What’s the difference between a tweet written by a human and a tweet generated by a machine?
In a lot of cases, it’s difficult to tell. Twitter bot developers are allowed unbridled creativity, and Twitter’s open API makes it a place where a bot can do pretty much anything. For example, Nathan Bernard (a developer we interviewed in season 2 of our podcast) tweets both manually and automatically. The automatic side of his account runs a script designed to get the first reply to any Donald Trump tweet. It’s even engineered to match its reply to the original tweet, making it harder to discern whether or not a bot is at work behind the scenes.
The fact that it’s sometimes difficult in 2017 to decide whether or not a tweet is automated might give you some perspective on how audiences felt in 2010 when they first encountered Horse_ebooks.
Dubbed the greatest work of cyber fiction and believed to be controlled by a human poet by those in internet poetry circles, Horse_ ebooks is an excellent metaphor for the state of art in the internet age. Not only did Horse_ ebooks convince people of its humanity, its tweets — randomly extracted from a variety of ebooks and garbled together using Markov chain generation — were accepted as a form of poetry.
Their negativity only served to push me deeper into the realms of soap making.
— Horse ebooks (@Horse_ebooks) February 9, 2012
In reality, Horse_ebooks was founded by an ebook store that owned a network of domains. Each domain was dedicated to a particular niche. For example, there’s also Mystery Ebooks, Action Ebooks and Arthritis Ebooks. While their respective domains have been dead for years, the owner didn’t turn off their bots until relatively recently. Horse_ebooks was really just another one of these promotional bots. The developer used Markov to mash up text from a wide range of sources (and occasionally tweeted the cover of an ebook). The tweets that users saw, and thought were a profound expression, were actually nothing more than half a sentence from a play randomly merged with a few words from a psychology text book, or a snippet from an early how-to guide for bloggers. As the product of an ebook store, the bot likely had a huge pool of text to draw from.
You are reading
— Horse ebooks (@Horse_ebooks) February 10, 2012
A young man who believes in nothing dies in a stupid accident and comes
— Horse ebooks (@Horse_ebooks) January 11, 2012
The inner workings of Horse_ebooks and how it was built might be of interest to developers, but it’s nothing remarkable by today’s standards. Anyone with 30 minutes of time and a bit of patience can set up their own Markov-based bot that pulls in tweets from their own timeline or the timeline of any Twitter user. The really interesting aspect of Horse_ebooks, however, is the effect it had on the internet community. I remember being around at the bot’s peak, lurking on the fringes of the internet art community and seeing Horse _ebooks lauded as some great innovator in the field. Most people believed the account was controlled by a human, or at least moderated by a popular internet art figure as a kind of anonymous poetry project, and I’m sure that if it’d been revealed to be nothing more than a cynical spam bot earlier, then its decline would have come overnight.
Funnily enough, in some weird twist of fate, Horse_ebooks went from being an automated spam account that was treated as an art project to a manual art project that was treated like a spam account. Three years after it was founded, the Horse_ebooks account was purchased by BuzzFeed creative director Jacob Bakilla, and used to promote a choose-your-own-adventure game, Bear Stearns Bravo. I have no idea what the game is about, and, frankly, I don’t care to find out. It’s sad enough to see one of the earliest and most influential bots bought out and used as a promotional tool, or absorbed into some kind of cynical ARG.
In the end, Horse_ebooks is proof that even a spam bot can be art. It’s the signed urinal of the internet generation, made even more fitting by the fact that it’s anonymous and automated. To me, Horse _ebooks isn’t important for its funny non-sequiturs or surprisingly heartfelt musings; it’s important because it’s a milestone of internet history. It represents the years where over 200,000 people were hanging onto the every word of some blind script on the server of an ecommerce company, and happily calling it art. Whichever way you look at it, it is technically just a spambot. But so what? It’s the most poetic and culturally impactful spambot in history.