ALEX GOLDMAN: Hey, quick announcement before we start the show: we are hiring! We are searching for a producer and a supervising editor to join our team. If you’d like to read more about the jobs or apply… go to www.replyallshow.com/jobs. Here’s the show.
From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I'm Alex Goldman.
ALEX: And this week, I wanted to invite my colleague Phia Bennin on a journey with me. Hello Phia Bennin.
PHIA BENNIN: Hello, Alex Goldman.
ALEX: Phia, I actually asked you on the show today because... one, you are cool and smart.
PHIA: Thank you. You are too.
ALEX: And two, I don’t think that you would disagree with me if... when I say that you are not like the most experienced Twitter user. And—
PHIA: No, I’m one of the worst.
ALEX: And I thought it would be fun to have you on, because today I have a story that is like, very much about Twitter.
PHIA: Cool. Yeah, I’m like, um, I have no right to be on Twitter even though I am.
ALEX: I mean, wha— everyone has a right to be on it.
PHIA: I haven’t earned it.
ALEX: I don’t know how to— I mean like, by, if you have to tweet to earn it, yeah, you haven’t really earned it.
PHIA: It’s like I have a house that I have the keys to, but I never go inside of.
ALEX: So I think you know that for the— that I am like a very regular Twitter user. I am a ver— I’m a power user I would say. I use it a lot.
PHIA: Yes, there are times during the workday that we’re like, “Is Alex tweeting right now?”
ALEX: Oh no.
PHIA: “Alex, pay attention. Stop tweeting. C’mon.” I sound like I’m talking to a puppy.
ALEX: When I— when that— when that’s happening, I have like, an idea that’s like, that’s like, “Shoehorns! I thought they were called trumpets!” or something, and I have to twee— like I suddenly have to tweet it. You know?
ALEX: So Phia… today I have a story for you about a Twitter account that I have gotten extremely obsessed with because it is somehow able to defy the rules of Twitter. Like it shouldn't be able to exist.
AND… today's story is a Super Tech Support.
PHIA: I'm very excited.
ALEX: I'm going to be honest, you sound a little morose.
PHIA: Oh, no, no. What is better than like, just listening to you tell a story and not having to do any other work?
ALEX: Is that what you think this is? You, you—
ALEX: You don't have to do any of the lifting here?
PHIA: I've shown up. Tell me a story. I will enjoy it.
ALEX: OK. Well. We got an email from a listener named Ian. And the email started "this one will knock your socks off!” [LAUGHS] so I was immediately intrigued. And it was about this strange Twitter account that he'd discovered. So I gave him a call.
ALEX: Hi Ian.
ALEX: How are you?
Ian is a student at Louisiana State University.
ALEX: What are you majoring in?
IAN: Physics and astronomy.
ALEX: Oh, man. That's— that gives me, like, heart palpitations.
ALEX: It reminds me of, like—
IAN: It gives me heart palpitations.
ALEX: I can— if I can be honest with you— the one time I cheated on a test in college was in astronomy, because I knew I was going to fail if I didn't look at the paper of the person next to me. I was like—
ALEX: I was like, I was like, I, I went into astronomy and I was like, “This is gonna be awesome. I'm going to learn about the atmosphere of other planets, space travel.” And all it is, is like the math of pinpointing objects in like a universe that's perpetually moving.
IAN: Yeah. Well, here's the question, though. Did you pass the test?
ALEX: I passed— I did great on the test because it wasn't my answers.
IAN: OK. Great.
ALEX: Uh, so, so, you, you wrote in to us, and I'm wondering if you can just tell me a little bit about, like, the, your experience of finding the account that you, that you contacted us about.
IAN: Sure. OK, so this account is a Twitter account with absolutely no Twitter handle. It shows the @, like is in front of every other Twitter handle, but there's nothing after that, and there's no name.
ALEX: So, you know, like my, my username on Twitter is @AGoldmund.
PHIA: So the handle, not the, not the like, name that shows up, like—
ALEX: Not the display name, because my display name is Alex Goldman. My username is AGoldmun- @AGoldmund. And this person's username is just @. There's just an @ there.
