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The Pragmatics of Twitter

November 24, 2010

The other day when I logged into Twitter I noticed an odd thing. The number of people I follow had gone down by one. I’m used to my follower count bobbing up and down from day to day (at just over the 200 mark, since you ask), but someone disappearing out of my feed is less common. I didn’t give it too much more thought, until a few days later, when I spotted a tweet carrying the #Kellbo0 hashtag. It turned out I had been an unwitting bystander to a rolling Twitter drama.

Twitter is a strange phenomenon in many ways. It is a place where you actively invite total strangers to share intimate thoughts. It is a public forum where people get involved in heated personal discussions. It’s a cross between a very big pub and a hall of mirrors, where people expect honesty and sincerity from others even though hardly anybody is quite themselves. There is a huge, perhaps unreasonable, degree of trust involved in broadcasting the business of your day-to-day life to an unrestricted audience. And, of course, there is inevitably a game element to Twitter. The atmosphere of one-upmanship, the race to crack the most popular topical gag on a subject or shout loudest in a chorus of disapproval, can be toxic. Many people become obsessed with boosting their follower count; personally, I get more hung up about how often my bons mots are retweeted. And there are games within the game, like those notorious hashtagging pun frenzies #disingenuous.

In this kind of atmosphere, the boundaries between the real and the fake inevitably become blurred. There will be people who exploit the opportunities Twitter offer to manipulate your identity, and those who will be taken in. We have seen the courts struggle with this issue, treating a manifestly fake bomb threat as if it were a real one, with real consequences for the unfortunate Paul Chambers, who has lost two jobs and been fined several hundred pounds. Elsewhere, fake celebrity accounts vie with real ones for fans’ attention. Twitter would seem to be the perfect laboratory for the Turing test, and it is surely only a matter of time before someone develops a ‘bot’ that is indistinguishable from a real person’s account.

@Kellbo0 was one of the first people outside my circle of real-world acquaintances or people I knew from web forums to follow me on Twitter. Her avatar showed an attractive woman in her mid-twenties called Kellie who was a nurse, an active twitterer and the owner of a keen wit, particularly when she directed it at the Tea Party movement. It was a pretty quick decision to follow her back. She was sparky, sexy and a lot of fun. There was just one problem: she wasn’t who she said she was.

Her account vanished when she was unmasked by a man who had formed a close relationship with her on Twitter that had developed into a long-distance liaison by telephone. He grew suspicious when she refused to communicate by video and set out to investigate. It turned out that Kellie was actually in her early forties and, far from working as a nurse, had a conviction for obtaining drugs by fraud. The man posted a blog message revealing her ‘real’ identity (I’m not linking to it because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of outing people as a form of revenge). By this time @Kellbo0 had disappeared from Twitter, leaving a trail of outraged former followers in her wake.

While I can’t confess to feeling much outrage, it intrigues me that she put so much effort into constructing a very credible persona, apparently for no gain beyond some fleeting affection. I was never drawn into any kind of dialogue with her, though she did once include me on an #ff list (I still follow most of the other people who were on it). I find it revealing, too, that she used her real first name in her fake identity – she must have known she would be exposed one day. Plenty of people have said after the event that they suspected she was a fake, but I have to say I never saw any reason to doubt her. She seemed like a complete person: a sincere, intelligent, witty, politically engaged nurse in her twenties. And only part of that identity, it seems to me, was fake. It has been claimed on Twitter that the photographs she posted were of her own daughter, but this seems doubtful, since she couldn’t have been sure of sustaining the pretence without the daughter’s complicity. Why she felt the need to graft the attractive parts of her personality onto a false identity is something we will probably never wholly understand.

It seems Twitter represents a new level in terms of the fragmentary identities that we have developed in the virtual world. @Kellbo0 may have believed she was doing nothing worse than many other people who project a slightly idealised version of themselves. Clearly somewhere she crossed a line into the realm of outright deception, and in doing so betrayed the trust of many people who took her at face value, but it is far from clear where that line is drawn. And yet the problem is, as someone said to me yesterday, we have no option but to take people at face value, even though in doing so we inevitably take a huge risk. We may believe that we can tell a real account from a fake, but we are deluding ourselves if we do, because Twitter by its nature obscures the distinction. We talk to people as if they are our friends when we only know them as a collection of pixels on a screen. It should not surprise us, therefore, when they turn out to be less substantial than they seem.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Julian Williams permalink
    November 24, 2010 4:45pm

    How damn true. How absolutely damn true.

    And yet I wouldn’t have met you or Paul Davies Basset or Jon Pinnock or Lucy (bangtowrite) or Clem or, out of my 180 followers, so many more that are genuine.

    There are always cheats in life. The Twitter cheaters can sometimes be confoundingly difficult to identify. But through all of this…I am glad that I’ve been able to meet real people.

    Maybe it’s like walking into a pub for the first time. The first person who wants to speak to you is the last person you want to know. Except he’s a gateway to people who you really want to know.

    That’s what I reckon anyway.

    Brilliant blog.

    • gordondarroch permalink
      November 24, 2010 10:11pm

      Thanks Julian. That last point’s a good one – I got to know some good people from being in that #ff list. So even while she was obviously very, very messed up and hurt a few people badly, she did some good things too. Which makes it all the stranger that she behaved the way she did.

  2. November 24, 2010 4:59pm

    Excellent post, Gordon. Witty and erudite, as ever. We do live in fascinating times, don’t we? BTW Sorry to disillusion my mature followers, but I am actually a billionaire teenage rock star who enjoys posing as a middle-aged penniless writer. Sorry.🙂

    Oscar

  3. Julian Williams permalink
    November 24, 2010 5:07pm

    Oscar, you are a devil. And you are there; with Gordon, Paul Bassett Davies (got it right at last), Jon, Clem, Ian and all. It was difficult being a rock star to begin with but now that I’m broke and middle aged I just know I’m heading in the write direction🙂

  4. November 24, 2010 5:48pm

    Fascinating stuff. I’m quite seriously disappointed that she didn’t choose to follow me, though.

