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.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Mayor reveals new tech hub Digital.NYC

Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed Digital.NYC on Wednesday, a new online platform aimed at connecting all things tech in New York City. The public-private partnership…

Local

Falling debris hits two men in Times Square

Two men were taken to the hospital Wednesday morning after being hit by falling debris from 110 feet above Times Square. Nancy Greco from the…

Local

Queens Assemblyman William Scarborough accused of misusing campaign…

Queens Assemblyman William Scarborough has been indicted on state and federal charges for allegedly withdrawing campaign funds as cash for personal use. Scarborough, a Democrat…

News

U.S. Secret Service director Pierson resigns under fire

U.S. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson resigned under fire on Wednesday after a series of security lapses came to light.

Television

TV watch list, Wednesday, Oct. 1: 'Criminal Minds,'…

The "Criminal Minds" team adds some supernatural assistance, as the "Ghost Whisperer" herself, Jennifer Love Hewitt, joins the show. She's playing an FBI agent, but you never know when someone…

Music

See the most popular Pandora station in your…

Who knew Bachata music was so popular?

The Word

The Word: Twilight just won't die

You thought our "Twilight" days were behind us, didn't you? Well think again. Series creator Stephenie Meyer (who would rather you not ask about "Twilight"…

Going Out

Which NYC restaurant lost its three-star Michelin rating?

A record 73 restaurants in New York City collected coveted Michelin stars on Tuesday as a mix of trendy spots and fine-dining stalwarts underscored the…

NFL

Rex Ryan fields more questions about Geno Smith,…

The idea Geno Smith will be replaced by backup Michael Vick appears to be all smoke, as the Jets are intent to ride with their second-round draft pick.

NFL

Will Beatty playing like franchise left tackle again…

Left tackle Will Beatty, who is the elder-statesman of Giants’ line, has turned around his season and become a consistent force on Manning’s blindside.

NFL

John Conner back with Jets for second stint

He'll be back. It's "Terminator 2" for the Jets, who brought back John Conner to the team on Tuesday after placing fullback Tommy Bohanon on…

NFL

Fantasy football: Ben Tate to break out, Larry…

Fantasy football: Ben Tate to break out, Larry Donnell will stay solid

Career

Creating a support system for minority women in…

When Kathryn Finney founded digitalundivided — an organization devoted to engaging minority communities with the tech world — she didn’t know quite what to expect.…

Sex

We can learn a lot from animals about…

There’s a lot we can learn about love from the birds and the bees — and the chickens, monkeys and squirrels that we share the…

Style

Saint Laurent

Our review of the Saint Laurent Spring '15 show at Paris Fashion Week.

Style

Céline: Paris Fashion Week Spring 2015

Our review of the Celine Spring '15 show during Paris Fashion Week.