The Fickle Fame of Twitter

A million followers is nothing. Voice is everything.

By Michele Catalano
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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?

27 Responses to “The Fickle Fame of Twitter”

  1. On the flipside, I’ve encountered other Twitter users absolutely desperate to get more followers, to the point of intentionally encouraging spam followers. Why? I suppose angry cat ladies need some sort of hobby..

    • Danny Smith says:

      It’s a lot like the “i have 10,000 friends on myspace who ive never spoke to or met” thing from the early 2000’s isn’t it? I just assume its a gratification thing. Still, its effectively yelling random thoughts out your window at toasters and getting the same response, but different strokes and all that i suppose.

  2. penguinchris says:

    I have been on twitter since 2007 as well,  @penguinchris:twitter , before it was big, but only have 41 followers. At least 2/3 are bots or spammers, I think. 

    Even so, I am very self-conscious about it. I make efforts occasionally to just use it confidently and to be myself but then I’m reminded that most of the interesting things I might say are not things I’m confident broadcasting to the world (I’m not really sure how I managed to write so many comments on BoingBoing over the years).

    Cory @doctorow:twitter follows me now, though. Since he follows over 900 people, I suspect he doesn’t actually see most (if any) of my tweets, but I still feel like I should hold myself to a slightly higher standard.

    I think that people who know me in person would not be surprised to know that I use twitter. They surely would also not be surprised to know, though, that I don’t have many real followers and that I don’t tweet much beyond the occasional photo of something interesting I come across. They’d know that in the right contexts I will go on and on and I’m not anti-social, of course (again… my BB comments are a prime example). 

    I’m sure there are some people who don’t socialize much in-person but who tweet like crazy… but based on people I know, it’s always the most sociable people in person who twitter the most. A lot of people seem to feel that the internet provides a platform for socialization to people who don’t socialize much in “real life”, but it has never really worked out that way for me, I guess.

    • RadioSilence says:

      I recognise your username, chris, and I always appreciate what you have to say. I’ll give you a follow. And you seem to use twitter much like me.

      • penguinchris says:

        I thought I’d point out that though it wasn’t a ploy, I figured it’d be inevitable that I’d gain a few users because of my comment. You were the first, and I gained 11 followers so far ;) 

        I followed everyone back, and perhaps I’ll try joining in the conversation a bit more.

    • trx0x says:

      “but based on people I know, it’s always the most sociable people in person who twitter the most.”

      see, for me, it’s the complete opposite. i tweet regularly. i’m not sociable by any means, but i’m way more sociable than a lot of followers i have, which was evident when meeting some of these people in real life. i find a lot of people hide behind Twitter, and use it to socialize, in a way they could never do in person. i also find a lot of people think they have to pretend they’re something else/misrepresent themselves in order to be more popular on Twitter. i mean, i suppose you’ll find that in real life, too, depending on what circles you run in.

      • penguinchris says:

        Yeah, it’s always a mix. I socialize a lot more on the internet than in real life. However, that’s a low bar to overcome since I socialize so little in real life. 

        So the problem is that if I don’t pretend to be someone I’m not (someone sociable), to some extent at least, I would say pretty much nothing on twitter or anywhere else. I do try, then, to use twitter et al. (and BB comments) to socialize in a way that I don’t in real life. 

        But in order to do that I’m going way outside my comfort zone, and pretending to be someone I’m not. Which, I suppose, is the whole point actually – it helps that it’s so much easier to socialize online than in person.

  3. I joined up Twitter in the wake of the Charlie Sheen apotheosis, thought I was going to EXPLODE overnight.  I’ve only got one follower – and the dude lives in the same apartment as me so it’s just like having a dixie cup on a string.  Twitter sucks.

  4. I find that Twitter only works when you curate who you interact with, including who follows you (harder to control of course!). Even if its hundreds or thousands of people, I think it’s still important for them to have some connection with who you are and what you’re interested in.

    I understand totally why having a million random followers would be intimidating, and more importantly I’d hate it – because instead of communicating with a carefully selected group of people, it just becomes a stream of youtube-quality commentary. Twitter outside of your ‘zone’ can be a hell-hole.

    • Sept says:

      I guess having a million followers changes the way the people tweet a lot. I have seen a few people taking a 180 degree turn after that, thinking much more before posting anything. It is probably a good thing for people to think more before they share something on Twitter; good for the followers (mostly); good for them (mostly).

  5. giantasterisk says:

    I honestly don’t understand the allure of Twitter. I have too many treasured distractions already. Plus, if I think you have interesting things to say, I’d rather read your blog. I’ll take complete thoughts; nuanced, researched information; and well-written hilarious stories over 140 characters of mental flotsam any day.

    • rausantaella says:

      I must admit it’s not only about the communication in itself, it’s about what you can find in Twitter. Thanks to Twitter and a hashtag, I was able to find out about a design workshop in my city, which I attended to yesterday.

