Horse_ebooks became a bona fide internet celebrity when organizers of ROFLCON, the premier conference on internet pop culture, asked in January: "Anyone know how we might be able to get in touch with @horse_ebooks?" Horse_ebooks has 40,000 Twitter followers and a wildly passionate fanbase, but you're unlikely to see public appearances any time soon. Because Horse_ebooks is a robot.
This is the story of Horse_ebooks, beloved online automaton, and how I tracked down its human master.
Horse_ebooks is a Twitter spam bot originally set up to promote horse-ebooks.com, an online store of horse-themed ebooks with a retro design equal parts GeoCities and MySpace. In addition to tweeting spam links, Horse_ebooks has apparently been programed to evade Twitter's spam filters by posting random snatches of text it scrapes from books and websites. About seven times a day, Horse_ebooks spurts out bits of context-free nonsense, like: "Worms – oh my god WORMS," and "I noticed that my hair grew faster from spending time in my pyramid."
The feed's strangely poetic stream has been embraced like a life-preserver by internet users drowning in a sea of painfully literal SEO headlines and hack Twitter comedians. Since it appeared in August 2010, word of Horse_ebooks has spread steadily, propelled by blog posts and Twitter chatter by internet obsessives. But unlike many internet culture phenomenons, it never truly went viral. Horse_Ebooks is too weird, too much of an acquired taste to break into exponential growth.
But these same qualities that have relegated Horse_ebooks to relative obscurity have inspired a passionate Twitter fanbase rivaled only by Beliebers. Followers have fashioned an elaborate fandom based on Horse_ebooks, comics, fan-fiction, merchandise, and inside-jokes. A browser plug-in that turned the text of any website into Horse_ebook-isms was the latest craze among fans. A characteristic Horse_ebook superfan boast is: "I unfollowed Horse_ebooks, because my friends retweet all its tweets anyway." We're so deep into Horse_ebooks, you couldn't escape it if you tried.
As Horse_ebooks has tweeted its way to fame, the human behind the account has remained an enigma. The most any one knew was the vaguely menacing fact that a Russian spammer named "Alexei" had supposedly set up Horse_ebooks. On the internet, that could mean anything. Who Alexei really was was a mystery, until now.
My quest to uncover Horse_ebooks started last month. I had been a fan since Horse_ebooks had less than 2,000 followers (any serious Horse_ebooker can tell you the number of followers Horse_ebooks had when they became one of them) but I eventually became fixated instead on Alexei. Who was Alexei? And more importantly: Where was he now? Did he have any idea what Horse_ebooks had become?
I couldn't believe that someone had just wound up Horse_ebooks then walked away. One popular horse_ebooks theory suggests that, while the bot may have been completely automated in its early life, its maker had returned on Sept. 14, 2011 and made a subtle adjustment. Twitter shows what device is used to post each tweet, and on that day, Horse_ebooks switched from posting "via horse_ebooks" to "via web."
In his definitive profile of Horse_ebooks for the comedy blog Splitsider, John Herrman noted the post-9/14 shift: "The Tweets were immediately weirder. The kinds of Tweets that used to take weeks to show up - the perfect truncations, the ominous declarations - were now coming fast and hard." Was Horse_ebooks playing to its newfound audience?
Unmasking Horse_ebooks might also, I thought, lessen my unease at having watched a spam bot gain stratospherically more followers than me, while being showered with a level of praise seldom applied to actual humans on the internet. Dozens of people declare their love to Horse_ebooks on a daily basis. Nobody would ever make a T-shirt with my Twitter avatar on it. If it could be proved that Horse_ebooks was guided even a little by a human hand, then at least it wouldn't be just a robot's unfeeling algorithms on the receiving end of all this adoration.
But it was tricky. A human being behind Horse_ebooks could either intensify or diminish its myth. Horse_ebooks itself would be elevated from a dumb spam bot that had chanced into greatness to a brilliant viral marketing tool. But Horse_ebooks fans would be debased, transformed from connoisseurs of sophisticated anti-humor to the unwitting cash cows of some Russian mastermind.
