Twitter is chock-full of humorous fake feeds with massive cult followings. The microblogging service's 140-character message limit has turned out to be the perfect forum for one-line zingers, as the individuals behind @fakeapstylebook, @bpglobalpr and @mayoremanuel all discovered for themselves. But running a popular fake Twitter feed requires careful juggling of real-life concerns with the need to constantly evaluate the shifting moods of social media users. We spoke with the man behind one popular fake Twitter feed, the 11,000-follower @osamainhell—who tweets exclusively in the voice of the dead terrorist—and got him to shed his secret identity and offer some tips on running a satirical Twitter feed.
So, @osamainhell, what is your secret identity?
I'm David Weiner. There are a surprising amount of David Weiners out there, but I'm the one who is the former New York editor at the Huffington Post. I'm currently working for an ad agency called Mother New York, as well as doing some things with Animal New York, a very cool site that I've been a fan of for years.
My previous viral "work," if you can call it that, was creating the holiday National Fist Bump Day. It's basically defunct now for a number of reasons, including the waning enthusiasm for Obama and the fact that my co-creator and I broke up, but that first year it really took off. Jimmy Fallon did a sketch about it on his show, Joe Scarborough and Willie Geist were giving dap on "Morning Joe," and media outlets were treating it like a real thing to the point that some were even calling for boycotts against it. I don't remember why exactly, but I was fine with the publicity just the same.
How did the idea for @osamainhell come about?
Well I was a big fan of Dan Sinker's @mayoremanuel as well as @bronxzooscobra, at least when it first started. I always looked at fake Twitter accounts as a perfect creative outlet—a low-energy way to crack topical jokes to a plugged-in audience. I brainstormed ideas for fake Twitter accounts a few times but couldn't come up with anything that was particularly funny or wasn't already taken.
So when I saw the first reports on Twitter that Osama bin Laden had been killed, I jumped on it. I was up and running even before there was official confirmation of Osama's death.
What was the immediate reaction to your Twitter account? How quickly did you accumulate followers and notoriety?
The immediate reaction was nuts. I got the attention of a few notable people like Kristen Schaal, Graham Linehan, and other media/Internet people with influential followings and it just took off. At one point I was getting several hundred followers by the hour.
I started the account late on Sunday night and by the end of the next day I think I had around 8,000 followers. The media pickup from Fast Company, Gawker, the Washington Post and Wired, among other outlets, definitely helped as well.
At first I was tweeting a wide range of jokes that appealed to most anyone (well, anyone with a sense of humor), but pretty quickly I moved away from using Osama as the butt of the joke to really just talking about the media and politics.
I kind of fashioned Osama as this effete New York intellectual who happened to be a terrorist mastermind. I ended up losing some of my initial followers who just wanted "I'm in Hell" jokes and didn't care for esoteric ones about Amiri Baraka or the Duane Reader, but I'm fine with that.
I'd much rather tweet about there being a local Patch editor in hell or about Bill Keller being an Internet troll and have a core group of people find that really funny than dumb it down and have Osama talk about smoking pot with Bob Marley or drinking with Sam Kinison.
Has it been difficult balancing @osamainhell with your other responsibilities?
To be honest, not really. I've probably worked the hardest I've ever worked the past few months for my job and I still found the time. Occasionally I'll write a couple of tweets late at night and send them out the next day, but basically I just tweet something when it comes to me. Certain events are prime fodder for tweeting, like an Obama speech or a GOP presidential debate, and since I'm likely to be watching these anyway it's easy to just think of what would be funny coming out of the mouth of Osama bin Laden.
What kind of feedback have you gotten about @osamainhell?
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The followers are shockingly diverse: white, black, liberal, conservative, American, Filipino, French, etc. I even have a significant Tea Party following. Considering it's the Internet, I've been pleasantly surprised how into the feed people have been. Even Gawker said it was "pretty funny," which is about as glowing a review as they give.
What were your inspirations for the fake Twitter account?
Aside from Sinker, who was actually one of the few people I trusted with my secret, I'd say I was most influenced by @dianainheaven, who is less known here but at the very least inspired the name.
What are the advantages and drawbacks to doing comedy on Twitter?
I really don't see any drawbacks to it. I'm not a comedian or anything close to it, but to me Twitter seems like a perfect outlet for comedy. You have an engaged audience, a finite amount of space to keep your jokes to their barest form, and a constant stream of inspiration. If I'm ever feeling antsy because I haven't found anything worthwhile for Osama to say in a bit, I'll see what conversation is happening on Twitter and chime in.
What is your advice for someone looking to start their own fake Twitter account? What should they do to get started?
I really believe that the key to getting a fast following on Twitter is getting the attention of members of the media. They're lazy, like to predict the "next big thing," and are chained to their TweetDecks. If you can get them talking about you, they'll do all the legwork.
But more importantly, make it funny. Don't go for the obvious joke (although I'm definitely often guilty of that). Write what you think is funny even if it means only five people will get it. What you might lack in mass appeal pales in comparison to the loyalty you'll have from those five like-minded people. It's a cliche, but I truly think that on the Internet the cream eventually rises to the top.
This interview has been condensed for length.
[Image: Flickr user Jacquesdelarue]