A few decades ago, French philosophers said everything was fiction, and we all scoffed. Now, the Internet seems to have proved them right.
Social media exploded on Tuesday when it turned out that a Twitter account called @horse_ebooks – which seemed to be an artificial program that spit out wonderfully arcane, random bits of text in recent years – was in fact fake, and part of an ongoing performance art piece. Only adding to the absurdity is that the news came via a blog post from novelist Susan Orlean on the New Yorker website.
People are incensed and shocked, partly because of a feeling of betrayal, but partly because @horse_ebooks appeared to be a bit of Internet wonder that now seems to lay in ruin. But while I think the anger is understandable, to my mind, the reveal is also reason to celebrate, and leaves the pleasure of the thing intact.
After gaining popularity – the account has around two hundred thousand followers – the account would spread fragments with an alarming regularity that, though they often didn't mean anything themselves, seemed strangely poignant. There was something profoundly "of the times" about the way a random snippet here or there could arrive at the right moment, pulling some piece of human culture out of the ether and delivering a moment of serendipity to unsuspecting Twitterers.
In the clarity of hindsight, it does all seem strange: How it became so popular, how the fragments seemed so mysteriously perfect, how it all just seemed to fit. Making matters worse now is that the artists in question – Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender – work at Buzzfeed and startup Howcast respectively, the latter being a site that has exploded in popularity largely on the back of viral content. It's fishy.
It's just one more example of how what appears to be real is in fact not. Jimmy Kimmel faked a much circulated video many thought was authentic. Going back years, internet phenom lonelygirl15 was not simply another YouTube account, but a show made by a professional team. Because the web often hides context or origin, figuring out what's true or not is becoming increasingly difficult – especially when people game the system.
I'm wondering, though, if that same randomness of @horse_ebooks doesn't save this bit of modern web culture. In the statement at the gallery where the next phase of the project is now beginning, the artists say they took the pieces of text from already published work. Rather than a bot, it was people curating those fragments – but they remain fragments nonetheless.
Isn't that still something of wonder? That two artists, using the sparest of sentences, were able to so carefully point to the explosion and accidental nature of meaning in a world crisscrossed by opinions and viewpoints? It seems that in highlighting the fact that we can find meaning in the most banal of things, @horse_ebooks emphasized the human over the algorithm, the poetic over the computational, and the carefully chosen over the arbitrary. Maybe there's something eminently human in that, and something that, for all its many benefits, something that cannot come from software.
Here's the thing: Art is fake. That doesn't make it any less meaningful. In fact, what @horse_ebooks in both its original guise and its new revealed one proved was that, sometimes, origins are less important than the finished product, effects more significant than causes. The web can be a chaotic place that upends the things we've come to accept. Sometimes that's terrible, sometimes it's beautiful. This, I think, seems to one of the times that beauty has won out.
Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. He can be found on Twitter at @navalang