Shock, outrage, and opinions gripped the internet again this week, after Susan Orlean revealed in the New Yorker that ersatz human philosopher @horse_ebooks was actually manned (written?) by an actual human (not to mention a BuzzFeed employee). @horse_ebooks, to recap, was a twitter account—assumed to be a spambot—that would tweet links to ebooks about horses, along with various bits of text that were frequently absurd and quasi-deep (“Unfortunately, as you probably already know, people” “‘This is not acceptable!’ I screamed as Kathy drowned” “we shall and we will and we will and we shall and we do and we care and we live and we love and we care and we shall and we care and we”). Orlean’s article, announcing that the man behind @horse_ebooks and the man behind the YouTube channel Pronunciation Book have collaborated on an project involving the two social media accounts (now on view in an art gallery in New York City), took Twitter by storm, causing many people who had followed @horse to feel one of two ways.
The first, which is I think what B Michael is getting at in this tumblr post, is basically that this guy made something cool, and we should all be happy that they tried to do something creative with the internet. I don’t think these people are wrong, but I think there’s more to it than that.
The second view is that this news sullies @horse, retroactively invalidating whatever good feelings the account originally gave us. An abstract, semi-meaningful statement from an internet robot is neat; a semi-meaningful statement from a human pretending to be a robot is significantly less so. This view is probably best represented by Leon Neyfakh who wrote on twitter that:
the horse news is disappointing bc it turns out the one thing people thought wasn’t — couldn’t be — pandering to them, actually was
the fact that the pandering was being done by the master-panderers behind buzzfeed obviously makes it much worse
another sad thing about the horse news is that it retroactively recasts the whole thing as a prime example of “that so random”-style humor
I agree, but I also think a big part of our negative feelings comes from not the fact that we found out @horse was a human (many had previously suggested as much), but from how this information was revealed. Specifically, the account’s owner revealed it publicly, to the New Yorker, in the process promoting an art show. Which means that, even though this probably wasn’t the original intention—I can’t imagine that the artists spent several years running accounts on YouTube and Twitter in order to have a gallery show on the Lower East Side—the whole thing starts to feel like ‘viral marketing.’
Blame hashtags, Jimmy Kimmel, or whatever you want, but our internet is filled with things pretending to be genuine oddities that are actually manufactured promotions. Most of the time (think of banner ads that say things like “YOU’LL DIE—TWICE #friSEPT13”) these attempts are so obvious that they go unnoticed, leaving only subconscious resentment. Sometimes people are actually fooled, as was the case with the recent “#Twerkfail Girl Sets Herself on Fire” video. Whenever one of these phenomena turns out to be a hoax, we all end up a little more cynical, a little less likely to believe the next unbelievable thing.
Drowning in marketing campaigns, the internet has reflexively developed a sort-of unspoken rule that the thing being promoted should be the thing itself. For example: A movie trailer is fine, but footage purporting to be an investigation into a haunted occurrence that is really just a promotion for a new horror film is not. People believed @horse was a genuinely cool, weird piece of internet ephemera. Now they’re forced to consider the idea that even the artist behind @horse didn’t think it was good enough to be the thing itself, that it was only an advertisement for some other event.
Had an internet sleuth revealed that hey, some guy from BuzzFeed is behind @horse_ebooks, people would have been annoyed, but it would have been much less disappointing. It’s the fact that @horse’s handler eventually used the account to promote an art show, and thus a career, that makes @horse_ebooks feel like just another internet stunt.