PHIA: Just an @. It's like the, the rest of it had vanished.
ALEX: Can you explain the way you found it?
IAN: Yeah. So the @ account had promoted one of it's tweets and there was—
ALEX: They paid money to, for- for people to find it?
IAN: Yeah. And another Twitter account, uh, that is the sole purpose of taking screenshots of really weird promoted tweets and then posting that on Twitter had found that tweet. And then in the thread under that, somebody had linked one of the @ account's tweets. And then from there I found the account.
Alex: I mean, what’s crazy about this account with no username is that when Ian first emailed me about it, I tried to find it, and I couldn't even access it on my computer. Like, Ian included a link in his email, and I kept trying to go to it, but you can't go to it, because—
PHIA: It doesn't like, go to the next screen.
ALEX: It does— It'll just say like, "Something went wrong,” and you can't—
ALEX: Get to the tweet.
PHIA: Is this true— like could— does somebody have the email @gmail.com?
ALEX: I don't think so. How do you email that person? That's the thing, is like, how do you go to @'s Twitter account? Because for starters you can't search for them...and like, if I were to go to the URL for my Twitter account, it's Twitter dot com slash AGoldmund. A-G-O-L-D-M-U-N-D. If you have no username, what do you just go to… Twitter dot com slash nothing?
PHIA: Oh, I see. I see.
ALEX: That takes you straight to the main page. Like it just—
ALEX: This Twitter account, like, breaks Twitter—
PHIA: But exists on Twitter?
ALEX: But still exists.
IAN: It's sort of like an exclusive club. So if, if you know somebody that has access to the account, you can have access, but otherwise you will not find this account.
ALEX: So the only way that someone could conceivably find this account is if someone else links to it, right?
IAN: Exactly. Yeah.
ALEX: Basically, there’s no way to see this account just like, operating in the wild on Twitter.
ALEX: You can’t search it. You can’t retweet it. Like, the only way you could stumble upon the account is if someone, if someone you follow replies to the account for some reason. Then it will show up in your timeline.
This account to me has the feeling of like, one of those special, beautiful places that isn't on a map, and you only find out about it because like, someone heard about it from someone who heard about it from someone. Like, in my case, I was only actually able to see this account when I took a link that Ian sent me in an email and opened it up on my phone. Because for some reason, it did not work on my computer. Like—
PHIA: That's so weird.
ALEX: Uh, yes, for whatever reason it will not load on a, on a, on a, on a laptop or desktop computer.
PHIA: So it’s like a weird little portal glitch?
ALEX: And, to me, this is like, my dream Twitter account.
ALEX: I mean, as you know, I use Twitter a lot.
PHIA: Mm-hmm. I do know that.
ALEX: And for, and for whatever reason, quite a few people follow me and read all of the dumb things that—
PHIA: Like, tens of thousands of people follow you.
ALEX: …pour out of my head, yeah.
PHIA: Is it more than that? Is there— does 100,000 people follow you?
ALEX: Yeah. It’s 100-something.
ALEX: I mean, but the thing is, like, I’m always tweeting on the pretense that like, I’m connecting with the world and like— and people are very nice, but it just feels really empty.
ALEX: And so, sometimes I’m just like, really embarrassed of the— my need for that connection and like, my insistence on trying to get it. So I’ll just like, delete all of my tweets and take Twitter off of my phone.
ALEX: Um, but I also have this constant compulsion to be on Twitter for like, the tiny drip of validation that it gives me. So that’s why this account would be perfect for me. It’s like, simultaneously on Twitter and not on Twitter. It’s like, hard to find and hard to retweet. Like, the idea of being this hard to find on Twitter feels really nice to me.
PHIA: That makes sense to me.
ALEX: Sounds perfect.
PHIA: So is your theory that like this account belongs to like one of the original employees of Twitter, or like Jack Dorsey, or like—
ALEX: I had no idea cuz the thing is that if you, if you finally make it to the account, if you are determined enough to actually make it to the account, this person… part of the reason that Ian was so interested in it is because whoever is tweeting or whatever is tweeting from this account, the tweets are very weird. Like random things without context, like "aerodynamic milk," or just tweeting the word "livestream."
