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.”
Twitter’s official policy is, “Users are allowed to create parody, newsfeed, commentary, and fan accounts” — provided that they meet three requirements: that the avatar is “not… the exact trademark or logo of the account subject,” that the account name “should not be the exact name of the account subject without some other distinguishing word, such as ‘not,’ ‘fake,’ or ‘fan,’” and that the bio “should include a statement to distinguish it from the account subject,” such as “Parody Account.”
Celebrity parody accounts don’t have to worry about the first requirement, and are almost universally compliant with the third. But few — and such popular accounts as @ozchrisrock, @BiIIMurray, and @ZachGalifinak are not among them — follow the middle rule, and no representative of Twitter would go on the record to explain why the company only selectively enforces it (or provide any other insight for this story). For example, while the fake Chris Rocks and fake Bill Murrays tweet without interruption, Twitter suspended comedian Andrew Shaffer’s @EmperorFranzen, an actual parody of a celebrity, and would only reinstate it if he changed the handle to “something like @fakefranzen.”
Let’s look, for a moment, at the Twitter-required “parody” label itself. Most of these accounts don’t fit the most basic definition of parody, which in practice (i.e., “Weird Al” Yankovic’s songs, Mel Brooks and Zucker-Abrams-Zucker’s movies, TV shows like The Colbert Report) involves selecting a serious subject and ridiculing it through imitation. And there are people who’ve done that — who have taken a real person of note and constructed a clearly satirical Twitter persona that sends up their oddness or vapidity. Take, for example, @Michael_Haneke, wherein writer Benjamin Lee reimagines the dour Austrian auteur as a sub-literate goof, tweeting about “wurner hurtsog” and his two “parms dorz,” all peppered with copious “lol”s.
Accounts like his, Lee says, have been around a while, “from way before the start of fake Haneke.” But he’s just as baffled as I am by this movement of parodies-that-aren’t-parody. “I guess I don’t really understand the point in them,” he shrugs. “Maybe people are happier to retweet a joke when it looks like it comes from someone famous?”
Perhaps. When I asked Rhodes and @ozchrisrock what specific elements of their subjects they were parodying, neither could provide an answer. Rhodes tried: “One thing I think people like to do a lot of the time is, with some of the jokes, they’ll sometimes read it in the voice of a character — I guess Ron Burgundy being the main character there. And I guess that’s what gives it that element, in a way?” And @ozchrisrock responded, “I think everything he does in his standup is what you get here.” But that’s not parody — that’s impersonation.
And it gets stickier when the more successful Twitter celebrity impersonators, like Rhodes, figure out how to monetize their work. He points out that he only does monetized content sharing “once in a while” on the Ferrell account, where “I’m within all the guidelines,” and to be fair, he plays by the rules; his display name is “Not Will Ferrell,” and the bio makes clear that he is “not Will Ferrell” and has “no affiliation wit the actor Will Ferrell.” And that protects users like him — to a point.
Terry Middlebrook is senior counsel at the law firm of Holland & Knight, specializing in intellectual property work: copyright, trademark, and media protection rights. She says that social media accounts labeled as fake or parody are “considered protectable free speech.” But she stresses that in the state of California (where she, and most celebrities, are located), “we do have a ‘right of publicity’ that does not require you to suffer any damage if you are the celebrity. However, it does require some sort of commercial use… If they start to accumulate followers, or take ads on Facebook or something like that, yes, then they’re going to get a cease and desist letter.” Even without the commercial element, celebrities can get fake Twitter accounts shut down for speech that is “misleading or false or defamatory,” Middlebrook says. “Good old fashioned common law hops in. Then you can stop them. But you have to find them, and half the time they hide.” (She’s not wrong, and not just in the case of a limited-information interview like @ozchrisrock; I requested interviews with more than a dozen additional parody-account holders, and got no responses.)
But the bigger question is whether the people who run these accounts, aware of the general user’s ignorance and/or indifference about Twitter verification and the low likelihood that a person who’s reading someone else’s retweet will click through to a bio with that “parody” disclaimer, are just plain deceiving people. “It’s simply not right to do that,” Middlebrooks says. “It’s stealing. It is stealing another person’s personality, or their name or their fame. These celebrities worked very long and very hard to become recognized in their field.” Even if they didn’t work so hard, their names are still theirs — and the way Twitter is set up, the lines are hard to draw. “I do generally wonder if a lot of the [parody] followers actually know if these are parody accounts or not,” Lee says. “I suspect not.”
A peek at @ozchrisrock or @BiIIMurray‘s @-replies proves Lee right, but there’s more than just anecdotal evidence. Back in 2012, for example, another Will Ferrell account, @RealFerrellWill (43,000 followers), wrote a tweet promising $1 per retweet to the Trayvon Martin Foundation. It was widely retweeted — Slash and Aziz Ansari were among those who did so — and reported by CNN before it was debunked. Ferrell’s publicist told E! News, “He’s had a lot of imposters over the years, just like Seth Rogen and a lot of other celebrities, and unfortunately there’s no way Twitter seems to get a handle on verifying who’s who. It’s unfortunate there are not better safeguards in place.” The same day, a fake Will Smith account’s Martin-related tweet went viral, retweeted by Spike Lee and Rosie O’Donnell, among others. Both accounts were quickly suspended, but it seems to take viral blow-ups of that magnitude for Twitter to step in.
