Periodically, I receive emails from Twitter, telling me about all the things I’m missing out on and asking me to come back. This week, I’ll be informed that it’s been ten years since I last used Twitter, and my friends are all patiently waiting for me to return. This may seem strange, Constant Reader, for a number of reasons. We may have come to take it for granted, but it’s weird that companies and corporations email us directly. It’s weird that anybody would feel that not being on Twitter – an ever more noxious website that’s helped coarsen our national discourse and precipitate our headlong plunge into fascism – could possibly be considered “missing out.” But if you’ve come to this blog through the link I post to Twitter every Monday, then there’s a bigger question you’re asking yourself – Michael, aren’t you on Twitter? How else am I reading this?
And the answer to that is that the Twitter account in my name, the one that’s linked to my website and to all the other activity in my life, was the second Twitter account I ever established. Prior to that, I created a separate account for a fictitious character, intended for satirical purposes.
Though it pains me to say it, in modern parlance, I was a troll.
In the spring of 2011, I started seeing a huge number of doomsday preachers wandering around my city, holding placards and infesting the subway system with handmade billboards. If you live in a large city, you get used to seeing these sorts of folks periodically, but this was different. They seemed organized, coordinated. Many clearly seemed to have come to New York for the express purpose of telling us we were all doomed. And they were strangely, absurdly specific about when doomsday was set to take place – May 21, 2011, at 6pm.
It turned out that these folks were all followers of the Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping, who’d made a career out of fanciful doomsday predictions. Now, with the aid of fancy new online toys like Twitter to spread his message, he had his flock convinced that the Rapture of Biblical prophecy (except it’s not actually in the Bible, but we’ll let that pass for now) was imminent, and unleashed them on my home town to annoy us all to death before the Big Moment. And making my way past their ridiculous signs, growing ever more frustrated at their antics, I wondered if there was any way to retaliate. Any way to turn their own techniques against them.
And so, I logged onto this newfangled Twitter thing, and created the @RaptureBoy2011 account. Rapture Boy was born.
My plan was to live tweet the bungling antics of a fictious Camping follower, preaching in the subways and making questionable life choices. (He quit his job and gave away most of his goods in advance of his anticipated ascendance into heaven – which was an actual thing a number of these folks were doing at the time.) The hope was to make it preposterous, and amusing to most readers, but just barely plausible enough to fool a True Believer. Then, my intended masterstroke – at the appointed hour, poor Rapture Boy would be stuck on earth – but he’d witness his annoying neighbor floating up to heaven. He’d live tweet his anguished cry, any Camping followers would have a horrible fright at the thought of being Left Behind, and the rest of us would have a good sadistic laugh at their expense.
Of course, as is often the case with these things, Camping revised his Doomsday prophesy immediately after the deadline. We’d all simply been judged on May 21, you see, and the actual physical component of Armageddon wouldn’t happen until October 21, 2011. Which raised the question, of course, of how much longer we’d have to deal with all his followers pestering us on the subway. It also left me in a bit of a quandry, since I’d already tweeted out the punchline of my ridiculous joke – should I pack it in and move on with my life, or should I somehow find a way to keep the joke going?
Enough friends of mine had been following Rapture Boy’s fictitious antics, and enjoying them, that they convinced me to keep up the gag. And so the account wound up evolving into an absurd science fiction story, with Rapture Boy, now a lost soul convinced he’d been abandoned by God Almighty, encountering survivalist camps on Staten Island, disapproving family members, ancient artifacts, the Occupy Wall street movment, ninjas on the Staten Island Ferry, bdsm enthusiasts, and all manner of preposterous events. This was all tweeted out live, as if he was narrating the story in real time – as if it was really happening. And it kept being tweeted until the stroke of midnight on October 21, when – spoiler alert – poor Rapture Boy was sacrificed by space aliens in the American Museum of Natural History, in order to trigger the countdown to the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse. (It was a really weird time, now that I think about it.)
Anyway, that’s the reason Rapture Boy hasn’t tweeted in a decade. I killed him off ten years ago this week.
Why on earth did I create him in the first place? Well, I didn’t start playwriting in earnest until the following year – I clearly had a lot of creative energy with a desperate need for an outlet. And as a writer, the outlet proved to be useful. I learned an enormous amount about narrative structure, as I forced myself to develop, intertwine, and resolve plotlines as my real-world deadlines ticked inexorably away. Many of the themes I found myself playing with, like how our desperate need to convince ourselves we’re special winds up warping our perceptions and our lives, are themes I’ve returned to in plays and other more respectable pieces. So in terms of my creative development, the Twitter experiment was a success.
Which is good, because in all other respects, Rapture Boy was an abject failure. The account is still there, if you’re curious. (You’ll have to take your time scrolling back to the beginning if you want to read “the plot.” ) The numbers are dismal – only 24 followers, out of all of the Twitterverse. Whatever the secret is to going viral, Rapture Boy didn’t have it.
Moreover, he didn’t succeed at the initial task of fooling Camping’s followers. (The only people who ever did think he was real, interestingly enough, were the militant atheist types who scrolled through Twitter to find True Believers to ridicule, and who never once caught on to the ever-more -obvious joke.) And I think it’s worth considering why that’s the case, since it’s continued to be the case as ever more dangerous and unhinged extremists have risen up to take their place online.
People don’t actually use Twitter to communicate. It’s a lousy medium for storytelling, for the exchange of ideas. It’s purely a numbers game. There’s a reason why the Camping followers, and their spiritual descendants, all write in what looks like gibberish, strings of hashtags with no content or context. They’re just trying to inflate their online presence, to make the various algorithms think they’re the most noteworthy thing in the world at that moment. The “conversation” is an ongoing intimidation campaign, nothing more – and the ever more belligerent nature of real-world discourse makes it plain that they’re well aware of the fact. So farewell, poor Rapture Boy. You just weren’t made for this world – though hopefully the world can learn from your failures, before it’s too late.