During an event at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco in early November, a presenter screened a short film about San Francisco's fog. After the show concluded, before the sold-out crowd could even finish filing out of the auditorium, several people in the audience took to Twitter to tell the fog that it was featured in the show. And the fog, named Karl on Twitter, tweeted back, asking if the film was going to be available later for viewing. So while people have been calling out to the forces of nature for thousands of years, now they have the satisfaction of a response.
In the city, more than 50 people have at some point "become" the Twitter embodiment of things such as the Bay Bridge (@SFBayBridge), sea gulls at AT&T Park (@ATTSeagull), and other well-known San Francisco landmarks, buildings, streets, places, and animals. It's a fantasy world in which aspects of the city are brought to life at an intersection of psychology and technology. But across the board, the people who adopt these digital personas are serious about their secrecy. They want to erase any connection with their characters, perhaps so that others can better connect with them.
On a day in San Francisco when the fog crawls over the city, the Twitter account for @KarlTheFog will start getting tweets. Sometimes it's just comments about the fog, sometimes it's pictures and remarks about fog in other parts of the world. A ruined summer picnic is blamed simply on Karl, the name the account holder gave to the fog and the one that has stuck, creeping into the everyday language of San Franciscans. The name has grown popular enough that when Instagram instituted tagging of people in photos, a company blog post called out Karl the Fog as a "person" with an Instagram account who appears in photographs to be tagged.
The person behind the fog account, who answered questions via email and requested anonymity (to the point of not even revealing a gender), says some inspiration for what eventually became Karl came from the fake BP public relations account that sprang up after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2010. "It was the first parody account I followed and thought the idea was brilliant and that I could do something like it," writes Karl's puppet-master. "I love the idea of blending fact and fiction and not knowing where one stops and the other begins." The final inspiration came after a bout of foggy weather. "Friends were whining about the most recent fogpocalypse and I was loving it. ... I've always thought of the fog as mysterious and romantic and looked forward to its arrival. Since everyone was complaining, I started thinking, 'I wish the fog had a chance to defend itself,' and that's when I created the Twitter account."
@KarlTheFog is one of the most active San Francisco "things" on social media, posting pointed commentary about the city's weather to its 17,000 followers: "Yesterday you got sunburned. Tonight you're bundled up in a hoodie. Welcome to San Francisco." and retweets comments about the fog, or lack thereof. The fog also has an Instagram account, on which it posts and reposts photos of itself.
Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Research Center and an adjunct faculty member at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, says the creation of Twitter accounts for things like the fog is like a type of performance art, "not much different than other types of theater, or perhaps stand-up." But the medium in which the characters are performing changes the interaction. "We don't think it's odd to find amusement in videos, comics, books, or magazines, but somehow Twitter seems different," she says. "The biggest difference is that it is interactive and allows for participation by the audience and co-creation of new content to further the story along, should the landmark, object, or dubious celebrity choose to engage at that level."
In the case of the fog, Karl is a reference to the giant in the 2003 Tim Burton flick Big Fish, writes the account-holder. "Karl was the giant in town everyone was afraid of because they thought he would kill/eat them. Turns out he was just hungry and lonely." In San Francisco, that giant is the fog. "Karl is a constant character in our lives. ... Some people love how he keeps the city cool, others hate that we don't get traditional summers. They spot him from all over S.F. and many people have choice words for his arrival. Everyone knows and sees the fog."
The initial burst in fake Twitter accounts in San Francisco started in late 2009, with about a half-dozen characters, including a Muni train and a cable car, and hit a high in 2010 with two dozen accounts. But the drop-off rate for continual tweeting is steep, and of the more than 50 accounts have been created to represent things in the city, only a handful continue to post on a daily basis.
Fake accounts, of course, abound across Twitter. Famous examples include the cobra that escaped from the Bronx Zoo in March 2011, which exploded onto the scene with the simple message, "I want to thank those animals from the movie 'Madagascar. They were a real inspiration," and the Big Bird account that popped up following a presidential campaign debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, in which the former Massachusetts governor talked about defunding PBS ("Fellow birds. We should get Dick Cheney to take @MittRomney hunting."). When people started pretending to be others on Twitter is not entirely clear, but one of the first accounts that impersonated a celebrity and was widely reported was "Fake Steve Jobs" (@_fakestevejobs), which was created January 2007.
The number of followers that fake accounts rack up can be staggering, especially compared to the typical Twitter user. In "An Exhaustive Study of Twitter Users Across the World," the social media firm Beevolve reports that the average Twitter user has 50 followers, and that many active Twitter users will garner several hundred followers after hundreds or thousands of tweets. But fake accounts can attract a huge following, like the Bronx Zoo's Cobra, which had tens of thousands of followers immediately after news of the escape broke. The account still has more than 188,000 followers. While Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga both have more than 33 million followers each, neither is (as of yet) pretending to be a snake.