Because even today, Horse_ebooks has the cold heart of a spammer. The links Horse_ebooks tweets in between its beautiful nonsense lead to pages of bullshit products—"Divorce Secrets Every Woman Should Know" was the latest—plugged into the Clickbank affiliate marketing network. Someone is making money from the sales and clicks generated by Horse_ebooks. Social media consultants obsess over cultivating "engagement" with their audience, and Horse_ebooks' audience must be the most engaged on the web. It's worth remembering the American programmer who bragged on his blog in 2010 about how he used a Twitter spam bot not unlike Horse_ebooks to milk Twitter users for cash through Amazon's affiliate program.
The search for Alexei did not begin well. The only clues to his identity lay in the domain registration for Horse-Ebooks.com. On November 26th, 2009, someone calling himself Alexei Kouznetsov Kouznetsov and claiming to live at 11 Lenina Street in Moscow, registered the Horse-ebooks.com domain through GoDaddy. The email address was dead and the phone number too short.
So on my personal blog, I offered a $50 bounty for someone to visit 11 Lenina Street and report to me what they found there. This angered some hardcore Horse_ebooks fans, who have an intense sense of connection with this robot, springing, I think, from the fact that so much of Horse_ebooks' charm relies on the readers' own imagination to intimate some sort of reason to its lexical madness. (Some speculate on Horse_ebooks' mood swings.)
All day they vented over-caffeinated rage at the prospect of Horse_ebooks being unmasked. A woman offered $200 for someone to go to my apartment "and find out whether or not he can take a shot to the nuts;" another user suggested that "finding out the truth about horse ebooks might kill you, or someone might kill you if you keep trying."
But they had nothing to worry about, yet. I didn't really expect Alexei Kuznetzsov to answer the door at 11 Lenina with a friendly "Welcome to horse_ebooks world!" and my expectations were quickly confirmed. Tumblr user Shawn Shahani read my post and asked a Russian contact if she'd be interested in taking up the offer. She scoffed that the domain registration information was almost certainly fake.
"NO ONE EVER PROVIDES THEIR REAL RUSSIAN ADDRESS ONLINE," she wrote, bolded and capitalized for emphasis. In Russia, she explained, the law requires everyone to register with the government to live in an apartment. "No one does this. No one. Everyone just buys fake registration somewhere, and lives wherever they want." If you registered a website with your real address, you could reveal it doesn't match the bogus one you registered with the government.
The address wasn't the only problem:
Oh, and "Kuznetsov" literally and figuratively means "Smith."
So, basically you are looking for Joe Smith who lives on 11 Main Street, Moscow…
Sounds like an entirely genuine name for a spammer.
Russian sarcasm is as biting as their vodka. Indeed, Kuznetsov is the third most common Russian surname. My one lead had been reduced to: Joe Smith of Main Street, Moscow. I thought of that Simpsons episode where Marge tells Chief Wiggum that she lives at 123 Fake Street, and he dutifully sends a car to investigate. I cancelled my offer and forgot about Horse_ebooks for a while.
The thing about conducting an internet manhunt is that the only way to stop is to find who you're looking for, or die. There's an endless supply of potential evidence, and it could all be just a single link away. Leads don't dead-end, they refract into a dozen new leads. Hackers are particularly fond of unmasking people through online sleuthing—they call it "doxing"—and I've seen some practically give up hacking altogether to focus on doxing rival hackers. Covertly tracing someone's digital trail provides that same thrill of illicit discovery.
