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How Susan Orlean unraveled the horse_ebooks Twitter mystery

Image used as an avatar for the horse_ebooks Twitter account.
Image used as an avatar for the horse_ebooks Twitter account.

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Fans of the irreverent Twitter account horse_ebooks got some shocking news on Tuesday.

It was revealed that the account, originally thought to be spam, was actually an elaborate conceptual art project maintained by Buzzfeed employee Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, formerly of Howcast. Writer Susan Orlean broke the news in a short blog post on the New Yorker's website, and she's working on a longer feature for the magazine.  

"I became a big fan of it just because [the tweets] were so weird and's like found art," said Orlean on Take Two.

The site was thought to have been a spam account that tweeted random passages it culled from various ebooks. The nonsensical sentence fragments would often take on a zen-like quality:

"Rather than people running away from the account, which is usually what happens with any sort of spam, this began developing hundreds of thousands of followers and fan fiction and admirers around the world," said Orlean. 

Orlean joins Take Two to talk about why horse_ebooks was so popular, what message the creators are trying to send and how she came to know who was behind the whole thing.

Interview Highlights:

On why horse_ebooks became such a phenomenon:
"The stuff was generally funny and weird, and funny and weird is a home run on the Internet. Anything like that, with that combination of seeming to be absolutely folk art combined with something ironic and strange, that is the slam dunk. 

"In addition to people liking the content of it, it became a bit of a parlor game on Twitter, to try and figure out who really owned this. Who is operating this? Was it a Russian spammer who didn't even realize how crazy and wonderful these tweets were? Many people began speculating that it was a promotional campaign being done very cleverly, which has happened online."

On how she found out that there were two people behind it: 
"About a year ago I was contacted by someone claiming to be the person behind horse_ebooks, of course I was doubtful, but he proved that he was in fact in charge of the account. They are two 29-year-old guys who are conceptual artists, very interested in Internet art. Art that sort of takes advantage of the world we live in now where data and communication is this entirely new universe. The two guys, Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender stepped out from behind the curtain and presented themselves as did a performance."

On the pair's performance at New York's Fitzroy Gallery:
"I posted my story at 10 a.m. and that was when they posted on their accounts the link to a phone number and a location in downtown Manhattan. The phone began ringing at 10:10. Tom and Jacob answered as many of the phone calls as they could, which was nonstop, with lines of spam that they had culled from the Internet."

On what the reaction to the news was like:
"The response was swift and in some cases very, very upset and emotional. A few people were mad at me. Somebody said 'You ruined the Internet for me.' and I thought, really? Honestly? OK. That gives me a whole lot more power than I think I really have. I can compare it to how people feel when a beloved television show has its finale.

"In the case of a television show, you sort of take the characters as being real. In the case of horse_ebooks, I think people just loved this strange mystery. There's no outcome that I think people would have greeted warmly. Nobody wants an end to something that had an almost innocent, ingenuous appeal."

On the legacy of horse_ebooks:
"I think that the magic is gone, even though the fact is that Jacob deserves a lot of credit for having crafted this rather amazing product. The thinking behind it and the way that it rifts on the world of spam is genius. I think once the emotion of losing the Easter Bunny passes, I think there will be appreciation. That's why I'm looking forward to writing this longer piece."

On the message of this project: 
"Just realizing that the Internet engages us in a way that is emotional as well as simply data-driven. Seeing people saying, I'm crying to find out that there's a real person behind horse_ebooks made me think, well, we're still people here."