Susan Orlean Has Made Me Not Hate the Horse_eBooks Guys So Much

Monday, February 03, 2014 - 11:26 AM

If you've been following TLDR since the jump-off, then you probably know how we feel about the big reveal of both Pronunciation Book and Horse_ebooks as lead-ins the the bafflingly boring Bear Sterns Bravo. Pronunciation Book simply collapsed under the weight of the buzz and anticipation that it generated (including in our debut episode), while Horse_ebooks felt like another reminder of the internet's bottomless capacity for deception. Well Susan Orlean's New Yorker profile of Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender (paywalled), the guys behind the whole enterprise, came out today. And as much as I hate to admit it, it gave me a sort of grudging respect for their work, at least conceptually.

To be clear, the article reads like a mash note to a couple of Jerky Boys. But as a person who is himself pretty fond of juvenile garbage like prank phone calls, it's hard for me to be too critical of that. Bakkila and Bender have known one another for most of their lives, and have been doing stuff like this for about as long as they've known each other. As kids they did stuff like putting on "plays" which consisted of stacking desk chairs until they fell over to an audience of bewildered onlookers, or modifying a CB radio to shout gibberish chatter over the radios of passing motorists.

But what I found myself most interested in were the ideas they scrapped before hitting on the Horse_ebooks, Pronunciation Book, Bear Sterns Bravo stuff:

Bakkila and Bender started thinking about a series of new projects...they considered and then rejected the idea of telling a story through fake takeout menus slipped under apartment doors; forming a seemingly real trade association and issuing a monthly newsletter; opening a storefront to market a fictional clothing line; and aggressively promoting a new sports league that didn't exist. One of [collaborator Seena] Jon's suggestions was to deliver a narrative through fortune cookies.

All of these are pretty great ideas, honestly, and take the storytelling into the real world in ways that are pretty surprising and fun. I wish they'd ended up using them, but even knowing about them informs my understanding of the folks behind the project.

I suppose that if I look at Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book as works of art as opposed to pranks, I still think they weren't all that successful, but it kind of melts some of my outrage. Even if it hadn't, Bakkila and Bender don't seem to care all that much:

Bakkila didn't appear upset by the uproar, even when it seemed as if every social-media blog and internet forum were raging at him. "I did want to create an uncomfortable situation," he said. "I wanted a tension between the human an the artificial. I don't fault anyone for an emotional response. It was designed to be emotional."

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. You can subscribe to our podcast here. You can follow our blog here. We’re also on Twitter, and we play Team Fortress 2 more or less constantly, so find us there if you like to communicate via computer games from six years ago.

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