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

Bloomberg launches $50 million anti-gun violence effort

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to spend $50 million on a grassroots anti-gun violence network to challenge the National Rifle Association.

Local

East Village woman fights off rape attempt from…

An East Village woman fought off an attempted rapist that she woke to find standing on her bed over the weekend, police said.

International

Nearly 300 missing after South Korean ferry capsizes

Almost 300 people were missing after a ferry capsized off South Korea Wednesday, in what could be the country's biggest maritime disaster in over 20 years.

Local

Police look for man suspected of threatening Muslim…

Police seek man suspected of calling a teen Muslim girl a "terrorist" and spitting on her multiple times while on a Queens bus.

The Word

Jenny McCarthy and Donnie Wahlberg are engaged

If Donnie Wahlberg wants to get vaccinated against anything, he should do it soon: he and Jenny McCarthy are engaged, she just announced on "The View."

Television

TV watch list, Wednesday, April 16: 'The Americans,'…

'The Americans' Philip and Elizabeth face "painful turns" in their missions. Maybe next week they'll have a nice easy mission with no moral ambiguity? Probably…

Movies

Curtain raiser: The Tribeca Film Festival arrives this…

The Tribeca Film Festival begins its two-week run in Lower Manhattan on Thursday, boasting dozens and dozens of films of all stripes.

Movies

Review: 'Bears' is a cute Disney doc about…

Disney's latest nature doc, "Bears," doesn't completely shy away from the fact that its subjects would devour you (or eachother) if they had the chance.

NHL

Islanders back to rebuilding mode after disappointing season

One season after qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2006-07, the Islanders finished 2013-14 with a 34-37-11 record.

NFL

Jets confident despite Chris Johnson leaving with no…

Jets fans clamored for a playmaker on offense all offseason. It looked like they were going to land that player on Tuesday when Chris Johnson…

NBA

Knicks, Nets rivalry never materialized despite national attention

When the NBA schedule was released, the league anticipated an intense rivalry between the Nets and Knicks with all four games slated for national TV.

NBA

NBA Power Rankings: Are the Spurs frauds? Could…

NBA Power Rankings: Are the Spurs frauds? Could the Mavericks surprise?

Wellbeing

Could a facelift give you the edge at…

It's not just women lining up for procedures.

Home

Steal home decorating tips from Nattystyle blogger Natalie…

Despite the towering ceilings and enviable exposed brick, it’s easy to see how Natalie Decleve’s apartment could be considered a challenge. Perched above the streets…

Home

How to plant a garden in the city

Small on space but big on gardening? You can still have that welcoming oasis of fresh air with an urban garden. Peter Smith, owner of…

Style

Personalize your massage at a private practice

CityTouch customizes spa treatments to meet client's needs.