Like, they almost—
ALEX: They almost feel like they could be written by a computer—
PHIA: Like a bot?
ALEX: —’cause they're so weird.
Like, one thing that this that this account did for a while was just tweet Twitter polls. Do you know what a Twitter poll is?
PHIA: Alex, the way you talk to me, it's like I don't know anything about Twitter. Which is fair, but I do know, I do know Instagram and everything you're saying, I just go like "Instagram, got it.”
ALEX: Oh, okay.
PHIA: I'm not so doo-doo stupid.
ALEX: To be perfectly fair, I know nothing about Instagram, so I don't know if they have polls.
PHIA: I'm surprised you haven't done a poll on Instagram, ‘cause the things you do on Instagram just feel like, invading my Instagram with your Twitter. And I don't think I've ever liked anything you’ve posted to Instagram, ‘cause I just feel like I'm not on Twitter because I'm opting out of like, Internet Alex. Like, I find your internet personality very confusing?
ALEX: Well, I’m sorry, okay?
PHIA: I like— I find your day to day personality very enjoyable.
ALEX: Um, but, but some other, some other things that, that—I’m just, I’m just not gonna— [PHIA LAUGHS] I mean, what do you want me to say? I think they’re both awesome.
PHIA: No. [LAUGHS] Okay, keep going, sorry.
ALEX: Anyway, the account tweets a bunch of polls, but instead of the options being actual choices, like, “What's better, ponies or horses?” or whatever, the, the options will be like, “68%” and “32%”, and then people can vote on those two percentages.
ALEX: It’s a really bizarre account. Sometimes it feels like it's just taking text from somewhere and like, reconfiguring it into non-sequiturs and tweeting it. But, but then there are things that feel like, oh, this is totally written by a real person.
PHIA: Like what?
ALEX: Like, well, I mean, the account posts a lot about soccer, specifically, a soccer team in Scotland called Kilmarnock FC. It also retweets an account called, uh, “The_Real_LeRoy” quite a bit, and that account I found out belongs to a guy named Martin Le Roy… And I, I am guessing that that is the owner of the @ account, of the no name account.
ALEX: Have you tried contacting him and saying like, "Hey, what's up with your account?"
IAN: Yeah, so, uh, I tried doing that through just tweeting at him, but a lot of people do that.
But then the account started following Ian… which was really confusing to Ian because besides him, this account only follows Elon Musk and a Youtuber.
IAN: At one point, he followed me, and he only follows VSauce and Elon Musk, so I thought it was really weird that I would be the third… I'm not even verified. So I reached out to him and said, "Hey, I'm very honored. Thank you. Why are you following me?" Uh, he had absolutely no idea. And then he said, like, "Sorry to break it to you, yeah, I'll unfollow you now because I don't really want to follow you." Um, and I tried to ask some more clarifying questions, and I never really got an answer. He's, he's a very mysterious guy, really hard to get a hold of.
ALEX: He is mysterious.
ALEX: He doesn't seem interested at all in explaining what's going on.
IAN: Uh, I had sent him a DM, and I said like, "Oh, there's this podcast. I've been listening to it for years, Alex Goldman. I'm sure he's going to want to talk to you. Do you want to talk to him?" And I started that message with "Hear me out." And then about an hour later he tweeted, "Hear me out." And he never responded to my message. So, I don't know what that means, but….
ALEX: And then the account blocked him.
ALEX: SO, SO, Ian wants to know what IS this account?
IAN: Thank you for meeting with me, I'm really curious to know what you can find.
And so I told him I'd do my best to figure it out.
ALEX: All right, man. Take care.
IAN: Bye, guys.
ALEX: So of course the first thing I did was try tweeting at the nameless account, like, "Hey, will you please do an interview with me?" Which didn’t work at all. Like, the account never responded. So, I, I looked up that guy, Martin Le Roy, who I think owns the account, and I found... and I found an account of his on another website, a website where he like, sells t-shirts that he designs.
