The promise of the horse? That it was the network itself. @Horse_ebooks, reporters told us, was powered by an algorithm: The nuggets and aphorisms it shot into cyberspace were human words, written, to some approximation, by humans. Was the source text for @horse_ebooks ebooks, or books, or just the web itself? It wasn’t clear. But we loved the horse because it was the network talking to itself about us, while trying to speak to us. Our inventions, speaking—somehow sublimely—of ourselves. Our joy was even a little voyeuristic. An algorithm does not need an audience.
Performance art, however, turns on an audience: If there is no audience, it seems like there can be no art. (Even if the audience is just the artist herself.) We still don’t know if Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, the men behind the account, wrote the horse’s little texts or generated them somehow. (We’ll find out later today.) But we know the horse existed for us, now, and as @leoncrawl wrote on Twitter:
To me, though, that disappointment is only a mark of the horse’s success. We believed we were watching the digital work mutter happily to itself about us, its anxious masters. Maybe the digital world was trying to sell us something, too, but its method of doing so was so blissfully ignorant, so warmly earnest, somehow, that we obliged. We loved @horse_ebooks because it was seerlike, childlike.
But no: There were people behind it all along. We thought we were obliging a program, a thing which needs no obliging, whereas in fact we were falling for a plan.
@Horse_ebooks was a fiction, in other words. It was about the network and it took the form of network. It was loved by many users, a semi-daily treat in their feed, and hated by others. Humans, in coded clothing.
It was the most successful piece of cyber-fiction of all time.
At the beginning of the piece, I recalled the question: When would blogs be art? Personally, I’m not sure this is a useful question. It’s far better to ask: What do blogs — or tweets or Facebook pages or Tumblrs — do? How do they variously represent the world? How do they change our understanding of other things we call art? When we interact with them, what are we doing?
* An earlier version of this article stated that Bakkila and Bender are both Buzzfeed employees. Only Bakkilla is employed by Buzzfeed — he’s their creative director. Also, an earlier version confused the work of Erin Watson, who uses horse tweets in her poetry, and Kimberly Walters, who writes entire poems by joining @horse_ebooks tweets.