The Fickle Fame of Twitter


Photograph by Nick Dimmock

A million followers is nothing. Voice is everything.

by Michele Catalano

It was April of 2009 when everything changed. I had been on twitter almost two years at that point, as @abigvictory, using it mainly as a platform for crude jokes and observations about sports.

I was at the Verizon store. I just bought my first smartphone. A Blackberry. Finally, email on my phone! No sooner had the Verizon clerk set up my email than it blew up. Five, ten, twenty, one hundred emails. All of them twitter notifications that someone new had followed me. The faster I read them, the faster they came in. Soon I stopped reading and just started deleting. I had convinced myself that someone I offended on twitter was playing a technological joke on me, had set up some kind of bot to make it look like all these people were following me.

By the time I got home from the store I had received over 1,000 notifications. I penned a hasty “What is happening to me?” post at tumblr and finally, in the midst of all the notification emails came a piece advice from my friend Jason Sweeney (@sween). “Look at twitter’s suggested follower list. Then turn off your notifications and never look at your follower number again.”

Mr. Sweeney would know. The same thing happened to him just the week before. “Suddenly, I had fifty new emails,” Sweeney told me.” Which was crazy! And they were all notifications of new followers. I scrolled to the bottom and saw the message ‘Load More Messages’. I pressed it and suddenly another fifty showed up! And there was the message again! And then again. With the image of my roaming plan depleting before my eyes, I quickly closed my email I went to Twitter to turn off my new follower notifications. It wasn’t until a few days later that I was able to figure out I had been put on the Suggested User list. And then a few days, later Oprah had her big show on Twitter and it just got crazier.”

I followed his advice and sure enough, there I was atop the suggested  user’s list sandwiched between celebrities, sports stars and @sween. If someone told me a few days earlier I was going be put on a list with Ashlee Simpson, Fred Durst and Dane Cook, I’d have assumed I did something terribly wrong and was about to be stoned to death. But this was something good, right?

Right. Sort of.

What happened after I went from 1,000 to 28,000 followers in a week to the magic one million followers just a few months later?

What ensued was this: A little freaking out, a lot of stage fright and performance anxiety. I felt the need to tweet often even though I had just weaned myself from about 100 tweets a day to 15. Then I worried what I should tweet about. Do I just continue tweeting toilet humor? Do I just tweet a couple of pithy remarks during the day and leave it at that? Do I have to watch what I say? I’d never before in my life had been popular. I was that kid, the one picked last for sports teams, the one at the far end of the lunch table picking at her sandwich while she sat alone. Here I was with a million people listening to me, waiting to see what I would say next.  I was overwhelmed with this sudden thrust into the internet limelight.

What did this all mean?

“Well, it’s just twitter,” people said. “Why does it mean anything?”

Because suddenly, I had an audience. Where before I had friends and acquaintances who shared my love of a good tampon joke, now I had a million strangers watching every word I tweeted. What should have been a “Wow, this is exciting!” moment for me became a moment of sudden terror instead. I felt like I suddenly moved into a glass house and all my neighbors were armed with rocks.

“Who are you?” was the most common question thrown at me, as if I could not be just a regular person and have this amount of followers. I had to be somebody. I had to be a celebrity. I was Miley Cyrus. I was J.-Lo. I was Lindsay Lohan. And I was, because of my avatar featuring Paul Newman as his Slap Shot character Reggie Dunlop, a hockey player, a male celebrity. Paul Newman. I was Paul Newman! Explaining to people that I was not a dead movie star was futile. They believed what they wanted to believe. They just couldn’t believe I was nobody. People were disappointed that I was just me. Most of them unfollowed when they found out I wasn’t anyone interesting or important, that I was a nobody to them.

Truth is, I was  nobody. I was just a commoner who happened to be inexplicably looked on with favor by someone at twitter. And now I was in the unenviable position of having to defend myself, my follower count, my sense of humor and my very existence.

