But what did it get him? While Twitter has launched many once-obscure wits to social prominence, TV bookings or publishing deals, Joseph — the National Security Council staffer fired this week when he was revealed as the secret author of @natsecwonk — could never benefit from a growing fan base. As with the Beltway’s busy community of Internet phantoms, he had to be anonymous because of the sensitivities of his day job. So then why tweet at all?
Just ask @pourmecoffee, a short-form pundit who has managed to rack up more than 140,000 followers, including a media-political elite that has no idea of his identity.
“You know when you were in college and you hung out with your favorite friends telling jokes and trading [bogus] theories and it was the best thing ever?” he said in an e-mail. “Twitter allows you to do that again.”
You don’t need a spotlight to get your ego stroked, explained the pseudonymous @HillStaffer. “Faves and retweets and kind words feel good, even if not accredited to my real name.”
Some of Washington’s anonymous tweeters write from a stance of insider authority, such as @Httr24_7, who for a couple seasons tantalized sports reporters with solid tips about Redskins personnel moves. Others mock a stance of insider authority, such as the anonymous parody accounts @DCjourno (“just posted my take on what Obama’s big speech means for 2016”) and @SrWHOfficial. A few exist in an blurry middle ground, like Unsuck DC Metro, a thriving blog and Twitter feed that began as a series of rants by an unknown subway rider and evolved into a clearinghouse of Metro news and tips.
@HillStaffer, who has more than 5,300 followers, argues that most accounts “are born out of frustration or boredom.” He started his in early 2011 — and yes, he’s a he, though he once overheard a fan claim the author was a woman — to mock the habits of his work milieu. (Sample tweets: “99% of the creativity in Congress goes into the naming of softball teams”; “Get pictures of all the members of Congress who force their unpaid staff to work tomorrow. No one is ‘essential.’ ”) And there was never any doubt he’d remain anonymous: Too many staffers had been fired for Twitter high jinks.
He can relate to Joseph. “I’d say he felt like he was originally providing some kind of 5th estate insight,” he wrote in a Twitter direct message. But “once you have that platform, and anonymity, it’s easy to become vitriolic, as he did. Not saying I think I’m writing the Federalist Papers over here either, but I try to point out hypocrisies with a [Stephen] Colbert-like character.”
Other anonymous types write not to vent but to scratch a creative itch. Will Sommer was so consumed with the movements of Washington journalists as he looked for his own job in media that he figured, why not write about it? He blogged and tweeted as “D.C. Porcupine” so his then-bosses at the AOL-owned Patch publications wouldn’t know what he was up to — but even with his insight into the company, he made a point of not writing about it. “That’s where you’d get tripped up,” he said. Eventually, it led to his current job, as a columnist for Washington City Paper. He revealed his former identity when he got hired last year.
Did anonymity lend him mystique? “Oh, 100 percent,” Sommer said. “People were thinking it was all these fancy media reporters. But those people don’t have time for that! It’s just this 23-year-old.”
“Tweeting anonymously is great for people who either have an image to protect, or no image at all,” said Jason Sattler, who puts himself in the latter category. A Michigan social media consultant, he launched @LOLGOP (160,000-plus followers) just for fun a few years ago; it led to a job with the left-leaning political site NationalMemo.com, where his new bosses decided he should come clean about his Twitter identity. “That made my reveal far less interesting,” he said. “Personally, I was hoping I’d turn out to be Tagg Romney.”
Abra Belke looped in her boss when, as a Hill staffer in 2008, she launched CapHillStyle, a blog and Twitter feed, “because I was tired of explaining to interns what they should be wearing to work.” He was fine with it, she said — but lawyers for the House Ethics Committee fretted that lobbyists would try to woo her with gifts of shampoo or shoes.
Under the nom de plume of “Belle,” she found anonymity hard to preserve: After she mocked the shiny green vest a congressman’s son wore in his wedding photos, his aides tracked down her identity through her domain registration and called her chief of staff to complain. Now a lobbyist, she wonders what Joseph was thinking.
“Was he looking for people to retweet him and be microfamous? In the national-security sector, you should know you’re never truly anonymous. Somebody knows who you are!”