Distorte is a collection of stories written by Pierce Gleeson

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Four Million Followers

He slid into the job noiselessly, without effort, although it came as some relief. Like most opportunities it appeared through nepotistic connections; his close friend’s sister-in-law was a high-level accountant in a global drinks company with offices in the city.

Six months after exiting his Ph.D. in Early-Roman History, he was still floating, unemployable and still too exhausted by the university system to apply to a post-doctorate position either in his own country or abroad. When the word came of a potential job he was ready to submit to it.

The drinks company arranged for him to come to their offices—a few cubes of neutral grey and fluorescence sectioned away in a huge warehouse in an industrial estate outside town—and he arrived without a clear idea of what the work entailed, or whether it called in any way on his skills or experience.

It turned out that they required an individual to manage the Twitter page for Quark Cola, their most well-known soft drink. A truly global brand, popular across seventy countries, sold in fifty more. Across a beech-laminate board table they offered tea and biscuits and their proposal.

‘We need a single person to manage this page,’ said Samantha. She appeared to be highly positioned in their marketing department, but he couldn’t understand the significance of the string of words that made up her title.

‘How many followers do you have?’ He was trying to seem interested.

‘Four million. We’re not sure how, but four million. It’s become a responsibility we were unprepared for.’ For the last three years at least five departments in various countries had open access to the account. Nothing of any import was tweeted—mostly links to their website and a few disorganised competitions—but still the followers had grown. In recent months a few ill-advised attempts had been made to engage with the Twitter community. One marketing team had asked followers to share their fondest memory of the product using the #QuarkColaMemories tag, and in the following twenty-four hours there were tens of thousands of tweets by underage drinkers in Brazil, where the cola was popularly mixed with a particularly potent sugar-alcohol. The concoction had its own nickname, and the whole episode was widely reported and, according to Samantha, a bit of a media disaster.

Another mishap was the announcement, by another anonymous employee in the Spanish office, of an upcoming motor racing event sponsored by the drink. His tweet incorrectly placed the host city in the Sweden, leading to a welter of abuse and mockery by offended Norwegians. A public apology had been necessary.

‘What we’re looking for,’ Samantha expanded, ‘is an individual who can take tweets submitted by our International offices, filter them, vet them, and finally post them. Our requirements are a little vague, I know, but essentially I suppose we’re looking for someone smart. Well-read, geographically and historically aware. Someone who’s likely to pick up on the errors these web kids are so prone to making. I know you’re not infallible—you won’t be expected to be—but since you’ll be on this full-time you’ll have the resources to double-check and make sure we don’t land ourselves in it again.’

There was no follow-up interview. Samantha gave him the password at the end of the meeting. ‘I just changed it to this,’ she said. ‘So now only two people in the world have it. You and I. No more random tweets from international offices.’

He was allowed to work from home. In fact it seemed he was unwelcome in the office, or at least an offer of a desk was not given. It was not even close to a full-time job, but he was permanently on-call. He was issued a mobile phone to be used solely for emails with proposed tweets, and he was required to have it on at all times. It buzzed infrequently, but once or twice a week the emails woke him in the middle of the night, and right there he would proof-read them and post them on the account.

The account itself seemed to him an incredibly lonely place. It followed only a few dozen others, mostly celebrities and companies with which his cola had had promotional engagements in the past. When he logged in there was a desultory stream of self-promotional tweets that he couldn’t imagine informing or entertaining anyone, anywhere. His first job had been to go through Quark Cola’s follow list and remove any that he felt were potentially damaging to the brand. He tried to approach this as a Quark Cola marketing employee rather than himself, for as an individual it seemed a sadly opportunistic list. But as Quark Cola he deleted only those that had been involved with serious scandal in the previous year. Two or three wife-beating or drunk-driving pop stars and a corn chip manufacturer that had accidentally poisoned twenty children in the Southern States in September.

