"A horse’s grave" photo (cc) wildcrazinsexi
It’s been said that, given enough time, a million monkeys at typewriters would eventually, randomly, type the works of Shakespeare. It’s just a way of saying that mathematically, given infinite possibilities, eventually everything will happen. But I’ve always wanted it literally to be true. I’ve wanted those little monkeys to produce something beautiful, something meaningful, and yet something wholly unexpected.
@Horse_ebooks was my monkey Shakespeare. I think it was a lot of people’s. For those of you that weren’t familiar, @Horse_ebooks was a script that used an algorithm called a markov chain to collect bits and pieces of the internet itself as fodder and posted them on Twitter. It did this for years.
It shouldn’t have been amazing. Writing that description just now, it doesn’t seem amazing. But, for dedicated fans, it was. For all of the absurdity of @Horse, I think that there were many of us who would also admit that it was often also beautiful and, in a way, meaningful. Beauty and meaning, built from randomness.
Which is why today when Susan Orlean (of all people!) revealed in the New Yorker (of all places!) that for at least the last two years, @Horse has actually been authored (shepherded? overseen? THERE IS NOT A WORD TO DESCRIBE THIS) by Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender two employees of Buzzfeed (seriously) and that the account was coming to an end today, with a culmination in a performance art piece (ouch) at a New York gallery (fuck), it felt devastating.
(I know, I know, I know. This is absolutely a case of the Horse_epot calling the kettle Horse_eblack. But it’s also not.)
Now that the truth is out, now that @Horse_Ebooks is over, I’m left searching, trying to figure out what it means.
In many ways, this is a good thing right? Art, meaning, beauty: This is still the province of humans, not something that can be manufactured by a few lines of code. Chalk one up for humanity, right? Nice job, us.
Except it feels empty, a little at least, doesn’t it? Because the only other explanation for @Horse was always deeply human as well: It was code, written by human hand, that was left to wander the internet on its own, only to be discovered by someone else, its beauty recognized and then, person by person, passed along. Told that way, the story of @Horse is the story of ourselves, isn’t it?
Maybe I would feel better about this if it wasn’t Buzzfeed employees. Maybe I’d feel better if the “performance art” end didn’t feel like a thing that got bolted-on after-the-fact. Maybe.
If this was a kid her bedroom playing the ultimate poetry-prank on the world, would I feel better about it? Probably.
But it’s not, right? This isn’t monkeys with typewriters. This isn’t a lonely kid in a basement. The reality is that these guys did something pretty amazing. I know a bit about keeping a big secret, and that ALONE is worth an incredible amount of respect. And I also know what it’s like to hold onto a rocket as it shoots through the internet, and THAT is also incredibly hard. And the two in combination? It is nearly impossible. Holding on to your sanity is hard. So, respect.
And, even today, I love @Horse_Ebooks. A lot. Every day it was a gift. There were some days—thankfully not all that many—where it was the only thing I looked forward to. I know that that was true for others as well. The absurd beauty. The stars-stars-stars of it all. Whatever the province. Whatever the backstory. Whether it was code-driven, or all hand-made artisanal. It was wonderful.
So, thank you.
As hard as today feels—and I am REALLY NOT KIDDING, it really feels hard, like a punch through everything I thought I knew—it doesn’t change that Horse was a thing of beauty on a scale that it’s going to take a while to truly understand.
And yet I just can’t fully get behind these revelations. I have too many questions: How much of this was still just a machine? How much was mediated by hand? Was any of it authored directly, before today’s ‘reveal’ tweets? How long was it running before it was ‘acquired’ by Bakkila and Bender? What does ‘acquisition’ even mean in this context? What changed at the point of ‘acquisition’? Nothing? Everything? Why is it that everything wonderful ends up turning to shit and why can’t unicorns be real and fuck absolutely everything I hate it all.
OK, maybe that last one wasn’t a question.
But still. If this is art, art is about context. And I don’t know that I have enough context to know entirely how to feel.
Because I feel shitty.
And I feel confused about feeling shitty.
Buzzfeed being attached to this—even tangentially—I think plays deeply into that feeling, because that site is first-and-foremost about manipulating the science of clicks and likes, and if this is all @Horse was, then god help us all. But also “Performance art” feels like a cop-out, and the actual performance today—based on descriptions—reinforces that. You can’t just put a placard on a wall and call it art. I mean, I went to art school and so I know that you can, but you’d better back that up with the mother of all context. I don’t have that context yet, so I guess I’m skeptical, and I don’t want to be.
I don’t want to be because, even if nothing else was, the tweets WERE real, right?
I mean, I AM STILL READY TO FLY IN HELICOPTERS. I AM STILL USING MY FINGERS TO INDICATE TRIANGULAR SHAPE.
There’s been an image circulating today of the iconic X-Files “I Want to Believe” poster, with the UFO replaced with the @Horse_Ebooks avatar. And I do feel like that:
I want to believe.
I want to believe this wasn’t just yet another internet buzz-marketing prank.
I want to believe that @Horse was as beautiful and wonderful today as it was yesterday.
I want to believe that beauty can be assembled from the randomness of life all around us.
I want to believe that a million monkeys can make something amazing.
I really, really do want to believe.
But I don’t think I do.
And that feels even worse.