All kinds of quippy characters populate my Twitter feed. There are the "newsies" intent on dishing out the latest info nuggets, the "media-obsessives" grappling with the state of our industry, those snark-laced counter-punchers I'll call "quipsters," and the "newbies" who, with only a handful of followers, are just beginning to find their way. Meanwhile the "Ids" take us into the deep, dark recesses of their Wes Craven-like minds, each post a dare for you to click unfollow. "Brand extenders" with tens or hundreds of thousands of acolytes who suck up every banal utterance as if it were the word of God use the platform to brazenly market their work. "Politicos" obsess over politics, "sports nuts" over sports, "Twit spammers" spam, "lurkers" lurk, and companies just want to give you a reason not to hate them.
One of my indulgences, however, is reading well-crafted tweets from satirical Tweeters who've taken on the persona of someone else. To do it right is like being a method actor: You have to get inside the head of a famous person but with a twist; the post has to be funny and insightful. It isn't easy and Twitter is littered with failures. There's @fakerupe, dedicated to Rupert Murdoch but which never managed to nail the Aussie media megalomaniac's voice and ceased in October. A Steven Seagal poseur couldn't find his groove and also gave up, although his digital artifacts are more interesting than those from the real Seagal, who leaves us with platitudes like "Hi all my great FB friends! I'm back and will be doing my best to keep in touch. Hope all is well!" Why, Seagal can't even keep his social media platforms straight.
Then there are other potential potholes. Twitter can suspend an account if the celebrity inspiration complains, which seems to have happened with faux Chuck Norris, Megan Fox, and William Shatner, whose fake account was taken over by someone who hasn't yet tweeted. Nevertheless, the creators of three fake faves of mine--"The Bill Walton," based on the former basketball great and contrarian commentator; "Not Burt Reynolds," inspired by the glib moustached Hollywood icon; and "Fake AP Stylebook," whose creators landed a book deal--have thrived when others have not.
With a quarter of a million followers between them, they kindly agreed to discuss their secrets for creating and maintaining successful fake Twitter characters. (Answers are condensed for brevity, edited for clarity, and while this may read as a virtual roundtable interviews were conducted separately.)
FAST COMPANY: Who are you?
The Bill Walton: We're a bicoastal writing duo from New York and Los Angeles who are passionate sports fans, with an affinity for basketball and pop culture. Over the years we've worked on various projects together and decided to take our talents to Twitter. Some people hold out the hope that we are, perhaps by proxy, really Bill Walton. We find that pretty amusing and enough of a reason to stay anonymous.
Not Burt Reynolds: I'm a graphic designer, but I've always leaned towards the creative--writing, playing guitar, photography and design, a renaissance man with a short attention span. That's all I'll tell you because I don't want to hurt the character. Fake Steve Jobs wasn't nearly as funny once everyone knew who he was.
Fake AP Stylebook: We're a lot of people--journalists, ex-journalists, freelance writers, advertising writers, librarians, associate professors of English, hip-hop artists, and more. We're also comic book nerds to a man, and first came to know each other through our now (mostly defunct) comic book blogs.
What made you create a fake Twitter account?
Not Burt Reynolds: I love to make people laugh and model my character very loosely on Burt. For me it's more about the time period when actors were funny and not as worried about being politically correct. I also like the idea of an aging action hero in a Hollywood much different than the one he thrived in. Burt's character owes more to the roles he played than him as a person. You only have 140 characters, so it's funnier if there's a point of reference--like imagining Burt's voice--that help people identify with you.
Fake AP Stylebook: Ken Lowery and Mark Hale are the co-creators, and Ken learned about the real AP Stylebook's feed while he was still working as a copy editor. He told Mark about it, as Mark was an ex-journalism student with a love for Stylebook esoterica, and they started making joke fake entries. They created an account to mess around on and once it took off, they roped in their nerd friends to start making jokes with them.
The Bill Walton: We wanted to showcase our writing and have an immediate impact on Twitter. Naturally the accounts with the most followers are celebrities. We figured if we could harness the allure of celebrity culture with a comic parody sensibility we might enjoy a sizable audience. We chose Bill Walton because we have always enjoyed colorful sports personalities, and Bill's right at the top. He's a potent curator of spirited commentary and amusing hyperbole, which, in our view, resonates beautifully in a digital medium.
Did you conduct research or are you simply riffing?
Fake AP Stylebook: Often we're just riffing but the tweets that seem to stick the best are inspired by the AP Stylebook, Strunk & White, or other grammar and writing guides. Some of us actually sleep with the AP Stylebook under our pillows.
The Bill Walton: We started with a healthy knowledge of Waltonisms mostly accumulated during his time as a broadcaster. YouTube has been a great resource, as well as sites dedicated to shining light on his approaches to life.