ALEX: And so, I sent him a message there, and he did not reply.
ALEX: Um, and, you know, I was, [LAUGHS] I was getting very frustrated.
ALEX: Because I just wanted to know like, how do you get this account? Can I get one of my own? And they were stonewalling me. Um, but there was a person who saw me tweeting at the no-name account asking for an interview.
ALEX: Uh, uh, this guy named Austin Burk.
AUSTIN BURK: Test. Test. [SINGS] Butter butter butter butter. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
ALEX: Wow, I've never had someone give such a, such an amazing sound test before.
ALEX: He lives in Lansing, Michigan. He works for like, a web-hosting company.
AUSTIN: And what I do is I work on our internal systems to find ways to make them break in testing so that they don't break in the real world.
ALEX: That sounds kind of fun. I mean, I'd like to have a job where I try and break stuff all the time.
Austin said that coming across this account, he was immediately intrigued.
AUSTIN: This is the kind of thing that I live for. You, you put a mystery in front of me, and like, I will dive into it. I will drop everything else that I'm doing and just dive into it.
ALEX: He came to me with, like, a level of comprehensive knowledge of the way Twitter works, because of this account, that was like genuinely surprising to me.
AUSTIN: Here's the thing about that account with no username—
AUSTIN: It isn't— it isn't the only one.
ALEX: When you say it isn't the only one, tell me a little more, how many are we talking?
AUSTIN: Well, at first I found five or six, and then I started looking a little harder and that five or six went up to almost 2000. And while I haven't been able to get all the IDs for them, it's looking like that might be even closer to 20,000.
PHIA: Wait, so you were focused on one, but there are many?
ALEX: Yes. Which was exciting to me because Martin’s account wasn’t getting back to me. And I was like, well, if there’s thousands of these, maybe I could talk to someone else with one of these magic accounts.
PHIA: But if none of them have usernames, like, how do you know— how do you differentiate? Like, how do you know which one you’re reaching out to, or if you’re just like, reaching out to the same one over and over again?
ALEX: So, when I go to the Twitter website, I’m gonna look up an account by like my— the username. Like @AGoldmund or @PhiaBennin or whatever. But in addition to the username, Twitter tracks each account by giving it a unique number.
ALEX: That’s how you can, like, change your username but still have all your old tweets. Or in this case, how it’s possible to have no username, and still have a Twitter account.
PHIA: Right, like, cause it’s a computer that’s following things. It just thinks about things as numbers. It doesn’t care that you’re Alex Goldman.
ALEX: RIght. And so Austin was like, very helpful, ‘cause he knew how to look up Twitter accounts by their unique numbers.
AUSTIN: All right. Let's take a look here.
So, we were looking at this massive Excel spreadsheet of accounts with no username, and I’m like, reading off the unique number for each account to Austin.
ALEX: Uh, let's do the next one. 58354621.
And Austin has this account called a Twitter Developer Account. You can apply with Twitter so that you can do sort of like, special searches on their data. And he would look up the number that I read to him and then tell me:
AUSTIN: It's almost certainly a bot account.
ALEX: Okay, so yeah, it’s auto-tweeting newsworthy stuff.
And we were able to figure out that like, out of the thousands of accounts that exist with no, no usernames, only six of them had tweeted in 2021. But they were all bots, just like, tweeting links to random articles or some other inane crap, with the exception of ONE account, which seemed to be active and actually being used by a human being. And that was the one that Ian found.
PHIA: I think it’s pretty amazing that the one real one is the one that you’ve been looking for.
ALEX: Yeah, I know, I mean— but also, no one would ever notice the ones that aren’t real. Right?
PHIA: Don’t diminish the magic.
ALEX: And, you know, like, I'm getting super frustrated, like, I'm like, you know, "We still have no— there's still no real information on how to contact this guy. Like, he's not getting back to me.” Um. So at the end of May, we have this team meeting of everyone working on this story... it's me, Lisa, Jessica, Hannah, and Tim. And we're all like, "OK, what do we do? How do we get this guy?” And we're- I mean, we’re getting desperate. So we start entertaining our editor Tim Howard’s total bong hit ideas—
PHIA: Some of the best kind.
