Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Downfall of Horse_ebooks

"Meet Trouble, the incorrigible rogue colt that refuses to be ridden but later goes on to discover deep within himself the... most dreadful thing that can ever happen to a horse owner... BLACK FURY... ...AND much, much."
— Horse E. Books
That's how the stories used to go, brilliant disconnected snippets resolving over a day into a sliced-up narrative or one cobbled together by the reader, through his or her playful imagination. Along with hysterically funny sudden interjections, like a harmlessly crazy person on a street corner, that's what we used to get, before we supposedly lost Horse_ebooks, when something changed, almost imperceptibly.

I always wanted to call it "Horsey Books," thinking it was a play on words. The actual name is "Horse_ebooks," with or without the space, which is what you find on its Twitter feed, and which is probably just coincidence. Spam usually isn't punny.'s Johnny "Docevil" Titanium first wrote about the account and gave the skinny on it thus:
@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.
Docevil is a good guy, and if you want to force Smash Mouth to eat a shitload of eggs, you couldn't find a better man. Due diligence, on the other hand, is something he's a little shaky on. It's certainly possible that he found a way of tracking down and establishing a Russian spam connection, but it's probably just as likely that this account is run out of a sewing room in Secaucus by the actual mom who discovered all those amazing ways to earn thousands of dollars a year, online, from your own home.

Horse_ebooks is most definitely a bot; it lacks any self-awareness, coherency or seeming ability to respond to all but the most basic stimuli. Its origins have always been a mystery, one that deepened around September 14, when Horse_ebooks stopped updating tweets "from Horse ebooks" and started posting them directly "from the web." It had always tweeted asinine search-engine optimization and blog-monetizing sales pitches, but now there seemed to be a few more sprinkled in with the insane interjections. This led to the strangest phenomenon of all: dozens of smart, funny insightful people spending day after day on Twitter, complaining, "Horse_ebooks SUCKS now," even tweeting at the account itself and berating it. Just picture someone getting mad at a bot, like your roommate irrationally screaming "fuck you" at a microwave display that counted down to zero and scrolled, "Enjoy...your...meal...."

Nothing Horse_ebooks had been or even remotely intended to create could have matched this response: smart people debating, condemning and mourning the loss of a vaguely defined artificial voice and sincerely declaring that they preferred the early work of a spam bot better than its compromised new stuff. It was like seeing someone replace their old Yamaha electric keyboard with a newer model and claiming that the virtually identical samba beat presets on the new one "sold out."

This isn't necessarily a weird response. Any sort of engagement with the internet comes freighted with discussion of simulacra and weightless unrealities and how their representation comes to supersede the importance of things we tangibly interact with. In a culture so saturated with promotional materials, street teams, automated websites and the commercialization of practically any experience, we can have a valuable and smart dialogue about whether our interacting with ads creates a new art and discourse. We can have these heady Baudrillard conversations about a Matrix whose agents are floating Papa John's ads, fake Facebook notifications and, depending on where we are, pop-ups that say, "Hey, [user name], I'm horny and all alone and want to party in [city your IP address is currently in]."

What was most interesting about the "RIP, Horse_ebooks discussion," however, is that people on Twitter began to concoct elaborate explanations about what happened to it. On the internet, where most technology-related arguments seem to involve a race to determine who first gets to use the term "Occam's Razor," each side was content to hatch an involuted conspiracy theory about spam. To the outsider, it seems fairly obvious that someone tweaked an algorithm that posted automated Twitter content from one place ("Horse ebooks") and replaced it with posted automated content from somewhere else ("the web"). What could be likened to changing the automatic timer on a sprinkler system instead became the outward sign that someone had hacked Horse_ebooks so he or she could update it personally.

In short, the most outraged and negative theory was that a human being subverted the creative process by disabling a spam bot and deciding to use his or her own imagination. Somehow this act ruined it, an act for which the only proof is the essentially meaningless tag indicating where the tweets originate. Too bad you didn't start following them before they were famous; last week, Horse_ebooks added roughly 2,000 new followers — who, as newcomers, don't really "get" Horse_ebooks. Not like it matters or anything: I heard they suck live.