Of that sense of deception, Rhodes says, “I think when you look at certain accounts it’s very clear from the get-go who is crossing that impersonation line… I think it’s just one of those things that just from looking at the surface you can tell who’s on what side of that coin.” When I asked @ozchrisrock if he felt he was deceiving people, he would only respond, “Just doing jokes. Just twitter.”
Yet on top of all of that, some of them aren’t even his jokes. Several celebrity parody accounts have been accused of joke theft — stealing tweets from comedians and other Twitter users, slapping the famous face on it, and enjoying the RTs. @ozchrisrock has frequently been accused of plagiarism. An earlier Bill Murray account, @bill__murray, was suspended in 2012 for some combination of plagiarism, nondisclosure, and solicitation. (Twitter will not comment on the specific cause for suspensions.) Charges of joke theft have plagued @BiIIMurray as well; that “good morning” quip that earned thousands of retweets and favorites appeared five months ago, on the Tumblr of a user named “Kingsleyyy.” But wait — around the same time, it also made its first appearance on @BiIIMurray’s timeline. And 11 days before that, the joke was tweeted by… a fake Will Ferrell.
We’re deep enough into the weeds here that it’s worth taking a step back and asking whether all of this matters. A few savvy businesspeople and a few attention hogs are pretending to be celebrities on social media, and a whole lot of gullible people believe them — what’s the big deal? The celebrities themselves don’t seem concerned (neither Rhodes nor @ozchrisrock have heard from their “parody” subjects), and neither does Twitter. So a few weirdos like to pretend to be celebrities. So what?
But the deeper you peek into this scene, the more it becomes clear that it’s not just a question of the ethics of impersonation; it’s about our obsession with celebrity, and the complicity of the audience. There are several facets to the appeal of celebrities on Twitter — access, the old “they’re just like us” angle, the often comical opportunity to hear what they sound like without the filter of publicists. But never underestimate the appeal of feeling as though, with the click of a “reply” button, you’re interacting with a real-life movie/TV/comedy/music/sports star.
“Before, celebrities used to be very much at arm’s distance,” Dr. Houran explains. “But now they can interact within social media realms, and people get the impression or the illusion that they now have an even stronger connection with celebrities… and we tend to confuse intimacy — real intimacy — with having a lot of information about a person. We think they’re the same thing. And so fans can get a lot of information about a person and feel that they are ‘interacting,’ and that’s only gonna feed that feeling, that illusion that they have a personal connection.”
So when social media promises that connection but doesn’t deliver it, fans may well settle for second-best. Dr. Kerry Ferris is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Northern Illinois University who has extensively studied live celebrity impersonators — Elvis performers, Beatles tribute bands, that sort of thing. And she sees a clear line, not just between the two kinds of impersonators, but between their audiences.
“One of the things about celebrity impersonator shows featuring dead people is, that’s the only way you could have contact with them,” she says. “So the audience is acting as much as the performers on stage are, really. There’s somebody on stage acting like Elvis, but all the people in the audience are acting like he’s Elvis. So it’s sort of a joint performance. And it makes me wonder how much of that is going on, on Twitter as well — either the people who think that it’s really Will Ferrell feel like at least they get a little bit of Will Ferrell every day, or the people who know it’s not Will Ferrell are pretending. They’re acting, too, they’re enjoying the role-playing in the same way that people who go to celebrity impersonator performances do.”
Of course, one key difference is that the people in the audience at those performances are actually seeing a show; an Elvis impersonator has to do an act, to sing and dance and approximate the King, whereas many of these accounts just slap up some pictures or jokes, from their mind or anywhere else, and that’s it. It doesn’t take any actual talent. Right?
Well, here’s my confession. While I was working on this piece, I had the brilliant stunt-journalist idea of creating a celebrity parody account, just to prove how easy it was. I found a good handle for a beloved celeb who wasn’t on Twitter, started the account, wrote a couple of tweets, and waited for my Twitter fame. It didn’t come. I won’t link to it, because I’m frankly embarrassed of the failure (five followers — and one of them is my real account).
I created it to make a point, but it ended up making another one: Unless you were one of the first people to grab those handles (before the era of verified accounts, and before anyone knew better), it actually does take something more than a celebrity’s name to do this — strategy, perhaps, or maybe just perseverance. Lee says he “followed people who I thought would be interested, tweeted at some celebrities, tagged some tweets to topical movie events and releases” to get @Michael_Haneke’s 33,000 followers. Rhodes got even more inventive: “For months straight, every night, I would come up with a hashtag for my audience to get involved in. Within five to ten minutes I would have a worldwide trending topic, and since I was the first one tweeting the hashtag with my accounts, I would almost always have the ‘top tweets’ which were kept at the top, so whenever someone would go into that trending topic, they would see my tweets first, which was amazing exposure.” Twitter ended up changing its algorithm, but after that, “it was just a matter of adapting to these changes and finding other ways to maximize exposure.”
In other words, this is a real skill, which makes the deception at the heart of it all the more depressing. @ItsWillyFerrell may not be Will Ferrell, but he’s a prolific and likable social media presence with a good sense of what people find funny on Twitter. When he’s not lifting gags from other accounts, @ozchrisrock can unleash stinging social and political commentary in tight, succinct form. They’re good at Twitter — so good, in fact, that you wish they didn’t have to do it from behind a Halloween mask.