ALEX: Yeah, absolutely.
TIM: Or the other possibility is Alex figures out some sort of way to do a non-creepy valentine thing related to the Kilmarnock Football Club and then sends that in like, an email.
HANNAH: Can you, like, tweet the valentine at him?
ALEX: I could. I could, I'm sure.
ALEX: And while we’re throwing these ideas around, like, ways to get this account's owner to reply to me, producer Jessica Yung, she, she has this sudden realization why this person is not replying. She was like, "Alex, didn't you deactivate your Twitter?"
And I was like, "Yeah, I did," because I had actually deactivated my account at the beginning of April.
ALEX: And so Jessica — who knew that I had deactivated my Twitter account — was like, "Are you tweeting at them, what account are you tweeting at them from?" And I was like, "well," and I was like “uhhh,” and she was like, "Are you tweeting at them from the Reply All account?" And I was like, "no." She was like, "Are you tweeting at them from your band's account?"
ALEX: So I have an account for my band, which has like 500 followers. It doesn't have a picture of my face on it.
PHIA: Wow, OK, so you weren't tweeting— Oh. What's your band's name, your “band?”
ALEX: You don't know that— we're called Slow Fawns.
PHIA: We— who's the we.
ALEX: Me and… me. It's me. I mean—
PHIA: You’re called Slow Fawns.
ALEX: I'm called Slow Fawns. Slow Fawns is plural.
PHIA: Well, it shouldn't be plural. You're a Slow Fawn. What, what’s on that Twitter account? How many tweets do you have? Is it all just like "Listen to this synth sound. It sounds like a fart."
ALEX: I mean a Twitter account is kind— the Twitter account is kind of like a combination of jokes that I tell, um, uh, music, and just like, total non sequiturs. Here, let me send you the Twitter.
PHIA: Okay, I got it. "I wish she'd Don'ta Lipa.” Uhh.. “Androids delight, floating further from the future eye, day by day."
ALEX: You're reading my tweets, just right now, because I think people probably are thinking you're just having a stroke.
PHIA: And you only first started tweeting here in April.
PHIA: So you only made this account a couple months ago.
ALEX: Right. And Jessica, I think understandably, was like, "What are you doing? Why are you tweeting from that account?"
PHIA: Oh. Oh, you were like, "Why isn't this working? I'm so frustrated."
ALEX: You sound really disappointed to me. You sound so disappointed.
PHIA: It— It feels like— yes. This is the kind of thing that like, is frustrating. And that like nobody, nobody, knew to ask. We all thought you were tweeting from an account with like lots of people and instead you were doing it from such a weird place. You're so weird, Alex.
ALEX: So, you know, right then and there, I made the decision that like, the only way to solve this problem would be that I— to tweet at the mystery account from my personal account.
So, I reactivated. And it still had all my followers, but my timeline was totally blank, because I deleted everything. And I was like, "How am I gonna get this guy's attention? 'Cause it still seems weird that I don't have anything on my account.”
PHIA: Yeah. Right.
ALEX: And then I was like, "Well, this Martin Le Roy person, who I feel like must run this account, he’s definitely a shitposter, because he posts, you know, dumb, goofy stuff all the time."
ALEX: So I immediately started tweeting, uh—
PHIA: Your normal stuff.
ALEX: My normal stuff. I— My first tweet was like, “Enya? I haven’t even begun-ya!”
PHIA: That's pretty good. As your stuff goes, I like it.
ALEX: And then “Chewbacca more like spit front ya."
ALEX: Well, OK. And then immediately, like within the hour, I was back into my worst, attention-seeking Twitter behavior.
Like at one point, I quote tweeted an article from this uh, website called BGR. And the article said, the tweet said, "your future sex robot could be hacked and programmed to murder you." And I tweeted, "I don't even have a current sex robot!" Um… No? Nothing?
