The man behind Horse_ebooks: Jacob Bakkila talks to Metro

Thomas Bakkila, center, is the man behind Twitter account @Horse_ebooks. He answered phones on Tuesday and spouted bits of spam to callers.  Credit: Jacob Bakkila
Thomas Bakkila, center, is the man behind Twitter account @Horse_ebooks. He answered phones on Tuesday and spouted bits of spam to callers.
Credit: Jacob Bakkila

Twitter users have wondered for years who was behind the mysterious, nonsensical account @Horse_ebooks. The voraciously read and retweeted account’s strange posts alternate between uncannily poetic sentence fragments and links to e-books — some have even wondered if the tweets were actually the work of a spambot.

It seemed the mystery had been solved last year, when Gawker revealed that the owner of Horse-Ebooks.com was a Moscow-based web developer named Alexei Kouznetsov, who owned many other spam sites. But not everyone was convinced — how could a spambot come up with tweets that almost made sense, like “And Gain Power By Learning Ways To Become Peaceful” or “Just look at everything I am going”?

It turns out that Jacob Bakkila, a creative director at BuzzFeed, took over the account from Kouznetsov in 2011 and continued tweeting from @Horse_ebooks as part of a performance art project. He and Thomas Bender maintained a similar YouTube account called Pronunciation Book and revealed themselves yesterday through an article in the New Yorker by Susan Orlean. Two years after Bakkila took over the account and more than 200,000 followers later came @Horse_ebooks’ final tweets: “(213) 444 0102″ and then “Bear Stearns Bravo,” the name of Bakkila and Bender’s new project. Followers could call the number to hear Bender and Bakkila reading spam into the phone while they sat at the Fitzroy Gallery on the Lower East Side on Tuesday.

We talked to Bakkila about his new projects and, of course, @Horse_ebooks.

Why? I mean really, why did you do it?

I’m interested in the value of information, which can range from valueless chatter to state secrets, and how much we overshare, or maybe undershare. We use increasingly complex systems to communicate, and it’s really hard to tell when you’re wasting time and when you’re working. I’m influenced by the performance artist Sam Hsieh, and wanted to understand better the systems we use.

This tweet has been reported as the first when you took over the account: “You will undoubtedly look back on this moment with shock and”. That doesn’t seem like an accident. What was your original plan? Did you know you’d keep it up for two years?

I knew what I was getting into. The plan was to perform as a machine for roughly two years. That first post was a little cheeky, admittedly.

What if it had never taken off? Would you have given up?

No, the performance wasn’t dependent on popularity or interest. I did not expect it to get even a fraction of popular as it did, but I would have continued regardless of the circumstances and surrounding interest.

Where did you find the sentence fragments you tweeted?

It was from, generally, the same corpus as the bot pulled from — the tens of thousands of low-quality public domain spam e-books that fill up the internet. When you see a banner that says, “Read about this one weird trick that a mom uses to keep her teeth white,” it’s likely directing you to a spam e-book. I would occasionally pull from Google Books as well, so ultimately, anything that had ever been published was on the table.

You worked with Thomas Bender on this. Who was behind what?

I was behind Horse_ebooks, and Tom and I collaborated on Pronunciation Book.

Were you ever tempted to tell your BuzzFeed colleagues that you were behind the account? How did they react when they found out?

I was never tempted, although I’d see them retweeting it and was always amazed. I can’t speak for the whole of BuzzFeed, but my department loved it. (I work in the creative department.) They bought me a cake, which is a great reward for completing a piece of conceptual art.

How did you get Susan Orlean involved?

I sent her an email that proved I was the owner of the account and asked if she’d be interested in doing a piece. She responded immediately, and we went from there.

Tell me more about Bear Stearns Bravo.

Bear Stearns Bravo, available at BearStearnsBravo.com, is a series of hundreds of videos that compose a single piece of video art. It’s lightly interactive: Think a “choose your own adventure” book, except a film. It is set in a fictionalized version of the 2007/2008 financial collapse, and it is within this fiction that the characters of @Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book exist.

The first episode of the video is free to play, forever, and can be played dozens of different ways with many, many different paths and endings. I won’t put a specific number to it, but it’s roughly the equivalent of several movies. The second is $7 to access the interactive menus, and comes with an account for our in-universe Internet service provider, BravoNET, where we release new content that fits with the project. The engine for the game is publicly available YouTube clips, which are all free, of course. … What we’re charging for is exclusively what surrounds the clips themselves.


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