At 4:50 on the afternoon of March 1, @BillMurray tweeted a joke to his 497,000 Twitter followers: “I always say ‘morning’ instead of ‘good morning.’ If it were a good morning I’d still be in bed instead of talking to people.” His fans responded enthusiastically. “I knew we’d have something in common,” replied one follower; “Thanks for the laughs this am,” replied another. A third took the opportunity for a personal connection: “I watched Meatballs today for the first time in roughly 30 years. It was a good morning with some good memories.” In all, the joke was re-tweeted 1,243 times, and 1,587 Twitter users favorited it.
There’s only one problem: the person tweeting as @BiIIMurray isn’t really Bill Murray. As those with even a passing knowledge of the comedian and actor’s personality could guess, Bill Murray isn’t on Twitter. But “Bill Murray” is.
Will Ferrell doesn’t have a Twitter account either, but in May of 2010, some lucky so-and-so grabbed the Twitter handle @willferrell. It currently displays zero tweets and no biographical information; even the avatar is the default image of an egg. Yet “Will Ferrell” currently has over 12,000 followers. I’ve got 2248. How many do you have?
“Will Ferrell” is no anomaly. @tinafey, also with no tweets and no image, has 34,000 followers (including the verified accounts of Questlove, John Hodgman and New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum). @amypoehler, with an image of the Parks & Rec star but no tweets, has over 68,000 followers (including Bette Midler and Olivia Wilde). @itsmejonstewart, with an image and a single tweet from 2009 (“@ the bars with my lady. sip sip”) is followed by more than 51,000 people.
That’s the kind of following you can get by exerting no effort whatsoever. Now imagine the kind of audience you can amass if, like @BiIIMurray, you grab a premium, celebrity-inspired handle and tweet from it regularly. That effort — for attention, for secondhand celebrity, for whatever — has resulted in one of the most bizarre elements of the social media platform, circa 2015: celebrity “parody” Twitter. An anonymous nobody takes up the online persona of a famous person, labels theirs (deep within the bio) a “fan” or “parody” account — while actually parodying nothing about the figure in question — and enjoys the adulation of fans and followers who don’t check bios or haven’t learned to look for the blue “verified” checkmark next to a celebrity’s name.
Comedians like Fey, Poehler, Stewart, and Ferrell are especially vulnerable to these accounts, since they aren’t on Twitter and thus don’t have an official account to draw followers. Ferrell is a particular favorite among Twitter knockoff artists; he’s got so many that he’s inspired the ultimate sign of pop-culture ubiquity, a BuzzFeed listicle. But even celebrities who are on Twitter, and active there, have spawned “parodies” (Daniel Tosh, Ellen Degeneres, Kanye West, Justin Timberlake) that use a famous name and face to tweet their own jokes and musings.
The more I thought about these people, the less sense they made to me. I’ve been on Twitter for going on six years now, and just trying to carve out my own personality and maintain some kind of a presence for myself is exhausting enough; why would I want to do it for the sake of someone else’s celebrity? Who does that? What exactly do they get out of such an endeavor? And what are the legal, ethical, and moral implications of their work?
In the past, if you wanted to be a celebrity impersonator, you had to bear a resemblance, invest in wigs and costumes and makeup, and put together an act. Nowadays, all you need is an email address. Or, as @the_WillFerrell (7K followers) so elegantly puts it in his Twitter bio, “If you’re stupid enough to believe it, then I’m stupid enough to be it.”
“Celebrities are just the easiest drug to obtain in the United States.” So says Dr. James Houran, who has spent the past 15 years researching the phenomenon of celebrity. “We can sell products because of celebrities, we want to copy what they do; they’re successful, so if we do what they’re doing, maybe we’ll be successful. But celebrity culture has only expanded, and it’s expanded because of social media — exactly the reason you’re citing here. So it doesn’t surprise me that people try to impersonate celebrities. It’s just a common shtick with comedians and entertainers.”
What kind of a personality is drawn to this kind of activity — to taking on a celebrity’s identity, and living in it? Dr. Houran stresses that this specific phenomenon hasn’t been researched, but based on studies of fandom and impersonation, “we can make some guesses, and I would say that there are probably at least two types of individuals. The first just see it as, they’re making a parody, it’s for fun. They’re not trying to mislead people or give the sense that they really are these people; it’s fun for them, it’s a joke, it’s a prank, for all practical purposes.”