PHIA: No. No reaction. [ALEX LAUGHS]
ALEX: Um, but, you know, I mean, I spent the next several hours after that tweet justice, checking my notifications to see how that tweet was doing.
PHIA: What— did it get a good reaction?
ALEX: It did. People loved it.
ALEX: Yeah. Um, but I mean, it just felt like a total relapse into my old habits.
ALEX: Like, refreshing all day long, during work, after work, after the kids went to bed. Like, it was just — what I want — like, my dream is to stop having the experience of having members of my family talking to me while I’m checking Twitter and having to look up and go, “Huh? Can you say that again?”
ALEX: That feels pretty bad.
PHIA: Yeah, it’s like—
ALEX: I would like to be a little more present.
PHIA: It’s like you’d quit smoking and then you had a cigarette, and then you were like, I’m back to having a pack a day.
ALEX: Right. And, and I was, I was very mad about it. I mean like, mostly mad at myself about it, for like, falling right back into my old tweeting habits. But I mean, at the same time, I felt like, if I, if I ever need to contact anyone else, I'm gonna need to have this account up again.
PHIA: Yeah. So you just, you felt the like— you felt cornered. You were—
PHIA: That's sad.
ALEX: I know.
But I got in touch with Martin!
The day after I reactivated my account, I tweeted at the noname account. And within a couple hours, it replied and said "I'll send you an email.”
After the break: the man with no name.
ALEX: So the day after I reactivated my personal Twitter account, the owner of the no-name account got back to me. And it was definitely not the master hacker I'd been expecting.
MARTIN LE ROY: So my name's Martin, and I am nobody of note, really. Well, I live in the northeast of England. I’m obviously originally from Scotland. And I just happened across a Twitter account which had no username for a very long period of time...
ALEX: So, when the account with no username fell into the hands of this, uh, self-described "nobody of note," he was in a very different part of his Twitter life journey than me.
Like, while, while I had spent the past couple years trying to wean myself off the need for Twitter validation, um, Martin has been trying to figure out how to become Twitter famous.
ALEX: And it seems like the account just like, fell into his hands almost as if like, by divine providence. It was like, one of many accounts that he has, like his fifth or sixth or seventh or something. He's not really sure. And he was going through the process of signing up...
MARTIN: And I was typing into the section where you pick your username. I was typing in random, just names of what I could select and see if they were available or not. I don't know if it still does, but like a tick was coming up next to it or a cross was coming up to say whether it was available or not. And to the best of my knowledge, what happened was that I had deleted the field. The field was empty. But the tick was there to say that it was an acceptable username. So I pressed next.
ALEX: [LAUGHS] You pre— and that, that was it? That's all it took?
MARTIN: And that was it. That's all it took.
So, I, I got in touch with Twitter, and I was like, “Hey, how was Martin able to create this account?”
And they were like, “There was a temporary bug in the code, and a lot of people made accounts like this.” But, uh, what they also told me was like, these accounts don’t work as like, normal accounts are intended to work. Like, they’re very buggy.
ALEX: And so, pretty much everybody who got one was like, “Well, this doesn’t have a username, and it’s impossible to use. [LAUGHS] I’m not going to use it.” Um.
PHIA: Right. Except for Martin.
ALEX: Yeah, except for Martin.
Because Martin noticed that anytime someone was lucky enough to stumble across his account — like whether he'd replied to another tweet, or if someone had posted a screenshot of it, they would notice it and be like, oh, this is such a weird, cool account. I want to make sure I’m following it.”
PHIA: So he was collecting followers.
ALEX: He was collecting followers, and it didn’t matter how bad his tweets were. The account just like, had its own pull. It just felt to Martin like it could be huge.
MARTIN: Specifically, I was trying to hit over 30,000 followers because according to— in the UK, according to the Advertising Standards Agency, if you have over 30,000 followers on a social media platform, you are legally a celebrity. So that was, that was my aim. I just wanted to be over 30,000 followers, and then I wasn't bothered.
ALEX: Why did you want your Twitter account to be legally a celebrity?
MARTIN: I just wanted to be able to say, “I am technically a celebrity,” even though no one's ever heard of me and actually knows who I am.
