Everything Happens So Much (or: But is it Comedy?)
I hadn’t heard of Horse_ebooks until reading a NewYorker article about it, which tells you something about my own internet browsing habits.[i] For the uninitiated, Horse_ebooks [ii] is a Twitter account which posted a series of apparently unconnected messages, usually grammatically half-formed and reading like they had been taken at random from advertising copy (‘I have personally used this technique to break many memory’; ‘and more! Start raising your self-esteem today!’), but with occasional undertones of pathos or even humanity. It had the feel of a bot gone slightly wrong, or perhaps doctored in a bid to disguise its spamming.
Originally, this is exactly what it was – an automated programme pasting text culled more or less at random from books on e-library.net, the site for which it was advertising. But for the last two years of its life (the account became dormant last September), it had actually been run by Jacob Bakkila, who chose the text from publications across the internet. The feed created its own ecological niche, inspiring comics, merchandise and excited commentary on its significance.
In the New Yorker article, Susan Orlean places Horse e_books in the context of ‘net art’, artworks made specifically for (and often about) the internet. Whatever about art, is it comedy? There’s a sly humour on passing the feed off as a benignly malfunctioning bot has a sly humour, nicely inverting our traditional preoccupations with machines passing as humans or possessing subjective qualities. And some of the individual tweets are undoubtedly funny. My favourite, and the most retweeted, is the title of this article; it has some of the gnomic quality of a Steven Wright one-liner.
That said, I’m not sure I’d call it comedy. Bakkila’s own description, ‘performance mischief’, seems more accurate: it’s playful, teasing expectations rather than subverting them, drawing attention to its own form. But its principle aim isn’t humour, and the tweets themselves are more often bizarre than amusing. The randomness of the tweets and the almost total lack of context for what they say gives them their somewhat unworldly charm, but also means that they rarely have anything recognisable as a set-up-reveal structure. And while the conceit of a fake bot is lovely, the result wasn’t a humorous narrative or an elaborate practical joke, but a constant is-it-or-isn’t-it, an uncertainty as to whether the author was human or not. One contributor to Orlean’s article was quoted describing Horse_ebooks as a ‘long con’, but this suggests a sustained attempt to fool people, which isn’t really what the feed was trying to do. It was playing with what they believed rather than firmly pointing them in a particular direction. This sort of deliberately ambiguity is much more characteristic of contemporary art than anything I would call comedy. The contrast with an earlier project of Bakkila’s is illuminating:
‘This Is My Milwaukee’ is more straightforwardly comic. It’s also less a lot less interesting (and rather dated – six years is an eternity on the internet).
Despite my luddite tendencies, I have a passing familiarity with the different forms of comedy which have blossomed on Twitter: stand-ups and writers dashing off one-liners, fake Twitter accounts for celebrities, or just riffs on the practice of tweeting itself. There’s scope for something a little stranger there, more oblique and not afraid to risk being unfunny on occasion Even if Horse_ebooks isn’t itself comedy, it may yet prove of great importance for the genre.