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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.
None of San Francisco's fake Twitter accounts have garnered either the notoriety or the hundreds of thousands of followers of the Bronx Zoo's Cobra, but they do attract loyal followers, especially when they consistently interact with those followers.
Take for instance the Bay Bridge Twitter account @SFBayBridge, which is the most successful of the four accounts that tweets about the span. The 28-year-old man behind the account tweets an average of 12 times a day since the account started in 2010, according to howoftendoyoutweet.com — and also responds when other Twitter users mention the account. The @SFBayBridge account answered questions posed to it — "do bridges wank"? — and comments on recent events, as with the recent construction issues on the new eastern segment — "I wish this article wouldn't say my broken bolts are 'infected' with hydrogen. Makes them sound like zombie bolts that could infect others." There was a flurry of online activity when the bridge had its 75th anniversary in November, as well as during the launch of the Bay Lights project in March, in which artist Leo Villareal strung 25,000 LED lights across 1.8 miles of the western span — interacting in the conversations and providing information about live-streaming the event and rain forecasts.
The consistent tweeting and retweeting likely accounts for his more than 5,000 followers, but it can be an all-consuming task. Many of the Twitter accounts for San Francisco places and things post as infrequently as every few weeks or months. But the man behind the Bay Bridge account says he feels a self-imposed need to tweet every day. Aside from the task of keeping up with any news about the bridge, the need to tweet has left him feeling anxious when he finds himself in a place without the Internet. On a trip to Yosemite last summer, he desperately sought out cellphone service in order to "squeeze in a few tweets in what would have otherwise been a pretty silent vacation." The rest of his trip was "more relaxed after getting those tweets in."
Disappearing entirely into the character can present other problems. Additional stress, he says, comes from people expecting more from the Bay Bridge than he is able to answer. He says there is "an expectation that I know everything about the bridge, even things that there's no way I can know ... as an outsider." Despite reading about the history of the span and keeping abreast of news, he acknowledges that there are things he cannot answer. "Of course, the bridge would know the exact details, but I can't."
That people expect him to know everything about the bridge likely comes from the misconception that it is associated with the bridge in a formal way — but also that people have projected a persona onto the structure. Rutledge says that the phenomenon of personification and anthropomorphism is common. "Humans always project human qualities onto everything," she says.
Tracy Foose, an assistant clinical professor at UC San Francisco's Department of Psychiatry, says that imposing a consciousness on things in the world around us helps to bring order to what is otherwise a very disorderly world. Foose, who is an anxiety expert, says the personification can be powerful and terrifying, as with people who are afraid of the ocean and fear it has an agenda against them.
But the same personification that can lead to anxiety and fear can also be used as a way to keep our inner child alive, she says. Foose was struck by how "playful" and "creative" some of the Twitter accounts were, notably Karl the Fog. She related a story about her two young children and a game they play in the car, in which one child is the sun and the other is the fog and they speak to each other in character. This same personification, she says, also allows adults to perceive the world around them in a less objective way. It's a childlike response we carry with us past childhood: Instead of the fog being caused by warm weather inland that draws sea moisture, it's just "Karl coming to see the city." When people extend this personification to the things around them, it helps to predict and control their everyday lives which, she says, is what humans are driven to do. "I see this as a way people bring order to the universe," she says.
An account for San Francisco's waves — @Waves_SF — is another of these elemental forces given voice. For the woman who created the account, there is a kinship with the ocean and water. She surfs and works near the water, which brings her to spend "a lot of time paying attention to both what the ocean is doing and what's going on in the city that's related to our waterways."