Not Burt Reynolds: I read Burt's Wikipedia page.
What's the hardest part?
The Bill Walton: Staying in character. The real Bill Walton waxes poetic about Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead; although we also pay homage to Dylan and The Dead, our Walton character is a hip-hop loving gent up on all the latest pop culture. It's important to stick to the roots of the real Bill Walton, his love of nature and Guinness, his outrage when a big man doesn’t slam it hard in the paint, his love of the Celtics, his catchphrase "Throw It Down," but it's more important to offer a semi-fictional version of the man to give us room to grow creatively.
Not Burt Reynolds: It's not hard. It's acting and I'm here to make you laugh. A bit of me lives in the character, although I'm happily married and have a kid so my life isn't nearly as exciting as my tweets.
Fake AP Stylebook: Staying fresh and motivated. We have a lot of fun, and it's gotten a lot of us some prestige in our respective fields as well as, of course, a book deal. But it's first and foremost a joke among friends, and not our paying jobs. Turning out fresh jokes week after week can alternate between a great time and a bit of a drag. Staying in character isn't hard, though. The voice of the feed is generally either "paternalistic dick" or "stupid fratboy," and well, guess what?
Were there any watershed events that propelled your fake account into a big deal?
Not Burt Reynolds: It started pretty slowly so I was entertaining myself for quite a while. But I have loyal fans who introduced me to others. Then I was listed at the top of Mashables 10 Must-Follow Fake Twitter Celebs and gained hundreds of followers instantly. At first I thought the worst. Burt Reynolds must have died or something.
Fake AP Stylebook: For us it was like stepping on a landmine. We had something like 9,000 followers after the first 24 hours and within five days had surpassed the real AP Stylebook in number of followers. For a Twitter start-up we're doing well and gain approximately 400 followers a day. The first major publication to acknowledge us was Newsweek, specifically its Tumblr account, which found us the day after we came out. In the next few weeks we were in the New York Times, Wired.com, and many others. The nice thing about writing jokes that appeal to journalists is that journalists happen to be the gatekeepers of media with column inches to fill every day. That's when you know you've really made it: when you become reliable filler for someone's Friday afternoon tech column.
The Bill Walton: We started by tweeting at various well-known basketball players and figures and developed a core group of passionate followers within a few days. Then Jalen Rose tweeted back at us and we jumped from a few hundred to a few thousand followers in just hours. We kept adding followers throughout the NCAA basketball tournament and NBA playoffs. Then came the media coverage--USA Today, Washington Post, then one of our tweets was read aloud on CBS during March Madness. Now every week one of our tweets is used in an article or repeated nationally on the radio.
What's your endgame? Do you have an ultimate goal?
Fake AP Stylebook: We've had a book published, so it's hard to imagine where to go from here. Believe it or not there was some interest in developing FAPS into a TV show--try to let that one sink in a moment. We came up with a couple pitches that failed once we found out that, no, the interested party just wanted to directly translate FAPS to television but had no ideas as to what that might look like, at which point we shook hands and walked away. So FAPS is for fun, and that's kept things healthy. We could all walk away from it tomorrow and we'd all be happy for it.
The Bill Walton: Not a day goes by where someone on Twitter will send us a mention saying that we are their favorite feed. That, in itself, is pretty fulfilling. However, we realize there are opportunities out there to allow this character, as well as our writing in general, to grow. As long as it doesn’t hurt the quality of our feed, we will continue to entertain these options.
Not Burt Reynolds: This is strictly for entertainment. I don't make a dime off of it and I'm perfectly fine with that. In fact, I'm not for sale. This is my last bastion of creative freedom and I don't want to cloud it with anything. I guess a perfect scenario would allow me to be a freelance comedic writer for something else. But I'm just as happy as things are now.
What advice would you give somebody who'd like to create his/her own fake Twitter account?
The Bill Walton: From a practical perspective, live blogging is a must. Keeping tabs on a live Twitter feed is a cutting edge way to experience a ball game. Most importantly, have fun with it. This is a great way to unleash your ability to write creatively. Don’t get discouraged and give up early or fall into the very common trap of being a “troll” in order to secure followers. While it may be the easy way, it’s not necessarily the best way. Parodies are fun because you already have a character to start with and can build from there. And the best part, you can actually have a “voice”: to thousands of people in the growing Twitterverse. Chase your Twitter dreams!
Fake AP Stylebook: Don't set out to create a fake Twitter account with the expectation of it leading to bigger and better things. Tweeters have sensitive sincerity detectors. When it stops being fun, or starts feeling like a job, reconsider why you're doing it.
Not Burt Reynolds: Never bring your mouth to the banana. Bring the banana to your mouth. Other people's mistakes often make the best stories. And yes you can drink and Tweet effectively.
[Image: Flickr user San Diego Shooter]