I was also at the same time trying to figure out how to parlay this newfound popularity into something.  How could I translate this to life outside of twitter? What value did it hold? I had fantasies of sashaying into a crowded restaurant, past the line of people waiting for a table. “Table for two, “ I’d say. “@abigvictory.” And everyone would gasp, the lines of people would part as a place was set for me at the best table in the house.

Or maybe, in a more reality-based fantasy, I would be able to use twitter to get a freelance writing career off the ground. Surely all I would have to do is tweet that I was a writer and editors would rush to ask me to write for them.  I’d be able to sell my novel! Agents would notice me talking about it and immediately DM me to say they would represent me!

The reality of it is, nothing happened. Unlike Jason Sweeney, who used his twitter popularity as a springboard to a new career, having a million followers did not afford me new opportunities. It did not make my life richer or make my teeth brighter. It did quite the opposite. It made me more self-conscious than I already was. It made me feel riddled with self-doubt. As more people questioned why I had so many followers I began to shrink back from twitter, sure that the never ending need to fulfill the ideals of a million people was starting to wreak havoc on my mental health.

As I tweeted less and less, sometimes going days without tweeting, my follower count started to wane. Where Jason was still gaining followers because he was able to keep his tweets fresh and funny and not let the numbers behind his account get to him, I was bleeding followers because I couldn’t handle the pressure.  I forgot why I joined twitter. I forgot how much I used to enjoy stuffing a joke or some news commentary into 140 characters before I felt like I was being judged.

How was Jason able to handle the twitter fame that was seemingly crushing me? “It is a weird kind of circular fame,” he says. “It’s amazing how many people ask me what I did to get so many followers — people can’t understand how someone could be popular on Twitter *because* of Twitter.

 There were times I’ve wondered if I should change what I tweet because of the large number of who follow me. But then I realized — I was put on the list because of my voice. So my job is to stay true to it.”

Where @sween stayed true to his voice, I lost mine.

At some point after I all but ditched twitter, I realized I missed it, and had a little heart-to-heart with myself about it.  What good was twitter for me? What did I enjoy about it before the million followers (which had now “dwindled” to about 920,000)? What was twitter good for.

Well, it was good for making friends, meeting new people, discovering how many talented people are hanging around the internet, getting to do stuff with some of those talented people, having friends to visit wherever we travel, telling offensive, horrible jokes and letting a million people know when I’ve gotten my period.

There it was. I joined twitter for the conversation, for the ability to connect with people who enjoyed the same warped sense of humor, people who liked hockey and baseball, people who enjoyed talking about music and people who liked to banter back and forth, to engage.

That was it. The engagement. When I got all those followers, I started thinking of myself as a one person twitter stand-up show (albeit one where the audience was often armed with tomatoes) and I forgot about the social engagement.

So I went back to twitter with a renewed sense of how I was going to use it. I was going to go back to the way I was before I was put on that list. After all, wasn’t that kind of engagement and banter what got me put on the list in the first place? I would go back to using twitter as a place to hang out with friends and acquaintances. And I would recognize that while I had 920,000 followers, about 800,000 of them were bots, marketers and SEO specialists who followed ten thousand people and would never read a word I tweeted.

The pressure was off and the fun was back on.

I’ve since used my twitter – which was changed to @inthefade last year – for self-serving good by promoting my freelance writing, but I’ve also realized twitter’s potential for worldly good by utilizing it to launch to a toy drive for children affected by Sandy. That – five years after I joined twitter – was probably the moment in which I realized what a vast social media reach can be used for.

I have a different reaction now when people ask me “Who are you?” in regards to the number of followers I have. “I’m Michele Catalano,” I tell them. “I’m a writer, a civil servant and just a regular person. Thanks for following.”

Whether they stick around or not is their choice. But I’ve learned enough about myself and how people see me on twitter to know they are missing out if they don’t.

After all, who doesn’t love a good menstrual cycle joke?

Piece originally published at Boing Boing | Creative Commons License