@Horse_ebooks is, or was, the definitive Weird Twitter account. Its charm lay in the surreal meaninglessness of its tweets—the way that something so strange, funny, and occasionally poetic could be produced by an apparent spambot.
So for many people, today’s revelation of @Horse_ebooks’ “real” author was a major letdown. A BuzzFeed employee and a performance artist? Sitting around in a New York art gallery and reading tweets out loud over the phone? With the ultimate goal of shilling their new alternate reality game called Bear Stearns Bravo?
Mysteries are usually more interesting before they’re solved, but @Horse_ebooks’ big reveal was particularly disappointing.
As Gawker’s Adrian Chen discovered in 2012, @Horse_ebooks was originally run by a Russian spambot domain owner named Alexei Kouznetsov. According to a profile in today’s New York Times, BuzzFeed’s Jakob Bakkila bought the account in 2011 with the aim of “becoming” the @Horse_ebooks spammer as part of a performance art piece. But despite the popularity of the account (200,000-plus followers, as well as millions of retweets, in-jokes, and every sort of spinoff Etsy product), this is not the kind of Internet fame that translates into ad revenue or even critical acclaim.
The main appeal of @Horse_ebooks was that it almost certainly wasn’t even a person. It was about discovery—finding inspiration, humor, insight, and life from something so profoundly lifeless. The enthusiasm for the account, and the mystery behind Pronunciation Book’s related countdown, is unlikely to transfer over to Bakkila and Thomas Bender’s new ARG—not when the initial reaction is a sense of betrayal and innocence lost. (It doesn’t help the launch video looks like a cross between a pharmaceutical commercial and a video game cut scene. )
“It’s morning in cyberspace, and the systems are in love”? Already, Bear Stearns Bravo seems dated, like a cyberpunk cash-in from the early 2000s, launched using the platform of 2013 Weird Twitter popularity. The godfather of cyberpunk, William Gibson, was never fooled:
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
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
While the @Horse_ebooks/Pronunciation Book revelation will undoubtedly provide a burst of publicity, Bakkila and Bender have already torpedoed their main fanbase. As Kelly Faircloth explained in Betabeat, using the previously @Horse_ebooks to shill an ARG wasn’t the only problem: It was the medium they used to do it.
“Calling it art and announcing a gallery show made it somehow more intolerable, like the whole time they’d just been snickering at Twitter’s genuine love. Handing the scoop to the New Yorker felt like the final fuck you to the people who had rallied around the handle; the ‘artists’ didn’t want the news broken by Mr. Chen or even BuzzFeed, but a publication deeply disconnected from the bizarro depths of the Internet.”
(Eds. note: Bakkila and Bender also reached out to the Daily Dot to request we not publish their real identities before the final announcement.)
Even if Bear Stearns Bravo incorporates puzzle-solving elements, surreal Twitter humour, or Internet mysteries, the ARG launch—with real-life people answering real-life phones—seemed both cynical and mainstream, the antithesis of a naturally occurring Internet phenomenon.
In hindsight, it’s easy to put all of the pieces together. But does Bakkila deserve credit for the cult of @Horse_ebooks? The account was already established when he purchased it in September 2011. His most impressive feat was tweeting in character for two years.
You will undoubtedly look back on this moment with shock and— Horse ebooks (@Horse_ebooks) September 14, 2011
But Bakkila surely understood the appeal back then, so why did he and Bender fail to understand that using @Horse_ebooks as a marketing ploy would be so unpopular?
Ultimately, no product with visible creators or a media-friendly goal like an alternate reality gaming will ever have the same appeal as the pure mystery of @Horse_ebooks’ nonsensical tweets, or the 4chan-based treasure hunt dedicated to the Pronunciation Book countdown.
And as many people have pointed out in half-hearted tweets about losing their trust in humanity, the Bear Stearns Bravo revelation may have ruined future Internet mysteries for the rest of us. It’s made cynics of us all.
If the seemingly pure, random idiocy of @Horse_ebooks isn’t real, then what what can we believe in?
Illustration by Jason Reed