      Think of it as a way to share stories (as a way to share links to blog posts and the like it basically beats every other service out there right now), a way to meet likeminded people and a way to keep informed about events and things.

      Hell, I’m not a twitstar – and a couple of months ago someone hit on me while I was walking on the street to ask if I was rausantaella on twitter. And we went for coffee. What happened later… not a good thing to tell here.

    • Sept says:

      There has to be some way for you to get to the article on someone’s  blog and Twitter is great at this (and great at many other things). People sharing links to great content on the web with short commentary or catchy short quote taken from the article, making it a great way to find good content. Otherwise Twitter can also be a great way for entertainment . There are thousands of comedians and wanna-be comedians posting one joke after another. If Twitter is just a waste of time or something valuable is most of the times in your hands with whom you decide to follow.

  6. Aimee B says:

    I’m pretty sure 2/3 of my followers are dummy accounts set up by my mom to make me feel better.

  7. NelC says:

    I was never very active on Twitter, nor had many followers, but when my landlord starting following me I just trickled to a stop.

  8. thohan says:

    I think I’m doing it wrong. I use twitter almost exclusively to be snide on easy targets. I kind of feel bad as I read what I just wrote.

  9. The allure of Twitter was gone when my dog surpassed me in number of followers.

  10. Physics Geek says:

    “People were disappointed that I was just me.”

    Their loss, Michele. Really.

  11. Sigivald says:

    I never, ever use Twitter.

    But it still baffles me that people would follow you “because you showed up on that list” and then demand to know who you were

    Maybe they shoulda thought of that first, if it matters so much.

  12. Mike G. says:

    I only got on twitter to promote my blog. I don’t actively seek followers, nor do I follow back unless a new follower has the same interests as I do. Twitter is also good for links to stories that might not be on the MSM. I feel pretty good with my 500+ followers.

    Good luck with your fortune and fame.

  13. angryhippo says:

    I’ve been on Twitter since 2007 with only ~60 followers. I look at Twitter as my outlet to make snarky comments to celebrities and pretend that they have to read it.

  14. David Govett says:

    Within a decade, Twitter itself will be but a dim memory.

  15. Pat Wilson says:

    I limit myself to only following 500 and this probably keeps my follower list thinned also. 

  16. xbox361 says:

    glad i have a life and friends in my actual world and space to avoid crap like this

  17. A whole lot of the Suggested User List followers were fake/spam accounts. After a new account was created, the people who were on the List were pre-selected as accounts worth following. The people in China and India who were creating the fake accounts did not bother to un-check these Suggested people.

    The reason your total number of followers dwindled over time is because Twitter improved their spam detection.Remember the New Gingrich fake follower story? He was on the Suggested Follower list, too.

    See the following:

    “If most of former United States Speaker of the House @NewtGingrich‘s followers on Twitter are “fake” or inactive, they’re more likely to have primarily come through a gift from Twitter in 2009 than any clandestine campaign purchases.”

  18. xyzpfl says:

    Remember CB radio? 10-4 idiots.

  19. Danny Smith says:

    It is interesting to see the change in the public view of twitter has affected people like this. When it first started it was some silly little microblog thing used by people for such gems as “eating a sandwich, its pretty good”. Nowadays its basically the billboards of the internet, with the average user paying far more attention to a retweet than a pop up advert and as such its really affected how some people actually use it now compared to back when it started.
    For example:
    -One person i know wanted to make it in indie comics and was saying how his backlog of tweets was too “childish and non professional” and he would try to stop swearing or talking about things his comic audience would dislike as though his tweets were the advertising force of his work.
    -Another had his boss call him into their office at work and say he had looked at his twitter and seen some off colour jokes not appropriate at work and they felt the twitter could be associated with the job. Only when directly asked “so the company is against free speech and you are confirming this mr -blank- ?” did they let it drop
    -A college freind once replied to a tweet that something looked vulgar and got a reply from a number of rape victims that what she said had reminded them of the attacks and then she got into a severe state of anxiety with many panic attacks over a few months purely because she made people on twitter feel bad.

    Theres plenty of little stories like this i could reference, and thats just people i know personally offline. Its just a strange thing that twitter became so integrated in our culture so fast that its not even been that well noticed to have become the new standard by which many seem to hold themselves to as some sort of advertisement for themselves to others.

    Personally i’m still of the mind that twitter is just an outlet for “hey this is cool, check this out” linking or spur of the moment photos or brain farts, but thats a diminutive opinion compared to most nowadays it seems. Folks just gotta remember, doesnt matter how many people see it, its just a tweet. thats all. and some folks will like something, others will hate something. Not letting it bother you, thats the key here. Anything else is just insincere and a disservice to yourself and the people you offer this pruned, artificial facade to.

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