  5. November 24, 2010 7:03pm

    There is a friend of “Kelly’s” on Facebook who appears to have a real account sporting a picture that looks a great deal like some of the photos “Kelly” posted. Additionally, the person who I have not named is friends with another person who I am pretty sure looks like the person Kelly said was her “brother”. The “brother” is friends with the unnamed person as well. They all share the same last name.

    There are a number of strange variations that could exist, I suppose. But, I am not going to speculate because one thing is sure: she did hurt some people; one in particular. If she had not done that, well – lots of people on twitter are probably not who they say they are, or indeed do not even tell anyone who they are.

    • gordondarroch permalink
      November 25, 2010 1:55pm

      I agree that that kind of speculation’s probably fruitless, although if you’ve been personally affected I can understand why you’d go in for it. I do find it telling that it seems to be mostly men who go in for these ‘exposure’ expeditions. I read about another case of a middle-aged man who posed as a female prostitute to dupe men and women. The women (often real prostitutes who saw ‘her’ as a mentor) were in much greater personal danger, but it was one of the men who named and shamed the individual responsible. It looks too much like vengeance dressed up as truth-seeking for my comfort.

  6. November 24, 2010 7:11pm

    Interesting and intriguing. I don’t know and didn’t follow @Kellboo but I have wondered about people doing this. I’m not sure what people get out of inventing – or reinventing – themselves. I am far too honest and reveal too much about myself.
    Twitter would make a good psychological study- if someone hasn’t already done it. And I’m sure it will/does feature in many a novel or short story.
    I get twitter. I like twitter. But I wonder how long it will take for it to burst open and become septic. Or am I being too cynical?

    • gordondarroch permalink
      November 24, 2010 10:15pm

      I think a lot of people reveal too much about themselves, but Twitter entices you to do that in a way, because it’s a way to appeal to people. And, of course, there’s the whole hazard of tweeting while drunk – done that a few times🙂

  7. November 25, 2010 11:19pm

    I think we shall become better at spotting such deceptions as we can more practice in ‘living’ in this brave new world. I find the case you describe fascinating, especially the outrage people feel. It is similar to the outrage felt when an author who writes a work of fiction in the first person and claims it to be autobiographical is exposed. Ern Malley and the Angry Penguins is a famous case of a fake poet in Australia. He work was acclaimed then people found out he was actually a fake and the poetry was written by a group of poets.

  8. November 28, 2010 5:41pm

    My concern is that the person behind Kellbo0 was instantly disconnected from a network of friends who really didn’t care who she is in real life, that loved her for her warmth and unique perspective on current issues. I’m afraid for her emotional health and the isolation she must feel.

    The twittermachine gives and takes. Personal relationships formed there, should remain just that – personal. The jilted and confused, destroyed a twitter persona, loved and adored by many; doing so with great pride. I cannot forgive that action or condone such behavior.

    In this case, two wrongs created so much sadness for many. For me.

  9. November 28, 2010 11:59pm

    Yeah, it’s actually pretty clear that “Kellbo0” used her own daughter’s images, or at least a niece or some relative that shared her last name. If you explore “Kellbo0’s” Facebook friends, you’ll find this person pretty quickly. She even used a lot more of these pictures on her Twitpic account, which in hindsight now was clearly an attempt to convince all of us that she really was who she said she was. For me, it was successful. It looked like she had a real life as a young woman. Interestingly enough, all those Twitpic pictures disappeared not that long ago. Probably because she was using those images without her daughter/relative’s permission and maybe feared someone she knew personally would see them.

    Interesting point on men and revenge and exposés. But be careful before you make rash, sweeping statements. You don’t know this situation in-depth. I don’t even know really. But I do know “Kellbo0” was spreading malicious rumors about that man, and so it’s possible that exposing her like this was the only way to stop her.

    On a personal note, I considered her a close Twitter friend. She was never “abusive” to me, but in hindsight, I do now remember certain times she was “controlling.” But, all in all, she was nice to me. Which makes this situation very hurtful to me: I have no idea if she ever really MEANT all those nice things. Was I just a pawn in her game? Was I ever her “friend?”

    But truth IS the best disinfectant; it’s sunlight that illuminates our lives. I feel much freer now. I’m still very hurt, but I’m glad that the truth is out…

  10. Jenn4Smiles permalink
    February 22, 2011 7:15pm

    Kellbo0 was someone I gchatted with and spoke with on the phone. I never knew her IRL. I cared much for her. I called her when everything went down and left her a message. I missed her and I had to let go.

    I have had to let go many times on twitter. I actively search for people who want real and healthy friendships. I get hurt because we have different definitions of real realtionships. I let go.

    Sometimes I vent. Sometimes I cry. But I know I don’t know the Real In Person people of twitter but I am willing to stay. I am on my 6th account now. I refuse to follow more than 150 people. That is my limit and I can’t get involved in everybody’s business.

    I hope I never have to leave forever. I do have to take breaks and breathe sometimes. I have known people to pass away and I am sadden. I feel connected to the people I follow. I love them like they are my real family.

    I do miss Kellbo0. I am sure I always will. She was a good friend even if she was fake. I am very sorry the mess she left behind and the guy who got broken but he is much better now, I hope.

    But with each person I really connect with, when they leave I feel heart break. I cared for them or I would have never talked to them. I feel like a death of our friendship and that I have to grieve.

    Luckily, I have other twitter friends I fall back on who help me get back up. To have loved and to have lost is better than to have never loved at all.

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