Whether you consider it brilliant machine-curated poetry or the incoherent by-product of an overseas Internet scam, there is no denying the allure of Horse_ebooks. The mysterious equestrian Twitter account would just be another spambot, were it not for its ability to procedurally summon surprising, nonsensical and accidentally poignant bits of context-free prose into our social streams. In an Internet of increasingly predictable and derivative memes, Horse_ebooks is a loose cannon, an enigmatic relic of the weird and untamable network that once was.
Aside from evidence that the account originated in Russia, however, no one until now had been able to trace the bot’s human origins. In a post on Gawker last week, Adrian Chen claimed to have unmasked the man behind the horse. But was it for the best?
It’s difficult to blame Chen for his efforts. Until recently, many intrepid web sleuths had been searching, sometimes in ways bordering on obsession, for information on the elusive robot and its creator. Now that the curtain has been drawn we find ourselves asking: Do we want to live on an Internet where such digital curiosities as Horse_ebooks are systematically stripped of their mythical qualities?
Horse_ebooks has captured the imagination of thousands, and it’s easy to see why. Peppering its links to discount ebooks and money-making schemes with a steady stream of bizarre text snippets scraped from sample chapters across the net, the humble spambot, in its attempt to avoid being detected as such, has amassed over 48,000 followers. Horse_ebooks tweets have even inspired a series of web comics, fanfiction, merchandise and more.
The bot’s popularity skyrocketed after an odd shift in its behavior last September that caused output to become even stranger. Tweets containing everything from harrowing, fragmented prophecy (“emergence of dark uses of nanotechnology and the amazing”) and awkward non-starters (“Dear Reader, You are reading”) to a single orphaned word or concept (“Emotions”) were all now fair game. The messages were so random that some suspected the account had been “taken over” by a live human. But more likely, Horse_ebooks had simply become something much more than its creator intended; a sort of magic 8-ball for the new online era of context collapse, web filtering and search engine optimization.
Since the so-called “web 2.0” social revolution, the net has become a lot more useful to a lot more people. But that also means that it’s become more regimented and rigidly purposed. The spontaneous, free-spirited aesthetic of early 90s user culture is one of the prime casualties of this transition. While memes were certainly still prevalent back then, one could always hope to find unexpected, unique expression on sites hosted by Geocities, Tripod and the like. Net artists Dragan Espenschied and Olia Lialina regard this period as a golden age of digital folk art where the Internet’s content was unstructured and kaleidoscopic in a way that can now only be remembered through the preserved vestiges of that forgotten era.
Now that the Internet has entered a new age — one powered by a strong and sometimes indistinguishable mix of search algorithms and human curation — it stands to reason that the next wave of fresh content should be a reflection of that. In a way, Horse_ebooks stands unwittingly at the forefront of what this new paradigm is all about: re-appropriation, the erosion of context, and the role of machines in fabricating the space upon which we build our own structures of meaning. It could be seen as a kind of robotic folk art, sourced from the various data that we humans have left scattered around our networks.
This is precisely why it’s so painful to acknowledge the existence of the robot master, now revealed as Alexey Kuznetzsov, a 30-something web programmer based out of the Russian city of Tula. We like to imagine this rogue algorithm, created not by a person but as a product of the network itself, dutifully combing our collective data banks for tiny bits of dormant wisdom. We romanticize the tale of the tweeting horse because on some level we cherish the opaque nature of the processes that produce its output.
Unlike other media, software is uniquely suited to describing and enacting processes. But because those processes usually remain obscured by security and abstracted by symbolic computer language, we become fascinated with the nature of their product. Like all great myths, they activate our primitive sense of wonderment over the fabled “black box.” Biblical myths were celebrated for thousands of years for this very reason: Before science, we took not just comfort but pleasure in explaining the world’s complexities through tale and legend. There is a joy in experiencing the results of processes we understand to be complex, but can not see.
But unlike Biblical myths, which were unraveled over the course of millennia, the modern Internet myth, if sufficiently popular, is deconstructed in no time at all. In our modern day networks, with their vast and interconnected troves of data, it may seem almost impossible for “legends” to even exist at all. Chen acknowledges from the get-go that his quest (and subsequent discovery) could serve to either bolster or diminish the Horse_ebooks legacy. But in the case of the latter, what exactly will we have lost in the process?
For one, myths and legends seem to maintain our interest far longer than your average internet meme. Consider the countless memes that propagated on image boards like 4chan circa 2005-2006 only to vanish into the ether shortly after: They all benefitted from, and ultimately were exhausted by, highly visible formulae that encouraged rapid duplication and mutation by users, not computers.
Memes are transient and formulaic. Horse_ebooks, on the other hand, is like the ultimate meme black box. Its output might be imitated, but the underlying logic responsible for that output will likely never be duplicated to a T. Could there be an actual human being on the other end of the horse, hand-picking the text and conning us all? Absolutely. But honestly, we shouldn’t want to know. Unless something tragic happens, Horse_ebooks, as far as we’re concerned, will simply remain a neutral, unfeeling robot regularly delivering fragmented pieces of ourselves. And that’s something the Internet truly needs.