Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
“Modern” homepage design increases pageviews and reader comprehension, study finds
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
May 25, 2012, 2:39 p.m.
Reporting & Production
Horse with jaunty gallop

How a New York Times developer reverse engineered @Horse_ebooks –An Interesting

Journalists should always be hacking, trying to tell stories in surprising new ways.

Horse with jaunty gallop

Jacob Harris, a senior software architect at The New York Times, shares my obsession with @Horse_ebooks, the wise and mysterious Twitter spambot. @Horse_ebooks tweets nonsensical phrases, apparently scraped at random from the web, and sometimes includes links to spam sites. The account has become a huge hit, with 74,000 followers.

The horse is often imitated but never duplicated, powered by the manual labor of human satirists. Like a good hacker, Harris took his obsession to the next level: He reverse-engineered the horse’s algorithm and created one for the New York Times. Behold, @nytimes_ebooks:

Like its precursor, tweets from @nytimes_ebooks are surprisingly compelling and accidentally hilarious. Harris describes in a blog post how he did it: A script crawls the New York Times RSS feed for recent stories, extracts quotes from the text (“better for ebookification,” he writes), and converts the text into a Markov chain.

Harris has no control over the text produced by his bot, which he finds “both comforting and alarming.” The source material includes the darkest moments of the human experience. He said the project is not unlike the artwork in the Times’ 8th Avenue building, a series of mounted screens that pluck phrases from stories and flash them without context.

Unlike its precursor, every @nytimes_ebooks tweet includes a short link back to the story. And it’s nearly impossible to resist clicking to find out what inspired the nonsense.

Bravo, Jacob Harris. You probably generated enough clicks per reader to hit the NYT paywall many times over.

“There is a mystery in the Markov model of how it writes its text,” Harris told me in an email. “Like Eliza or other textual experiments, there is this ambiguity where the machine sometimes writes something poetic and new and sometimes line noise. If this were a 3-D drawing of a person, we’d be staring right at the horror of the uncanny valley, but here it’s really compelling. Why?”

A father of two young children, these are the kinds of thoughts he discovered in the “loopy predawn hours.”

“Sometimes the text reminds me of a toddler learning to talk. We like to watch it because sometimes bots say the darndest things! And sometimes because it feels like we’re watching something being born.”

Harris laid out an example:

I’m not sure if @horse_ebooks uses this attention to get clicks. I’ve never clicked on a link in its feed when they appear. But I could see how you might want to just to see where the tweet came from. For instance, here are two tweets of the same story.

Which would you click? Of course, I did this for the lulz, not the clicks, but I’d be interested to see if it has a positive effect there, given that it’s not user-friendly at all! To give you some background, The New York Times sometimes creates two headlines for an article: a print version which can be opaque and artful and a more straightforward version of the headline for mobile readers and twitter. This makes sense, because print readers can see what the article is about from its context and layout on the page, but a headline like “A Very Fine Line” would be opaque and annoying on Twitter (where it ran as “A Brooklyn Artist Free-Associates on Her Walls”).

Harris stresses this is nowhere near an official project of the Times. But this being the Nieman Lab, we try to take away lessons for the news business. @nytimes_ebooks demonstrates the joy of finding content in unexpected places, places that previously appeared to have none. Who would have thought a robot that slipped through Twitter’s spam filters would have inspired so much creativity? Content with limited value in one context can have real value in another.

It’s a great example of the hacker mindset that journalists can embrace: What is a truly new and surprising way to tell stories? Experiment often, fail fast. Harris told me he spent a few days tinkering with Markov chains and two evenings coding it, but that’s it.

Are you confident that,

POSTED     May 25, 2012, 2:39 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
“Modern” homepage design increases pageviews and reader comprehension, study finds
A new report from the Engaging News Project shows that users prefer modular, image-heavy homepage designs.
Newsonomics: The halving of America’s daily newsrooms
If you’re lucky enough to have the right deep-pocketed owner buy your paper and steady it, you’ve won the lottery. If you’re in a town whose paper is owned by the better chains, or committed local ownership, your loss will probably be mitigated. Otherwise, you’re out of luck.
Gimlet wants to become the “HBO of podcasting” — here’s what its founder’s learned trying to get there
Alex Blumberg, CEO and co-founder of Gimlet Media: “People who like public radio like podcasts, but people outside of public radio also like podcasts. So let’s find those people.”
What to read next
1119
tweets
New Pew data: More Americans are getting news on Facebook and Twitter
A new study from the Pew Research Center and Knight Foundation finds that more Americans of all ages, races, genders, education levels, and incomes are using Twitter and Facebook to consume news.
565Newsonomics: The halving of America’s daily newsrooms
If you’re lucky enough to have the right deep-pocketed owner buy your paper and steady it, you’ve won the lottery. If you’re in a town whose paper is owned by the better chains, or committed local ownership, your loss will probably be mitigated. Otherwise, you’re out of luck.
542Putting the public into public media membership
Getting beyond tote bags and pledge drives is critical to the sustainability of public media. Is there an alternative vision of membership that relies on relationships more than money?
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Ushahidi
The New Republic
Topix
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
EveryBlock
BBC News
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Ann Arbor News
U.S. News & World Report
The Christian Science Monitor
Frontline
The Sunlight Foundation