’s Tweets, and a litany of smaller tributes: people have had ordered framed images of the account’s avatar, turned Tweets into mug inscriptions (“Swallow that garbage”), and renamed their Twitter accounts in it honor.
Ryan O’Connor is one of more than a few people who’ve given @horse_ebooks serious thought. He gave a talk, titled ‘The Horse Computer in Kiev’ at Mind Maze II, a lecture series in Albuquerque, NM. “The core of my presentation,” he says, “was looking at Horse_ebooks as a take on Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s ‘Oblique Strategies.’” It was a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course:
But that‘s not to imply that it wasn’t rigorous, or fascinating. Here’s the gist:
The Oblique Strategies were cards printed with random snippets of phrases (see a pattern?) used by writers, authors, musicians, etc to break through creative dilemmas by forcing you to make sense of them. Examples include ‘ask your body’ and ‘only one element of each kind.’
These snippets clearly resemble the broken up tweets of Horse_ebooks (and the other ebooks accounts), and that is where I see its limitless value — every tweet by Horse_ebooks is simultaneously profound and confounding.
Interestingly enough, the operator of the Oblique Strategies twitter has responded and said that he does see a similarity.
O’Connor, with a friend, has applied for a grant to build a statue of the horse_ebooks avatar for an upcoming digital art conference in NM (rendering of said statue pictured below, by Andrew Berry). He’ll know if he’s getting it in February.
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On September 14th, 2011, something happened to @horse_ebooks. The account, which had been dutifully Tweeting promotional links and text snippets from a custom Twitter client called “Horse ebooks,” began posting, instead, “via web,” which is the tag carried by Tweets that original from Twitter.com.
On it’s own this wouldn’t have meant much — bots can and do post “via web” — but it felt like something else had changed. The Tweets were immediately weirder. The kinds of Tweets that used to take weeks to show up — the perfect truncations, the ominous declarations — were now coming fast and hard. Here’s what it looked like:
Before the change: Boring spam, spam, spam link, slightly funny spam, spam. After the change: Ridiculous (and almost teasing!) portent, absurd non sequitur, then, finally, something close to the perfect horse_ebooks Tweet.
What appears to have happened, at minimum, is that the corpus changed. If you Google the contents of old @horse_ebooks Tweets, you’d always find them online. This remained true after That Fateful Day, but the words weren’t just pulled from horse-related ebooks, as they had been. They came from all over the place, and they were far weirder than ever before, and much less sloppy. The account went from Tweet occasional delightful accidents between HTML parsing glitches and spam links to posting 24/7 zaniness, sometimes with unusual formatting and line breaks.
Darnielle says he sensed some sort of change. “I gotta say, the charm is in the accidental quality of it,” he says. “When they start having full sentences, or seeming to cut off at points to get laffs, it’s less funny. I think I stopped following ‘horse,’ I have enough people in my timeline who’ll RT anything funny enough to merit me seeing it.”*
There was talk of hacking, which never really made sense (it posts wayyyy too much, and it’s still spamming). Some suggested that it was just running different bot software, which is reasonable. Others rightly pointed out how completely ridiculous it was to have this conversation at all.
O’Connor raises another possibility, that the change is mostly an illusion: “To be honest, I find that conversation to be somewhat grating, and the kind of thing people do to assign some weird intrigue to Horse_ebooks. Via web versus via horse_ebooks, the product is still the same,” adding, however, that he finds it “a bit odd” that while many ebooks accounts died off last year, the most popular one didn’t.
Gawker writer/horse_ebooks follower Max Read, in an email, shared O’Connor’s sentiment:
I actually think it’s kind of beside the point — if it was, in fact, hacked or taken over, the cover-up is so elaborate and seamless that it wouldn’t matter. It’s sort of a philosophical question, I guess?
There’s this Pascal quote that I can’t find now about belief and practice — something like how if you think you’re an atheist but you kneel to pray, you’re not really an atheist. 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.
[But]I get the distinction — it’s kind of a signal/noise thing? Like it’s “cool” when its us inventing signals out of noise; it’s not cool when it’s all signal masquerading as noise. I think the “shift” is more in our heads: we started looking for the signal and then decided it was all signal. Like, I don’t know, noticing that some clouds have shapes, and then starting to see shapes in all the clouds. And then deciding that someone has a cloud machine. Are the clouds more shaped, or has our response to the clouds changed?
Of course Read and O’Connor are right when they point out that the entire discussion is silly, or indulgent, or that it involves articulating ideas and assuming premises that are, ehhhhh, kind of embarrassing to talk about? They are! It is! This is. Horse_ebooks! Follow horse_ebooks!
*Darnielle goes on: “I actually have a theory that all e_books accounts are much funnier when other people RT them, there’s something hilarious about a person who you KNOW is a person saying: ‘listen, a guy told me something, I have to share it with you’ and then it’s a sentence fragment that ends with a comma like ‘trainer of deadly untrainable horses,’. <—- that’s one of the horse ebooks tweets that makes you think ‘somebody over at horse ebooks knows people are getting laughs from this’ by the way.”
John Herrman is a sentient being who writes about technology for Popular Mechanics, amongst other places.