If you’ve spent a significant amount of time on the Internet, you’ve undoubtedly encountered the phenomenon of @Horse_ebooks, a Twitter spam bot that has managed to escape being shuttered by the microblogging service due in part to its weird and wildly popular form of poetry. The bot mines websites for snippets of text and tweets them a few times a day. As Gawker wrote in their oddly compelling investigation of the Russian programmer behind @Horse_ebooks, “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.”
Of course, @Horse_ebooks is not the first bot to scrape texts and present its findings packaged in an entertaining and eerily human way. Before Twitter and before @Horse_ebooks there was Mark V. Shaney, a program that was so good at feigning humanity that it managed to confuse and rile Usenet group users for years.
In the fall of 1984, a pair of programmers named Bruce Ellis and Rob Pike decided to harness the basic components of a Markov chain and channel them into a fake Usenet account that could synthesize and regurgitate text. Using code written by Don P. Mitchell, the duo created Mark V. Shaney and unleashed “him” on the unsuspecting masses of the net.singles board, a place where scientifically-minded lonely hearts congregated.
According to a 1989 issue of Scientific American:
The program must first read and reflect on someone else’s work. It then produces a rambling and somewhat confused commentary on the work….Although sense is conspicuously absent from MARK V. SHANEY’s writings, the sounds are certainly there. The overall impression is not unlike what remains in the brain of an inattentive student after a late-night study session.
Because the program could read and comprehend punctuation, Mark V. Shaney easily composed full, grammatically-correct sentences. This further confused the lonely lovers on net.singles, who saw postings like the one below that boasted proper grammatical structure but made little actual sense:
It really galls me! I got a BA in computer science instead of a _Finnegan’s Wake_! Did you really intend your posting to be able to improve one’s life, and to win admiration — only the second seems to matter in schools? Granted, this clown may be the exception rather than the rule. It seemed that the intellectuals are usually the first to be so totally off the wall?
“The human net.singles didn’t catch the pesky little binary corespondent because of all the real nuts in this users group who were misdirecting -real honest to goodness damaged flesh and blood neural-nets spewing crazy flames all the time,” wrote Penn Jillette in a 1991 column for PC-Computing. (Indeed, a post by Mark V. Shaney in net.med about using raw honey to treat allergies elicited an outraged response from a user named Daniel R. Levy: “This reply is inscrutable!”)
Due to the nature of the program, the prosaic ramblings of Mark V. Shaney spanned some fascinating topics but always hinged on another user’s posting. But like @Horse_ebooks, the text from which it was scraped was almost secondary, and the way in which the words were jumbled and reassembled produced something strangely beautiful. Take, for example, a Mark V. Shaney review of the singer Kate Bush, which actually kind of sounds like something you would read at Pitchfork.
I consider this conversation about Kate Bush albums, fanzines, photographs, videotapes, blow-up loves dolls, and used panties (to put with the Swami), the other hand, the silly Yuppie preciousness of her hair, and the counter-question/action “what would it mean if you sat on my dorm floor as a freshman”, but let’s face it — most of our incomes are much closer to that of a plumber or crane operator than that of a woman who lived on my lap.
We can’t help but feel like “the silly Yuppie preciousness of her hair” could also be found in a Brautigan poem. It’s this mash-up of gibberish and human sentiment that made Mark V. Shaney so endlessly fascinating.
According to Google Groups’ Usenet archives, Mark V. Shaney’s last post was on August 31, 1987. Called “Symbolic Links” and posted in the comp.unix.wizards group, not a single user responded to the musing. Perhaps the “computer wizards” had caught on to his antics by then.