This quietened his Twitter stream only a little, and before long he had abandoned this default page, as there was nothing in it for or about his cola. The “Connect” page was a much more fascinating place. Here was near constant flow of incoming tweets from the outer universe of Twitter. Users who did not follow his account, and had probably never even visited it, still presumed it existed, dropping @quarkcola into their lunch or dinner tweets. It occurred to him that even if his account did not exist, these @quarkcola tweets would still happen—they were not dependent on any input or interaction from him.

The other category of incoming tweets were vitriolic complaints, again usually from non-followers. These were uncontrollable, and usually unanswerable. People hated Quark Cola for many reasons. They believed it had sickened them or they believed it had destroyed the soda pop industry in their home town or they believed it was homogenising global culture and that this was a bad thing. In many cases he agreed with them. Where there was a clear complaint relating to a specific product in a specific location, he forwarded a link to the tweet to their complaints department, but beyond that he ignored them. Once or twice he replied to joking references or complaints with counter-jokes, and was surprised to discover that these replies usually ended up featured on well-known blogs and humour sites. He decided that people were so starved for interaction from faceless corporations so prevalent in their lives that even a small reply was taken as a special event. An acknowledgment by an unknowable and opaque authority, of sorts.

His own tweets were extremely boring; bland promotional links or seasonal announcements (‘Summer is coming. Quark Cola never tastes so good as at a backyard BBQ!’). Nevertheless, once posted, he watched the retweets and favourites amass. Often he visited the accounts of the retweeters, trying to establish what kind of person reposted the announcements of an impersonal soda drink corporation. But Twitter pages of individuals held a strange opacity of their own. A tiny mugshot, a list of tweets, and a personal network that you could sense but couldn’t see from the outside. Replies and retweets from other unknowable accounts. No context, no usable chronology. It was like having access to a stranger’s phonebook.

He very rarely had to make any corrections to the tweets sent to him from international offices. On several occasions he emailed back, looking for clarification, and opened up short conversations about potential embarrassments. But for his first few months there was nothing like the hiccups that had occurred previously. His only interaction with anyone from the corporation that felt real was Samantha, and she seemed satisfied with his work.

On rare occasion he received direct messages to the account, but in general Twitter users did not seem to care for direct messages. There was very little distinction, as far as he could see, between the concept of public and private correspondence amongst users of the service. Those few private messages he received were broadly similar in tone and content to the hundreds of public messages he received per day. Some friendly, some vulgar, some pointlessly personal. He ignored almost all of them. They somehow felt more open than the public messages. A lady in New York tells him she’s just settled down on the balcony with a glass of Quark Cola after a long, long week. It is a simple, heartfelt message, as faultless as it is without reason. Who does she think she is talking to?

One evening, as he sat at the screen watching retweets blossom from his promotional competition announcement, he received a direct message flag. It came from a rival brand, a salt-sharpened sports drink hugely popular in Europe. ‘Are you a real person too?’ it said.

He sat on it for almost two days without replying, weighing up the potential risks. Anything he sent could be screencapped and publicised. Eventually, succumbing to the strange loneliness of his medium, he replied: ‘Yes, I am. But so what?’

‘I was just curious. We are like secret celebrities.’

Over the following months he exchanged messages with several other large brands. Nobody ever introduced themselves or spoke of their lives beyond the Twitter feed. It was a strange kind of roleplaying, an extension of the mantle he wore as Quark Cola’s Twitter feed. It surprised him, although it probably shouldn’t have, how many celebrities were ghostwritten by employees like himself. He did not discover this directly, but the fact seemed well-known amongst the professional twittering community. Even those that appeared entirely personal and credibly delivered.

‘We are not building anything here,’ stated one morose-sounding detergent brand. ‘All those marketing guys pushing Twitter think you can build something on it. Awareness or brand or something. But they can’t back that up. We’re just a mirror of what’s happening in the real world. We’re just echoing awareness, not creating it. It might work for small coffee shops but for global brands we’re just a shapeless appendage.’ All this came in several messages. The brands tended to be verbose once they got talking. Probably overeducated and unemployable, like himself. He didn’t agree, he didn’t disagree. He consciously refused to give it thought. The pay was excellent for the hours he worked.

