Horse_ebooks and the Myth of Guilelessness

September 24, 2013

Alexandra Molotkow is an editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt, an associate editor of the Hairpin and arts columnist for...

One of my favourite features by Susan Orlean—who, earlier today, broke the sad news that the Horse_ebooks Twitter account is the work of a guy rather than a spambot—is her profile of The Shaggs, a rock band from Fremont, New Hampshire, consisting of sisters Helen, Betty, and Dot Wiggin. Their father, Austin—a domineering and superstitious man whose mother had predicted, during a palmreading, that his daughters would one day play in a band—yanked the girls out of school and made them practice their instruments all day, pouring the family’s savings into an album called Philosophy of the World, most of whose thousand original copies were quickly lost.

When The Shaggs played on Saturday nights at the Fremont town hall, the other kids would laugh and throw debris; when they were rediscovered around the 1980s (thanks to the efforts of folks like NRBQ and Irwin Chusid), they were cherished. The girls possessed little talent for songwriting, but they had a synergy borne of familial bonds and all those forced rehearsals, so their songs sound less like caterwauling the more you absorb them. Most importantly, The Shaggs made music in earnest. We are all always searching for the earnest, and the earnest is very rare.

We people have a basic yearning for the guileless genius, or the guilelessly ingenious: the outsider artists who do their work in a vacuum, and so create something truly original; the eccentric citizen rumbling with untapped charisma until a news anchor sticks a microphone in his face; the accidentally hilarious spambot. We expect to be deceived, so we dream of a spectacle that doesn’t deceive us, as well as proof of innocence in the world. And then we’re deceived.

Apparently, Horse_ebooks was once the real deal: a spam account started by a Russian web developer named Alexei Kuznetzsov (as Gawker’s Adrian Chen discovered), apparently to promote junky, horse-themed ebooks by tweeting links and generating random text from the internet. These non sequiturs garnered the account followers in the tens of thousands; in 2011, it was bought out by 29-year-old BuzzFeed employee named Jacob Bakkila (totally unrelated: I wonder if Google searches for Scott Bakula have spiked today), who began writing the tweets himself. “The goal was not to appropriate the account,” he told the New York Times, reporting today, “but to become the account,” which sounds kind of like buying the Steely Dan trademark for your Steely Dan cover band.

Under Bakkila and his partner, Thomas Bender, Horse_ebooks became an art project, which has given way to a new installment called Bear Stearns Bravo—a “choose-your-own-adventure interactive-video piece,” in Orlean’s words. I don’t know what that means, and while I’m sure it could be great (why not?), it’s not what I signed up for. I would not ride the subway to see Bear Stearns Bravo, but I would pay at least 10 dollars to hear Alexei Kuznetzsov—the guy who created a really cool thing without meaning to—cough into a microphone and maybe shuffle his feet.

I say this now, of course, but I always had an inkling that Horse_ebooks wasn’t all we wanted it to be. There was a hint of the human hand behind non sequiturs as elaborate as “any liquid, an overflow, a torrent ; a fit of sickness ; a passion, frenzy ; water,” or as crowd-pleasing as “inside every dog there exists a perfect” or “why women sometimes.” (Bots say the darnedest things!) At its best, you could argue that Horse_ebooks was collaborative: funnier than any human could be without nonhuman inspiration, and more unique to human tastes than any machine could approximate. I wanted to believe, the same way I wanted to believe the yoga-pants woman was really “twerking.” (That’s what makes a good con: a deceit cool enough that people prefer to believe.)

We’re all delighted by the idea of unselfconsciousness—of proof that it’s possible to do or make something interesting without calculation, without considering everyone who’s done it before, without the stain of people and their nonsense.To quote PJ Vogt, a producer at WNYC’s On the Media and cofounder of its TLDR podcast: “People felt safe to love [Horse_ebooks] as a thing that was genuinely weird, instead of deliberately, artistically weird... there is no wonder in the world beyond our capacity to creatively deceive each other. Never love anything you meet on the Internet again.”

Weird, wonderfully unselfconscious things do exist, but they usually don’t last, the same way it’s impossible to lose yourself in a moment before remembering that you actually queued up your iPod up so that the guitar hook from “Marquee Moon” hit at the same moment the Chrysler Building entered your sightline, and then you want to die. The guileless geniuses are rarely guileless—you can bet Tiny Tim knew what he was doing—and the guilelessly ingenious is easily co-opted. But every so often you get a Philosophy of the World.

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Alexandra Molotkow is an editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt, an associate editor of the Hairpin and arts columnist for the Globe and Mail. Her writing has appeared in The Cut, The Believer, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine.