Recently I chatted with baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb.
No, I am not a Medium.
Our exchange occurred on Twitter, home to The Dowager’s Hat (Downtown Abby), a cohort of James Bond 007 players, various Mad Men and West Wing characters, a (fake) Real Housewife, and a literary contingent that includes the late Mary Wollstonecraft. My many colorful encounters have left me wondering why so many have chosen to inhabit the personas of others, fictional and long dead.
Don’t get me wrong; I love writing about Mad Men. And I read with interest Slate writer Tom Scocca’s recent article, railing against our penchant for discussing Don Draper and “the Mad Men Era,” as if speaking about a real person and actual events: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/scocca/2012/06/mad_men_season_5_why_d...
So let’s set the record straight: I know Don Draper is not real:
But he’s still interesting to analyze. Psychoanalysts have long used examples from literature, art, cinema, and television to illustrate psychological constructs. While character studies may be enriching and absorbing, they beg the question: why voice a fictional persona?
The reasons behind role play are as varied as the participants themselves. Some find therapeutic value in working out their characters’ dilemmas. Others use Twitter as a soapbox, or a means to entertain, and in it find a welcome social outlet. Still others enjoy writing dialogue and scripting scenes. Take Miguel; a novelist, theatre critic, and resident of Spain, who enjoys the challenge of writing in a language, not his first, in a gender, not his own—and who manages to nail it every time. Miguel’s character, a female, stages scenes in which groups of role players relive moments from a certain show and reenact events from history, together creating a sort of living historical fan fiction. “I interact with a lot of interesting people, and they have enriched my life, even beyond Twitter,” he told me by email.
There are others who spoke of finding a sense of community and social engagement in Twitter role play—whether through frequent contact with regular pals or interactions that deliver the promise of fulfilling a hoped for fantasy. “When I write as [a certain womanizing man], they swoon,” says Barry, a social media professional in the New York area who voices several different characters, and enjoys the creative outlet of writing for his favorite ones. “When [that person] follows someone there is usually a… response. So there it is: my ego getting a stroke.” Mark, a medical technician from the South puts it this way, “I have actually flown across country to meet… people I’ve had extensive texting and friendship with…They are still my friends.” He recalls the time a woman wrote that she was grateful to receive a message from his character. She had been going through a difficult time and the contact and kindness meant a lot to her.
And though fans get a kick of pretending to interact with their favorite personalities and sports figures, the fun goes both ways; tweeting--either as an icon or with one--can leave everyone feeling like they have had a brush with fame, a heady experience for all involved.
I asked some of the Role Players to tell me how they got started, and why. Their responses were varied and interesting. And I have permission to share all of their names and motivations. Well, almost all. I inquired, and one by one they spilled: identities, locations, professions, even e-mail addresses. But there WAS one hold out, one who insisted on anonymity with a relentlessness not seen since Deep Throat. Try though I did, I simply could not crack The Sterling Cooper Mouse.
But despite receiving permission, I am not going to “out” anyone. The mystery--a feeling that you just might be talking to the “real” James Bond, an actor or someone else officially connected to him, for example—adds to the fun and excitement of chatting on Twitter. There is a mystique, and it propels the interest in the characters and drives the role play—a sentiment conveyed time and again by many involved, even those willing to divulge identifying information. So, instead of killing anyone’s MOJO, I am sticking to the Why, as opposed to the Who, of character tweeting:
Carri, a PR and social media professional, and writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, was one of the first to engage in Mad Men role play on Twitter, voicing Peggy Olson (she revealed herself publicly at an awards ceremony several years ago). As soon as Don appeared on the Twitterverse, Carri immediately realized the vast potential for capitalizing on the popularity of the show. But what started out as a social media experiment quickly became a way to indulge a passion for writing and performing. She found she enjoyed voicing Peggy’s tweets, and she relished interacting with excited fans.
Alex, a New York City resident, also combines the professional and personal in his role play and work in Social TV (a field that uses data accumulated around certain television shows to gain insights into trends and consumer behaviors). Tweeting as a certain character allows him to “extend a story line,” which is also something he suggests to clients. “[My character] is…a… testing ground for everything that should be done right in Social TV,” he said via electronic message. In addition to using the character for research, Alex occasionally makes use of its reach to communicate a political message: “When Gay Marriage was passed… [My character] reacted… [It’s] just sort of a soap box.”
