How @Horse_ebooks Went from Spam to Ad to Art Project to Self-Promotion
The man (and the mystery) behind Horse_ebooks, the popular "spam" Twitter account, turns out to be a guy who works at Buzzfeed using it for self-promotion or performance art, but it wasn't always that way.
The man (and the mystery) behind @Horse_ebooks, the popular "spam" Twitter account, turns out to be a guy who works at Buzzfeed who has been using it for self-promotion, performance art, to make money, or all of the above. It was revealed earlier today that on September 24, 2011, Jacob Bakkila "began the conceptual art installation Horse_Ebooks," according to accompanying text for his exhibit currently at the FitzRoy Gallery on Chrystie Street in New York. The announcement of the gallery exhibition and Bakkila's connection to the account, was first made by Susan Orlean in The New Yorker, of all places.
When it started @Horse_Ebooks was not an art project, but an actual spambot operation run by a Russian named Alexey Kouznetsov, as Gawker's Adrian Chen revealed back in 2012. Bakkila had taken over the account from Kouznetsov in 2011, shortly before Chen's story ran, he confirmed to The New York Times's Jenna Wortham. "The idea was to perform as a machine," he told her. But, it's unclear if he initially bought the account as performance art, or just wanted to capitalize on a rising Internet meme.
The Horse_Ebooks exhibit "Bear Sterns Bravo" is a compilation project with the creator of another mysterious Internet meme, the cultish Pronunciation Project YouTube series. That one is run by Thomas Bender, whose identity was also revealed this morning. Neither Bakkila nor Bender intended to end the charade with today's exhibit, according to an unnamed source in The Daily Dot. "The two apparently landed a $40,000 deal to tie the countdown concept to a viral marketing campaign," writes Gaby Dunn. The company who paid for it — which the source did not reveal — pulled out two weeks ago. "Frazzled, the source told me they intended to create a short film in one weekend in a desperate attempt to wrap up Pronunciation Book’s story."
This Bear Sterns Bravo film and the accompanying exhibit is the result of that. On Tuesday at the gallery, Bakkila and Bender are answering phone calls (via this number tweeted here) with lines from the Horse_Ebooks account.
Before Bakkila took over around September 2011, according to Chen, the account had already gained a substantial fanbase. In fact, he picked up the account just as it started going viral. The first fan blog popped up in September 2011, according to Know Your Meme, right before Bakkila acquired the account.
Up until then, @Horse_Ebooks had been "dutifully Tweeting promotional links and text snippets from a custom Twitter client called 'Horse ebooks,'" as John Herrman, another Buzzfeed employee, explained in a January 2012 profile of the bot on Splitsider. "On September 14th, 2011, something happened to @horse_ebooks," he writes. That timing aligns with the art project's September 24 date, suggesting that Herrman and other devoted fans noticed the switch from Horse_Ebooks as hilarious spam to Horse_Ebooks as art project.
Here's what seems to be the first Horse_Ebooks as art tweet, if we go by Herrman's date.
I Will Make Certain You Never Buy Knives Again— Horse ebooks (@Horse_ebooks) September 15, 2011
Or, it could be this going by Bakkila's September 24 date:
Let me ask you a question: Do— Horse ebooks (@Horse_ebooks) September 28, 2011
From then on, both Bakkila and Bender capitalized on their Internet know-how (Bakkila is a creative director at BuzzFeed) to increase virality. Bakkila tweeted like the spam bot that already had gained a following, as Wortham explains:
He mimicked the activity of a spam account, even occasionally tweeting links to the equestrian electronics books that the account was originally set up to try to sell. To create the odd non sequitur that the account became known for, he searched for articles on weight loss, bodybuilding and other types of self-improvement and self-help and skimmed them for material that he could tweet out at random intervals.
He and Bender also gamed Google to draw traffic to the Pronunciation Projects videos, according to Dunn:
Bakkila and Bender, according to the source, wrote a script that scraped Google and YouTube autocomplete for "How Do I Say" and "How Do I Pronounce" and went down the alphabet to find what people were searching for. This allowed them to make videos that would be instantly popular in search results and create a lot of organic traffic.
The motivations at the time were unclear: Internet fame, real ad dollars, art? But today the result is self-promotion. Look: The two landed in The New Yorker via Susan Orlean (who already got herself a movie), The New York Times, and all over Twitter, where devoted fans were perplexed by the news. Their in-real-life art or "art" is even on Gawker.