There are a few writers who can turn a seemingly random odd fixation, however niche, into a compelling story for a general audience on a consistent basis. Only one has been portrayed on film by Meryl Streep. Susan Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Orchid Thief, has made a career of penetrating subcultures — women’s surfing, ten-year-old boys, high-school basketball, flowers — as a total outsider and explaining what she learned in narrative form.
Her latest, though, is a bit different: Orlean was obsessed with Twitter before last fall, when she outed the beloved, “accidentally” profound “spam” account @Horse_ebooks as an art project, in concert with the similarly bizarre cult-favorite YouTube account Pronunciation Book. The long con of two childhood friends, BuzzFeed creative director Jacob Bakkila and freelance tech consultant Thomas Bender, the seemingly separate projects were a curtain-raiser for the pair’s debut as legitimate artists, the interactive video game Bear Stearns Bravo.
In The New Yorker this week (behind the paywall), Orlean’s “Man and Machine” tells their story — @Horse_ebooks started as a real spambot, only to be taken over by Bakkila, who tweeted nonsense koans about every two hours for 742 days — and a broader one about our relationship to technology and the imminent robot takeover. Below, an ill but excitable Orlean shares her personal views on both.
You gave an interview recently to The Awl about your best-friend relationship with your smartphone, and I know you’re home sick in bed now — does that mean more phone time or less?
More! It’s the great companion. I remember when I was a kid, there was nothing more fun than being home sick from school. I would watch hours of television. It doesn’t even occur to me to turn on the TV anymore. I’m just sort of screwing around online, either on my phone or my iPad. I can stay very entertained. It’s remarkable.
As someone who considers herself very plugged in, were you worried at all about the reaction of Internet obsessives to the @Horse_ebooks story, since it was clearly written for a much broader audience? Gawker, which has followed “Weird Twitter” very closely, concluded, “The article is, generally, much less embarrassing than it could have been.”
It’s interesting when you write about a subject like that and there are people who just fancy that they own the subject. You encounter that with anything you write about. I’m used to it. I try to learn interesting things about the world and in this case, the competitiveness about “I know the Internet better than you do” is pretty profound. There’s a tremendous arrogance. I found that hilarious — by Gawker standards, it was a resounding compliment.
What lessons did you take from having dealt with other subcultures and apply to the writing about the Internet?
It’s a little bit different because I’m not ignorant of that world the way I have been about other worlds that I’ve written about. When I started The Orchid Thief, I didn’t know, literally, the first thing about orchids. People were extremely arrogant and competitive about their knowledge. Luckily, I don’t have a lot of ego about acknowledging my lack of knowledge.
I had to remind myself of what a reader might not know. I couldn’t play the role as the proxy quite as much because I probably know that world better than a number of my readers. I also knew this story was so controversial in its way, and there was so much attention paid that it would be examined very thoroughly. I can’t worry too much about that. I certainly didn’t want to not sound confident and knowledgeable, but I couldn’t worry about the little noisy clack of Internet possessives who might dismiss me or anybody who isn’t deep in the world.
A good parallel: It’s like writing about drug culture would have been twenty years ago. There’s a sense of insider and outsider that’s very clearly drawn and a little bit of smugness about, Hey we know this world, and how embarrassing that people would try to write about it and explain to people who don’t.
What’s the value in this story for people who may not even know what Twitter is?
This is the world we live in. It’s not that everybody is performing as a spambot, but the world has been completely reimagined because of technology, and that affects everything: relationships, art … It’s pervasive. It’s safe to say it has been as transformative as the introduction of electricity. It has changed everything. [Bakkila and Bender] are doing work that is very much a reflection of the way the world has changed.
As a fan of @Horse_ebooks before you got involved in the story, were you disappointed when you found out there a person behind it?
No, I have to admit. Number one, I was kind of thrilled and totally blown away. I hadn’t thought about it a lot, but I certainly couldn’t have imagined — I just thought it was incredibly funny or weird.
I’m a little baffled by the huge emotion and people literally saying, “Oh my god, the Internet is ruined and I’ll never believe in anything again.” A few people said wisely, “Why would it be better if it were a robot?” It’s the Wizard of Oz. if you believe it’s a wizard doing these magical things, it’s magic, and everybody loves something that’s magic. I understand it, but there’s frankly some jealousy, some irritation that it turned out to be one of us.
Are you a BuzzFeed reader? Do you think Bakkila’s BuzzFeed connection affected the response?
I don’t read BuzzFeed, so I didn’t react. It’s his day job. I do think that had he been a guy who was, I don’t know, working at Starbucks and trying to be an artist, it would have definitely softened the reaction.
And I think people were really suspicious that this was a BuzzFeed project, which would have really pissed people off. That I would’ve understood. Or if it had been NBC getting ready to reboot Battlestar Galactica. A corporate connection, and particularly BuzzFeed, a company that is all about viralness, I can see why people would’ve been pissed off. But it’s undeserved: He has rent to pay like anybody, and so he has a job.
You’re known as a pretty heavy Twitter user. What’s your relationship like with it these days? Has it changed?
It’s remained pretty constant. When I first joined Twitter, I was living on a farm in the Hudson Valley and writing a book, and as such, was spending a lot of time alone. Twitter became my virtual office where I would chat and listen and goof around. I can’t even believe I got my book done, I was on Twitter so much. I’m living in L.A. now and around actual human beings a great deal more. It’s trimmed a little bit of my time on Twitter, but I still love the form.
What are your current Internet obsessions?
I started following a couple of these other hilarious accounts: @coffee_dad, @HonestToddler. I’m a real app girl — I’m always goofing around with the newest gizmo. There’s this very cool — I hate using this word, but — it’s an app for journaling that creates a little diary of your day. It’s called Heyday. It’s pretty neat.
“Man and Machine” also touched on the idea that the latter are “perfectible systems that can surpass human limitations.” Do you fear the robot takeover?
I, for one, welcome our computer overlords. I don’t worry about that, I really don’t. I think I’m not somebody who hears about the development of self-driving cars and thinks that’s the beginning of the end. I have a maybe old-fashioned belief that we’re not yet edging up on the singularity. I’m more in the machine-as-assistant and worker and having them do our work, and I see that more than seeing them tell me what to do. Maybe that’s naïve.
This interview has been condensed and edited.