By Erin Sherbert
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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.
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."
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."