He was staring listlessly at the incoming tweets one Tuesday afternoon when a message appeared. Hey @quarkcola, I’m going to commit suicide tonight. Thanks for all the sugary memories. The icon next to the tweet was an ordinary self portrait of a young man. He checked the user’s page and found it had been active, intermittently, for more than two years.

He replied with three tweets in quick succession. The first was a link to suicide prevention hotlines in the man’s apparent country. The second: @gregorpegor You need to tell a real person before you do this. Just in case you are confused and they can help. Thirdly, he recommended the man read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.

There was no reply in the following days. The user was a very infrequent poster, and so the lack of follow up could not be considered proof of anything. He informed Samantha about the incident, and she submitted it to the legal team, who advised him to forget it, but to ignore all such entreaties in future. The very act of responding to such a message made you an active participant in what followed. Were a user to later kill themselves, then their family could potentially claim damages against Quark Cola for its interference. A non-reply could reasonably be interpreted as an unseen message, and would as such clear Quark Cola of any potential liability.

Two weeks later, during which he often agonised over his replies to the suicide announcement, he received a direct message from the user. @quarkcola I wasn’t going to, but the book was good. Thanks.

His chest relaxed. He clapped his hands together several times and then went to the kitchen to make tea. When he returned two minutes later the user added: @quarkcola Why the f am I talking to a soda. lol. #absurd

During the first three months his followers swelled by some three-hundred thousand. His tenure was considered a broad success, although Samantha did request that he become more involved in replying to friendly incoming tweets. Most importantly, though, was the absence of any major public relations incidents.

He could feel very acutely that the job was a temporary one, however. The rise in followers seemed independent of him, as the first four million had been independent of the actions of the Quark offices. The page, and the network that surrounded it, seemed to have a momentum unaffected by his actions. Quark Cola was huge, so the page was huge. If so, what was he doing there? He realised that he could not be replaced by a piece of software, as the very reason he’d been employed was to avoid the kind of contextual lapses that software was so often prone to making. Twitter had created a system that demanded the attention of intelligent people, individuals capable of assuming the entire false persona of a global brand without lapses, but there was no reward for that attention. Quark Cola were obliged to maintain a Twitter page, which meant an individual was obliged to maintain the page. As Samantha had hinted in his original interview, it was a responsibility, not an opportunity.

He often considered publicly admitting the health consequences sugary drinks such as Quark Cola, with some links to peer-reviewed research on the matter. He would be immediately fired, possibly sued. The links would be deleted in short order. They would spread beyond that deletion, of course, but it was only facts that everyone already knew. So it would be no great surprise to anyone. Everyone would understand that it was a disgruntled employee, and as such the tweets would be excused. He spoke as Quark Cola, but only up to a point. He was thought of as Quark Cola because he spoke the way Quark Cola was expected to speak. Any deviation would collapse the illusion.

He never drank the cola, hadn’t tasted it since he was a child. He didn’t like bubbles. ‘Do you eat Prats Chips?’ he asked a fellow big brand Twitter one night. ‘Nope. You can’t get them in this country,’ Prats replied. ‘Never tasted them.’

Was his job a deception? Were his words false representation? It was not so easy to say. First you would have to ask his followers who they thought they were following. Who they thought they were talking to when they messaged @quarkcola. A brand? A representative sitting in an office in Quark headquarters? Some disembodied concept of the product? A sweating, ice-filled glass of Quark Cola?

@sharonfinkler That’s super! I hope you have a nice weekend! @Peetpeet3 Glad you enjoyed it. Take it easy on those roller-skates! @replaaab You don’t need to tell us! Enjoy your daughter’s birthday! It continued like this.

Written by Pierce Gleeson
Posted on the 18 Jun, 2012