How to Wind Up in Twitter Jail, Starring @TimesPublicEdit

I am @TimesPublicEdit.

I didn’t work all that hard to keep this quiet, but I never formally announced it, mostly because I didn’t think anyone was waiting with baited breath trying to puzzle out the secret. The reason I’m “revealing” this now is because, well, it’s already revealed via a post by Kat Stoeffel at the New York Observer today. That post was written because of the odd events of the last week involving the account, which began with a tweet last Monday.

This tweet was RT’ed and faved to an extent far beyond my wildest imaginings. It was also assumed to be the work of the actual New York Times‘ public editor by some news outlets that failed to perform a few extra seconds of due diligence. A formal complaint against the account (from whom, I don’t know) led to a suspension for being an “imposter” account.

After a week on the shelf, the account is back in action. I’m pretty fortunate in this regard; suspended accounts tend to stay that way indefinitely, or so Google tells me. However, I thought recounting what happened to @TimesPublicEdit might serve as a cautionary tale to other Twitter parodists, or just anybody who wants to build any kind of body of work on Twitter. Because you have to remember that anything you do there can be wiped out without warning, and that this is the risk you take when you scribble on someone else’s real estate.

This all started back in January, when the real New York Times‘ public editor, a man by the name of Arthur Brisbane, wrote a think piece entitled “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” It posed this question: Is it a newspaper’s job to call out a public figure for lying? My reaction was similar to that of most of the world’s, i.e. YES, YOU CLOD. If a newspaper has any true function at all, apart from birdcage lining, it is this.

My first inclination was to yell about the Truth Vigilante piece on Twitter and elsewhere, but within minutes of its publication, righteously angry ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! responses had already been posted by tons of people far more prominent than myself. Any angry screed of mine would have been a mere drop in the bucket.

Thinking a joke was a healthier response, I began to write a parody article for this blog in which “Brisbane” asked if doctors should really be expected to heal patients. Ten minutes into doing so, however, it occurred to me this subject might be a much more fertile area for spoofery than any one article could convey. So, after making sure nobody else hadn’t already started a fake Times Public Editor account (the Internet works fast, after all), I launched one of my own.

I’d done “fake” Twitter accounts before, though none of them ever gained an appreciable audience, since I tended to make them about my own narrow obsessions, like jarts and Dennis Miller’s imaginary one-man show. But @TimesPublicEdit seemed to resonate immediately, to the point where the account garnered almost 900 followers in “his” first few hours of existence. That number is nothing compared to Twitter’s heavy hitters, of course, but there were enough professional media types contained in the initial follower surge (including some Times writers) to make me think this idea might have legs.

As the follower count continued to climb at a respectable pace, I felt spurred on to keep doing this thing well after anger about the “truth vigilante” article had faded. The first few tweets were direct swipes at the article that started the whole brouhaha, but before long the tone drifted into jabs at the collected media and public figures, with a few fanciful imaginings of what went on in the Times‘ newsroom sprinkled in.

In other words, I quickly dropped any pretense of trying to parody the actual Times public editor for more generalized fare about the fourth estate. It didn’t occur to me someone would think @TimesPublicEdit was actually him because it wasn’t my intent to specifically mock him, let alone impersonate him. Occasionally, someone would mistake @TimesPublicEdit for the actual Arthur Brisbane, but I can honestly say that when this happened, 99 times out of 100 they would tweet back an “oops!” two minutes later, presumably because they paused to read the account’s bio (which made its fake nature clear) or a few of “his” tweets. It’s hard to imagine anyone would think the real Times public editor would tweet things like this:

For months @TimesPublicEdit had a following of sorts, but its audience remained modest in number. Before last Monday, the count still trailed that of my own Twitter account (@scratchbomb), where I tend to yell about the Mets and ads from the early 1990s. You can sneak under the radar when you’re playing the internet equivalent of a black box theater. That ceased to be the case after the explosion of the Anderson Cooper tweet.

