By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
The attribution of a persona to inanimate objects on social media may be new, but the concept itself stretches throughout human history. Before scientific explanations emerged for many occurrences — sunrise, volcanic eruptions, the oddities of human behavior — gods or spirits were assumed to be controlling them. This may explain the drive, on the one hand, to give voice to the waves, and, on the other, to honor the Bay Bridge's 75th birthday with a photo of a cupcake.
This latent animism inspired a San Francisco Giants season-ticket holder to start an account that anthropomorphizes the seagulls that circle over the field during games at AT&T Park as @ATTSeagull. The birds had already spawned many news articles when, after the 2011 season and a conversation about fake Twitter accounts, the 33-year-old who runs @ATTSeagull decided he wanted "to give them an online personality and celebrate the character(s) around them." The seagulls account, says the man behind the birds, who works in social media, is "a little something extra that enhances the experience of being a Giants fan." The @ATTSeagull, which is the most popular of at least four accounts that have spawned from the ballpark birds, mixes comments about the games, Giants players, and an insatiable appetite for the park's garlic fries. He even plays with perspective, and says one of his favorite tweets was done from a kayak in McCovey Cove, which "had a few fans confused that a seagull may actually be tweeting."
As people come to relate to these characters, a back-and-forth often ensues. While some of this is banter, often it becomes a type of fan fiction, says the psychologist Rutledge.
Fan fiction — stories that emerge from popular characters by subsequent authors — stretches back to at least the 1800s, when Charles Dickens was serializing novels, she says. Before the Internet and social media networks, fan fiction was a small realm of the literary world that reached a limited audience. The Internet has since made it easier to find and disseminate fan fiction within online communities. Social media extends that connection, allowing people to have real-time conversations with these local gods. The more immediate interactions can create a visceral connection between the fan and the character, which leads to further interactions, perpetuating the storytelling. The appeal of the Twitter characters, says Rutledge, seems to extend from its novelty, as the social network is just seven years old. "We are still at the shiny-penny stage of this stuff."
A key difference though between the writers of old and the Twitter characters now is the nature of the author. When previously, writers would slap their name (or a pen name) on a work, on Twitter, the authors tend to stay hidden behind the character, rarely revealing anything about themselves.
The ease of creating a persona, and of staying anonymous behind it, is clearly appealing to the Twitter puppet-masters, to a surprising degree. Of the dozen or so Twitter accounts SF Weekly reached out to, only a handful replied. Of those, several did not want to answer any questions about why they set up the account nor offer any details on the day-to-day of being an embodiment of the city. Of the four people who did agree to answer questions related to their accounts, none wanted their names or any identifying details revealed.
But in addition to being guarded about divulging information to a journalist, the account-holders admitted to keeping their characters' account private in some from their own friends and family, to varying degrees.
The person behind Karl the Fog writes, "It's mostly secret, but a few friends know. Everyone needs an editor." The woman who runs @Waves_SF and the man behind the AT&T Park seagulls both say a circle of friends know they run the accounts. But the Bay Bridge account-holder says most people don't know he's behind the character. "I've told a few friends, but mostly ones that actually aren't that involved in Twitter," he says. There are people who follow him on his personal Twitter account and the Bay Bridge one "who don't know that they're both me."
Several of the people behind the accounts say the secrecy allows them to maintain the character. "Part of the fun of this is that it is a secret alter-ego," says the Bay Bridge's account-holder. The fun is in creating, maintaining, and growing this other persona. Everyone interviewed talked about developing back-stories, personalities, and favorite foods. Staying hidden behind the Twitter curtain has allowed them, over the course of months, years, and many, many tweets, to curate a character who is now alive and interacting with others, without shattering the illusion of, say, a conscious tidal pattern.
Disguising the author plays into human psychological traits. "I also think the strict anonymity adds to the suspension of disbelief that a bridge really can tweet," says the man behind the Bay Bridge account.
It is that suspended disbelief, says UCSF psychiatry professor Foose, that allows humans to enjoy things like art, movies, and other works of fiction. Without it, she says, people would look at the world in purely objective, scientific terms — a kind of metaphoric atheism. Projecting consciousness on a city's parts, telling stories about them, doesn't obscure our perception of them so much as it allows us to internalize them, to connect with them. Maybe people have always been talking to the fog, the birds and the water, but now they're doing it together — and they're getting a response. "As evidence that they are sharing it," says Foose, "it shows they are doing a human thing."