Alex and Carri have put their characters to work, though others have not; many tweet out of love for a show, and a wish to extend their involvement with it. Gary, a web developer in a major city, uses a favorite character vicariously, as a means for solving some of his own dilemmas. “I empathize with the… character, who is a villain, and it’s fun to play villains. If he does something reprehensible or weaselly, people on Twitter give me hell for it. And I try to make it funny.” If his character gets into a bit of trouble, Gary works out a solution, and he has found that this helps him deal with some of the bumps he encounters in his own life. “If I am struggling in my career or feeling unappreciated I can vent through [him] and it’s not so bad.” Mulling it over—and laughing—when a characters’ troubles are similar to one’s own, serves a therapeutic purpose.
Tweeting affords potential psychological benefits. It is a way for adults to flex different mental muscles and exercise a little used part of their brains. Twitter, with its opportunity to write playful messages, provides a play space for those who are mired in day-to-day stresses and challenges. As psychoanalyst Glen Gabbard MD notes in his book The Psychology of the Sopranos, adults need opportunities to play in order to stay emotionally healthy—and literature and the arts, television and movies, provide a play space for adults to fantasize and develop creativity. By extension, engaging in twitter role play and writing for favorite characters can provide a mental escape and emotional expansion similar to that which occurs when one reads, attends the theatre, or even watches a movie or TV show. It allows the brain to develop and flourish in a way it simply does not when we are toiling away at the office, doing housework, or chores, or caring for children--sounds like those seemingly innocuous 140 character missives might just afford some mental health benefits after all.
For those who still doubt that any creativity is involved in composing a tweet or engaging in character role play, consider this: some don’t even use “real” media personas at all. They invent extensions of popular personalities and run with them. Take the Sterling Cooper Mouse—the small furry creature that a very drunk Don Draper spied racing across his office during a late night drinking binge—or other quirky iterations like The Dowager’s Hat, and Don Draper’s liver. Their writers tend to stay in voice. As the Sterling Cooper Mouse told me in a series of messages: “I’ve always been there, observing... Oy, the things I saw in that office. I still have flashbacks. By the way if I were you, I wouldn’t sit on [Don’s] couch-- or any other couch [at the agency].” Good advice—and entertaining reading.
Suzanne is an Esthetician from the Midwest who tweets as a popular--and hilarious--inanimate object, and who always quips in character to her many followers. When I asked about engaging in twitter role play she said, “My mind is a dangerous place. I love to play with words and language...It’s a form of comic relief for me.” Though she seemed comfortable sharing identifying information and discussing her reasons for engaging in character role play, she sounded genuinely surprised to find out about my level of interest; her followers do not want or need to know anything more about who she really is. All that matters to them is whether she is entertaining, she told me.
So while Twitter is many different things, it is certainly a repository of secrets. And just as there is a big reveal on Mad Men when we learn that Don is really Dick Whitman—someone different than we thought he was--during character role play on Twitter, we discover that those behind the photos are not exactly who we thought they were. Their real identities are often out of our reach.
Do we care? The rise of social media and our daily interaction with virtual people and characters means we potentially reveal more than ever to others, but when we think about it, we know even less than ever about those with whom we are interacting. Don Draper might have stolen an identity and kept secrets from his wife and partners, for example, but he was not a stranger to them. Those in his orbit knew his predilections and habits, ate meals, and certainly drank vats of brown liquid, with him. They had a sense of the man, even if he hid crucial parts of himself. Their motives might be benevolent--entertainment and escapism--but what do we really know about the people with whom we tweet? As it turns out, not so much after all. So it is ironic that the virtual ballplayers, literary figures, movie and TV personas, including a stable of Mad Men characters that includes several Don Drapers--kind as they all are and funny and pleasant as they might be—are, at least in this way, not be so different from “the real” Don after all.
*I would like to give a shout out to all who were willing be interviewed for this article. Thank you all so much for your time. Miguel: I appreciate the introductions and assistance in pulling some of the interviews together. “Mouse,” I am grateful for your ideas and research assist!
Gabbard, Glen O. The Psychology of the Sopranos. 2002. NY: Basic Books