ALEX: Martin had basically found the narrowest and most unglamorous path to celebrity I’ve ever heard of. I had to look this up, but this board in the UK that's actually called the Advertising Standards Authority made a ruling that said any account with over 30,000 followers counted as a celebrity for their purposes. And so that’s what Martin was aiming for.
ALEX: But the first hurdle to Martin's plan was the account itself, because [LAUGHS] it— it’s not only hard to find, it’s like, impossible to use and is always breaking in sort of new and different ways.
MARTIN: For a very long period of time, I couldn't see my own tweets, so I would tweet, then I wouldn't be able to see it again. So I would have to, I would have, I would have to then log into my main account to see the replies to my tweets. And then if I wanted to reply to one of those, I would have to copy the link from— that I got from my main account, sign into my other— sign into—
ALEX: This is so complex.
MARTIN: ...the nameless account to get to to reply, to reply to it. So it was a big period of time where I wasn't replying to people very much because it was a bit of a lengthy process.
Martin started developing other strategies to up his exposure… like replying to Elon Musk tweets, which would usually get him some followers. But the most successful thing he tried — which is initially how he got the attention of Ian, who is our listener—
ALEX: ...is a sponsored tweet. And, the tweet that Martin promoted said, quote: "I seem to have lost my username. Can anyone help, please?"
PHIA: That's pretty cute.
ALEX: And it worked. In April, he ended up hitting 30,000 followers.
PHIA: He's a celebrity!
ALEX: He's a celebrity; he's made it. He has, you know, 30,000 people listening to every dada-esque joke he wants to make.
But like, Martin’s moment in the sun was sadly very, very brief. Because like, just a couple months ago, this weird thing started to happen where anytime he changed a setting on his account — like if he changed his Twitter bio or opened or closed his DMs, anything like that — for the next couple minutes, he would have a username.
PHIA: What would it be?
ALEX: Just complete gibberish: numbers and letters.
MARTIN:Then it disappeared very, very quickly. And I was like, "Right, what happened there? That was very strange."
ALEX: And then on the afternoon of May 22nd, he made a change to one of the settings on his account — he opened up his DM's so anyone could message him — and then another gibberish usernames appeared...but this time it stuck. And it hasn't gone away. And now Martin, instead of having a Twitter account with no username, has a twitter account with the username @OJAKSS7FV37SMVI.
So I have since learned why Twitter had to, in that moment, take the no-name account away.
ALEX: I talked to a former Twitter engineer whose name is Lisa Phillips, and her job at Twitter was to, like make sure — as Twitter scaled, as it got bigger — it wouldn’t break from all the people on it, basically. was to solve problems in Twitter’s code. And while she never encountered this particular account when she worked there, when I told her about it, she was like, oh I could see why that was a nightmare for the engineers to deal with. Because what Martin doesn't know is that because this account is so fundamentally flawed, even the smallest interactions with it can generate errors that Twitter's engineers have to fix.
LISA PHILLIPS: Let’s say you’re going 10,000 followers every minute or whatever. You know, a celebrity or something. You have to update each one of those followers to show that they follow that person and the counts for each of them. That's— there's a lot of tasks that have to happen when you start thinking about how to interact between Twitter accounts. So yeah, I think once he started getting followers, it probably triggered errors.
PHIA: Wow. So every time he does anything, they get— they are like, notified. They know about it.
ALEX: They get error messages that may or may not directly point to his account. Like it's the, the—Twitter implied that it took some time to figure out how, what was going on. But these errors would pile up until they had to be dealt with by Twitter engineers. And Lisa said that as the account started to grow, there'd be more and more errors, and so the engineers would eventually have to find what was causing them. And I told her, like, "Well, he did do a promoted tweet, and that promoted tweet got him a bunch of new followers."
ALEX: He paid for a sponsored post.
LISA: [GASPS] No! And he was able to?
ALEX: That— he was as surprised as you are.
ALEX: So that was the—
LISA: So he was, yeah, he was, he got that attention. Probably those errors flew through the roof and… yeah. He got triggered.