In retrospect, this was not the cleverest quip ever penned, as evidenced by the fact that I saw the exact same “CNN sez Anderson Cooper’s straight!” line (or variations thereon) tweeted by dozens of others throughout the day.¬†If I had to pick the top 50 tweets I wrote as @TimesPublicEdit, this one wouldn’t crack the list. Either I was just barely the first person to say this or I voiced it in precisely the right manner to touch some kind of nerve. Whatever the reason, within minutes, the tweet was RT’ed, quoted, or faved by what seemed like half the known Twitterverse. A frighteningly rapid and massive follower surge ensued that overtook @scratchbomb and left it in the dust.

I should have suspected disaster would strike when I saw the sheer mass of people who faved/RTed the tweet, and the disturbingly large percentage thereof who missed the point entirely. Until then, everyone who followed @TimesPublicEdit understood the overall joke of the account. But as more people were exposed to it, the less likely it was any of them really “got” it, and there was no real way these people could have known there was anything to get.

Most people who RT’ed/faved had no idea who the real Times public editor was; they just thought the joke was funny. Some people took the tweet very literally and thought CNN actually reported Anderson Cooper was straight, while others wondered why I cared about his sexual orientation. A few media types wondered why the Times‘ public editor would say something so snarky. As usual, most took a peek at the bio and soon realized it was a fake account.

Most, but not all. Some news orgs, in their Anderson Cooper-related coverage, reported the tweet as coming from the real Arthur Brisbane. The biggest, near as I could tell, were The Hollywood Reporter, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and the New York Post‘s Page Six. A day after the tweet went viral, Poynter zeroed in on a few of the publications who were “duped,” and heavily implied that the subtlety of the parody and lack of the word “fake” in the username was responsible for these professional journalists being “tricked.”

I took offense to Poynter’s implication that it was my intent to fool people, when all I really wanted to do with @TimesPublicEdit was make dumb jokes about food trucks and Paul Krugman. Any journalist who performed due diligence–clicking on the bio to check its veracity–would not have been “tricked.” I’m no more responsible for someone thinking @TimesPublicEdit was real than I am for someone mistaking a fencepost in my front yard for a baguette. Twitter’s been around for several years, and I’d like to think we’ve reached the point where checking an account’s pedigree would be par for the course for a journalist who wants to quote that Twitter account in their publication. I’m not a journalist, but I’d still say that failing to take the extra few seconds necessary to recognize @TimesPublicEdit as parody is painfully lazy.

I have the feeling that this take on the tweet and the account–that I just wanted to “trick” people and make them look stupid–is responsible for what happened next. The Post eventually published a correction of sorts, a very Post-ian one that labeled @TimesPublicEdit “an impostor” and tried to shrug off their crappy fact checking by pointing out The Hollywood Reporter had also been fooled. (“But mom, all the other kids are doin’ it too!”)

Later that evening, I signed into Twitter and saw @TimesPublicEdit’s follower count suddenly drop down to zero. I thought this was just the precursor to a Fail Whale, until I saw this:

My initial contact with Twitter was maddeningly vague, telling me to review the Twitter rules and best practices but giving no specific reason why the account was suspended. After several days and multiple requests for clarification, I received this suspiciously bot-like and Kafka-eque note.

So it seemed the only way to rescue the account was to prove that I was someone I wasn’t–which, even if I could do it, would basically prove that the account had deceitful intentions. I responded with a civil but forceful letter in which I asserted @TimesPublicEdit’s parodic intent, and my contention that this should have been clear to anyone who looked at the account for more than half a second. I further inquired as to how malicious intent could be proven on my part, and why it was up to me to prove my innocence and not my accuser (whoever they were) to prove my guilt. I also asked why, if @TimesPublicEdit was suspended for not using “fake” or a similar word in its Twitter handle, why similar action hadn’t been taken against parody accounts such as this and this and this, all of whose names don’t explicitly announce their fakeness.