This is all to say that, even while the weather was beautiful and I had spent literally the entire week on the internet, last Saturday I ended up on the website of a service that promised to find every website on the internet registered to any particular name—like, for example, "Alexei Kuznetsov Kuznetzov." I had remembered another potential lead: Alexei was reported to own more than 140 domains, including a whole network of search engine-optimized ebooks sites, each plugged into the Clickbank affiliate network, each with their own spam Twitter account: Self-Defense-ebooks, cooking-ebooks, Christmas-ebooks, etc. Horse-ebooks.com was a dead-end, but maybe there'd be something in one of Alexei's lesser works.
I paid $39 for a search on Alexei's name, feeling a little less gross than if I had been instead purchasing a year's subscription to MILFworld.com. Instantly I had a list of 165 domains belonging to Alexei, each with their own registration information. Most of the information on Alexei's other sites was identical to Horse-ebooks.com. But one, a now-defunct Russian Christian video hosting service, had been registered with a slightly different email address. I plugged this new email address into a Facebook search and there was Alexei Kuznetsov. Only his name was in Cyrillic, which I will now copy and paste from my notes, as I did a hundred times while trying to navigate Russian Google searches and social networks in the hours after finding this proof that Alexei was not a ghost: "Алексей Кузнецов."
Alexei's Facebook was locked down, but eventually I found his portfolio site (a link there, to one of his ebooks sites, provided definitive proof that I'd found the right guy) and his profile on the Russian social network VKontakte.
On Sunday I messaged him. "I don't know if you are aware of this, but the website horse-ebooks.com and the horse_ebooks Twitter account have become fairly famous in America. Please email or skype me, and I'll be able to explain better."
I never got a response. But here is what I gleaned from his online presence:
Alexey Kouznetsov is a 30-something Russian web developer. He looks not unlike a scrawnier Mark Zuckerberg. (He spells his name Alexey on his own sites, so I will too.) Kuznetsov has been designing websites since at least 2002, and on his portfolio site, he markets himself with this modest tagline: "If… you want your pages to be more impressive and dynamic than before, contact the author of this site to order elaboration, introduction and development of new graphic effects on your pages."
Alexey lives in the Russian city of Tula (Population: 500,000), an industrial hub about 100 miles south of Moscow. The quality of Tula Cartridge Works' Wolf Ammunition is renowned among gun nuts, but the city's main claim to fame is that, in the 18th century, it was the site of Russia's first factory manufacturing the traditional Russian tea urns called samovars. Tolstoy, Russia's greatest contribution to literature (pre-Horse_ebooks, of course) is buried just a few miles outside of town.
Alexey likes snowboarding and God. He graduated from Tula State University's intriguingly-named "cybernetics" department, which is, as far as I can tell, Russian for computer science. His web design and ebooks pursuits have provided him with enough income to travel widely throughout Europe, judging by numerous vacation albums. In one photo, he's smiling with Bradley J. Wiskirchen, the CEO of Clickbank, at what appears to be some sort of European internet marketing confab.
The closest I ever came to actually speaking to Alexey was through a former client, a Florida real estate developer named Matthew Simon. Around 2006, Simon wrote an ebook on "How to Buy and Sell Real Estate in the Bahamas," which he sold through Clickbank. While looking for a place to promote his book, he stumbled on one of Alexey's own Clickbank marketing sites. Seeing that it was rife with grammar errors, he offered to edit it; in exchange, Alexey would promote his book, and providing some web design services.
In an email, Simon was delighted that Alexey's creation had touched so many people, but not surprised. He wrote:
You know how, every now and then, you'll work with someone and have a sense that you're in the presence of a higher intelligence. I always had that feeling with Alex, but I assumed it was just technical genius. He is a genuinely nice guy, humble, a gentle spirit.
Perhaps it's this humility that prompted Alexey to ultimately decline, through Simon, to be interviewed for this article. But I can't shake the feeling that, as with Horse_ebooks' tweets, there is some cunning design to Alexey's silence.
Hours after I contacted Alexey on Sunday, Horse_ebooks tweeted:
— Horse ebooks (@Horse_ebooks) February 20, 2012
Top image by Jim Cooke.