ALEX: That’s really interesting.
LISA: He probably could’ve just kept with that username for a really long time.
ALEX: It was like his very quest for fame that undid the thing that made him special.
PHIA: He flew too close to the sun.
ALEX: That’s exactly what I said. He’s Twitter’s Icarus.
ALEX: What does it feel like to be the—part of the rest of us rabble these days?
MARTIN: Sad. As soon as I tweet anything now, it's like, "Dude, you've got a username." And it's like, "yeah, I know." Like I've got the, the thirty eight something thousand followers. Like what what, like, what do I do now? Because they're there because I was weird. Now I'm not weird, so what do I do with it now? And I'm at a loss, really.
ALEX: You're still tweeting?
MARTIN: I'm still tweeting. But it's—
ALEX: Has your heart gone out of it a little bit?
MARTIN: A little bit. Like it's just, it's not special anymore.
ALEX: Twitter's really just lost its shine for Martin, which I can relate to.
PHIA: What about you, Alex? Do you still have your Twitter account? Did you get rid of it?
ALEX: Nope. It’s still up. I’m still tweeting. Still feeling bad.
ALEX: It sounds so ridiculous when I say it. It's like, I'm sure there are a million people listening to this being like, “Just stop tweeting.”
ALEX: But that’s— It’s very hard for me.
PHIA: I’m sorry.
ALEX: Am I allowed to get rid of it again?
PHIA: Yes! Absolutely! You don’t need to ask me. Just do whatever you want. Your job does not require you to have a Twitter account. You need to be creative enough that you can book pe— you can use the White Pages and book people without it. And you can't try to book people from a creepy account that only posts like, weird synth music. But like—
ALEX: I don't think it's a creepy account.
PHIA: I think you're a very smart person that— I don't think Slow Fawn is your answer. But I think that, like, you can figure out other ways to, uh, connect with the world, right?
ALEX: Yeah, I'm— yes.
ALEX: So you’re, you’re rolling, just to be clear.
PHIA: The record button is red.
PHIA: That’s the best I can say.
ALEX: So Phia, we talked— last talked on Thursday of last week.
PHIA: Yes, and now it is Tuesday.
ALEX: And I just wanted to let you know, um, that Saturday morning, I did deactivate my Twitter account. I was about to go— I was like, on my way to a, to a weekend trip to Sarah’s family to see a, a nephew get christened, and I wanted to like, I was like, I was like, “I bet that if I have this thing on I’ll probably compulsively check it during downtime, and just be like, Sarah’s weird rude husband who doesn’t talk to anybody.”
ALEX: So I’d rather be Sarah’s not-rude husband who doesn’t talk to anybody. So I deactivated my Twitter account and immediately went outside...
[SOUNDS OF OUTSIDE, BIRDS]
ALEX: Can you show me how you go across the monkey bars?
POLLY: You never catch me, you never catch me!
...and played with Polly on a little jungle gym we have in the backyard.
ALEX: Whoa! Look at you, you’re hangin’.
POLLY: Wheee! That was fun!
ALEX: And I had this moment where I was just like, oh I'm fine — I'm not missing out on anything by not using Twitter.
PHIA: You seem really happy.
PHIA: And Twitter-less.
ALEX: Ohhh, it feels so good.
This episode of Reply All was produced by Jessica Yung, Lisa Wang, and Hannah Chinn, with production assistance from Noor Gill. It was edited by Tim Howard. Additional help from the rest of the Reply All crew: Anna Foley, Damiano Marchetti, Emmanuel Dzotsi, and Phia Bennin.
We are hosted by Emmanuel Dzotsi and me, Alex Goldman. This episode was mixed by Rick Kwan, with fact checking by Isabel Cristo.
Music in this episode by Breakmaster Cylinder, Mariana Romano, Luke Williams, and Tim Howard. Special thanks to Bryan Haggerty, Marc Mims, Matt Dobbin, and Andrew Seigner.
Also, we’re always looking for more Super Tech Supports. If you’ve got a tech problem that’s causing real consequences in your life, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you in two weeks.