Do androids dream of electric Tweets?

By Johnny McCabe

Courtesy of Shawn Campbell/Flickr

In the modern age of information domination, spambots and their ilk are no strange sight. Advertising has flooded from the television and the radio waves onto the nascent playground of the Internet, a veritable landscape of possibilities for the enterprising entrepreneur. Much of the day-to-day work of history’s salesman is long gone, taken over by automated scripts and bits of coding, flooding email inboxes and social networking sites with “spammy” and shallow sales pitches. These virtual snake oil vendors work all hours of the day and night, knowing neither rest nor respite. The Twitter account “@horse_ebooks” was one such spambot, thought by its cult fan following to be nothing more than a glitchy yet oddly prophetic random text generator. Horse_ebooks was a spambot, but with a shocking secret: it was actually alive.

This past Tuesday, in New York City”s Lower East Side, a man named Jacob Bakkila revealed to the world that he had been the person behind the Twitter handle “@horse_ebooks” since September 2011, when he clandestinely the account from its creator, Russian hacker Alexei Kouzetsnov. Bakkila, a former creative director for viral content aggregate Buzzfeed, chose to team up with Thomas Bender, former vice president of product development for the educational site Howcast and owner of the equally mysterious Youtube account “Pronunciation Book,” for what the duo termed a piece of “conceptual performance art.” The pair used the mutual abstract fragmentary voices of Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book as a viral marketing campaign for their next piece, “Bear Stearns Bravo,” an interactive “choose your own adventure” experience.

The revelations of the true nature of Horse_ebooks and the shorter lived yet equally perplexing Pronunciation Book have thus far sent ripples of incredulity into the Internet community. Most people thought that the true mastermind behind Horse_ebooks had been revealed in journalist Adrian Chen”s investigative report for Gawker. Chen, however, succeeded only in publicizing the account”s aforementioned creator.

The publicization of Bakkila”s hidden role in the project and the implications of the secret association between Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book have not been taken well by fans of either account. In the time since its inception in 2010, the specialized brand of poetic nonsense unique to Horse_ebooks has aggregated a wildly-devoted cult following, spanning from t-shirts to coffee mugs to bumper stickers and even fan-fiction. Pronunciation Book”s viral “77 Days” countdown attracted amateur theorists from all across the Internet, pondering an imagined climax that actually culminated last Tuesday, with the announcement that both accounts would be closed to prepare for “Bear Stearns Bravo.” One need only inspect the comments section of any website covering the phenomenon to ascertain that the response was less than positive.

On average, the prevailing emotion is anger, followed closely by disappointment. After several years of emotional investment, a beloved viral social media presence is capped off with a halfhearted plug for another piece? All that buildup, all that anticipation, for nothing? One cannot help but think the frustrating system of advertisement has come full circle. As soon as the spammiest of spambots becomes a source of genuine entertainment in its own right, the curtain is yanked away and some form of a soulless marketing campaign is revealed to have been afoot all along.

Or is there something deeper, some element on a more subconscious level that upsets us about Horse_ebooks? Are we upset with having come to look fondly upon or even empathize with a quirky little robot, a mechanical eccentricity, a so called “ghost in the machine,” only to learn we have been beguiled all along? After all, following the media exposure of Alexei Kouzetsnov, the generally-accepted theory by Horse_ebooks fans was that it continued trundling along on its own, an automated curiosity with a quizzical taste for resonant snippets. Is it possible that the root of our anger stems from the fact that Horse_ebooks is human? Could we, a la “Blade Runner,” be so unnerved by the blurring of the line between human and robot, between the biological and the artificial, the natural and the synthetic that a sudden and unexpected inversion of our expectations causes us to recoil in shock and revulsion?

While it”s clear that viral ad campaigns like Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book are evidence of a drastic shift in the makeup of our consumerist society, as drastic as the shift away from traveling salesman and into media, the nature of the reaction to these phenomena is even more fascinating. The future is a big, scary, unbound place, and who knows: maybe we”ll be shocked that the next big Twitter phenomenon is not actually human.

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]