To a certain extent, that seems an apt description of David Rhodes. An affable 29-year-old Canadian, Rhodes is the voice behind @itsWillyFerrell, which he started in May 2011 and built to 1.77 million followers. It’s basically a joke feed, full of funny pictures and memes and such, and he explains the identity thus: “The idea was just to put forward that generic, comedy-type stuff, but just have some kind of identity to it, have some kind of face to it — instead of just a random person, and nobody knows who this person is, right? So it gives the account its own kind of character, its own kind of identity. That was the first account I ever did besides my own account, and from there I started finding out ways to grow my audience, and I started making other accounts and expanding beyond that.”
Rhodes now operates ten different Twitter accounts that have, between them, eight million followers. They range from an account for Ferrell’s fictional colleague Brick Tamland to meme expansions like Sarcastic Wonka to more targeted feeds like his most popular, Sex Facts of Life.
“It was more or less trying to diversify ideas in terms of the content and in terms of hitting a different demographic, different market, or whatnot,” Rhodes told me. “But obviously, from an advertising perspective, it opened up a few more avenues, in that sense.” He went on for a bit about diversifying and content and audience, and I realized that he isn’t some sort of deluded superfan or needy attention whore or anything like I’d assumed — he’s a business guy, attaching himself to a #brand. And it worked. Rhodes doesn’t have a day job, and hasn’t for a long time. “For the last three years or so, I’ve been working for myself,” he says, “doing this ‘Twitter-influential’ type stuff.”
The logistics are fairly simple: he makes his money by pointing his millions of Twitter followers to shared online content. Some of that is done via third-party companies that connect brands and influencers (“usually more for direct deals and campaigns”); other sites work directly with people like him, setting up dashboards where they can select and post content their users might click on. “You come across ‘10 Crazy Places in the World’ and you go, ‘Cool, I’ll check it out,’” he explains, “and you click on it and you click through and look at all the pictures and you close it and move on. Those sites are all running ads and that kind of stuff, so obviously just being able to direct traffic to sites with content that people can view and spend a few minutes on and close it and move on to the next one.” Easy enough, but lucrative; within his first month of monetizing, Rhodes says, “my weekly income was twice the amount I was making at my job and kept climbing.”
By Dr. Houran’s definition, that leaves one other kind of “impersonator.” “You have people [whose interest] may actually have an element of fantasy to it,” he explains. “There’s a reason why they chose a certain celebrity, and though the process of celebrity worship is systematic, the exact celebrities that people tend to admire comes from very personal, psychological motivations. It often represents a person that has something, or has achieved something, that the fan has not and wishes they could.”
And that brings us to @ozchrisrock. This was the first celebrity parody account your correspondent became aware of, because it’s frequently retweeted by followers who I also follow (including writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Tessa Thompson). It’s easy to see how @ozchrisrock has picked up his audience of 85,000: you see the display name of “Chris Rock,” a Twitter handle that includes @ozchrisrock and profile and cover photo of Chris Rock. And his tweets primarily work at the intersection of comedy and social commentary, much like the real Chris Rock — who doesn’t exactly use his “A” material on his own, verified Twitter account, with 3.18 million followers. (@ozchrisrock is not one of them.)
Unlike the open book of Mr. Rhodes, the man who runs @ozchrisrock was reluctant to come out of the shadow of his famous avatar. He refused repeated requests for a phone interview, consenting only to answer questions via email, and then only providing the briefest, one-to-two-sentence replies. He would not share his real name, his location, what he does for a living, or any personal details whatsoever. He would only say, “I’m a lifelong Chris Rock fan. Love his honesty about current events in the world, politics, life, relationships,” and, “I’m just a regular guy like everyone else.”
And to be fair, he’s under no obligation to divulge who he is; if he wants to pretend to be Chris Rock, so be it. But his response to one of my questions was truly puzzling, because it seemed so utterly counterintuitive to what he does, why he’s known, and why he was being interviewed. It was my most basic inquiry, the thing I’d wondered since first discovering that there were scores of people expending hours of time and boundless energy masquerading as celebrities on the Internet. I asked, simply, what he got out of it.
His response: “Just being me.”