By this point, I had all but given up any hope of seeing the account live again. I frantically took screenshots of every single tweet so I’d have a mummified record of its output. I didn’t think this was searing, Bill Hicks-ian satire, but I did think it was pretty funny, if I’m allowed to say that about my own work. I took a certain amount of pride in it, as dumb as that might sound, and the thought of all of it being tossed in the garbage really bothered me. I’ve seen other online work of mine disappear before, and it always brings on the worst, most impotent strain of rage. I put in two years of working on a sports blog for MSN and two years of articles for the New York Press, and was pretty proud of it all, only to see every last word tossed into the internet’s trash compactor (and therefore un-listable on my CV).

And then on Sunday night, I received another note from Twitter, saying “If you had intended to create a parody, commentary or fan account, we need you to make it clearer in order to avoid confusion.” The Angry Parishioner side of me wanted to protest that the account was clear enough already, that this whole mess had only started because someone couldn’t be bothered to do his/her job, and I’d be damned if I was the one who was going to change because of their mistakes.

But when it comes to direct confrontation, I tend to be Switzerland. I also feared that acting on principle would prolong the agony and perhaps result in the losing the account altogether. So I buckled and changed @TimesPublicEdit’s bio and handle. The account was restored in short order, all tweets intact, not a scratch on it. (Ironically enough, as soon as it was restored, the Anderson Cooper tweet received further RTs and faves; it still gets a bunch every day. Your guess is as good as mine.)

This, again, makes me one of the lucky ones when it comes to Twitter suspensions. But I didn’t write all this to label the incident a great injustice; while I was fretting over what to do next about @TimesPublicEdit, my wife quipped “You know this is a total White Person Problem, right?” I’m merely chronicling it to remind people that in cases like this, Twitter will shoot and ask questions later, and that you’ll be judged guilty until proven innocent.

Is it fair that I wasn’t given a chance to plead my case before getting shut down, especially since I’m not responsible for someone’s failure to remember lessons from Journalism 101? No, it’s not fair, but this appears to be Twitter’s policy, and they’re allowed to have any policy they damn well please. That’s the bargain you make when you use a platform like Twitter to ply your trade or promote your work or just write dumb jokes about Bill Keller. I think people forget this–I know I certainly did–and think they own their little plot on the social media landscape, but the truth is you’re just renting it, and your lease is renewed on a minute-by-minute basis.

This affair also served as a reminder that once things reach a certain level, they no longer belong to you. In the @TimesPublicEdit account, I built a tiny parodic universe that was recognized by its small, clued-in group of followers. When the Anderson Cooper tweet was shared a bazillion times, that universe was exposed to tons of people who didn’t have the background to see the account for what it is, at least not at first glance. Oddly enough, the bigger something like this becomes, the less likely people are to dig under the surface to examine it, because at that point people don’t want context. They want a springboard for whatever target they need to reach, whether that target is getting their unfunny gay joke RT’ed or finding some precious characters to flesh out a quick post on Cooper’s announcement.

To this point, I’ve put a lot of time and thought into @TimesPublicEdit, enough that the thought of losing it all together was not fun. But I realize now that when it comes to showcasing whatever it is I do, writing-wise, Twitter is not the ideal medium. Scratchbomb.com affords me a much lower level of exposure for my dumb jokes and reminiscences, but I will never have to worry about someone taking it away from me. It is small but it is mine.

The moral of this story is, things like Twitter are great for promotion and one liners, but it’s always best to have a true home for your work. Better to own a shack than make payments on a palace.

  • http://www.ceetar.com/optimisticmetsfan Ceetar

    I always wonder about things like that for small businesses that eschew websites for Facebook pages.  Social Media is so non-permanent.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jimmie.dan Jimmie D. Davis

    Baited breath? Sounds fishy to me.

  • http://twitter.com/shaunmo Shaun KC Mollica

    Bravo.