By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
The Twitter page belonging to user @jeffschultz55 has a picture of Washington Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz checking a Carolina Hurricanes player into the boards. Several hundred people follow the account, and there have been five updates since training camp opened Sunday.
"Pasta for breakfast? Oh yeah. Gotta carboload for practice today. Must teach that Carlson kid this is MY blueline," one of the tweets reads. Another says: "Have spent the past few days packing up back home and saying goodbye to all my ladies. Schultzy got game."
The tweets are candid and funny, but not actually from the Capitals defenseman, who says he's never logged on to the increasingly popular social networking site. @jeffschultz55 is a parody account, and it says as much in fine print on the upper right-hand side of the page under "Bio."
Still, as more people turn to Twitter to keep in touch with friends and follow their favorite celebrities, impostor accounts are becoming a concern for image-conscious athletes and causing confusion for others.
"My buddy Googled my name a while back, and he stumbled across [the fake account]," Schultz said. "He asked, 'Do you have a Twitter account?' I was like: 'No.' The fans, I'm sure, all know about it. What if someone puts up the wrong thing? People might get the wrong impression of the type of person you are or the things you do in your free time."
A recent tweet from prospect Karl Alzner's fake account, @kingkarl27, reads: "Man, if we keep Juice I'm never gonna make the team. Might as well throw myself in a chocolate vat and die happy, right?"
The Capitals' most popular player, Alex Ovechkin, has a genuine account with nearly 23,000 followers, but it's been inactive since January and has only 37 updates. The tweets were ghostwritten by Nate Ewell, the team's senior director of media relations.
"I don't know how much fun he had with it," Ewell said.
Defenseman Mike Green also has an account, which he says he updates himself. But pages bearing the pictures and names of Brooks Laich, José Theodore and Alexander Semin are all fakes.
"I've never been on a Twitter page, I don't have a Twitter account, I wouldn't know how to work one or find it," said Laich, adding that he wasn't all that bothered by the bogus @BrooksLaich21 account.
But Laich, the Capitals' NHL Players' Association rep, didn't seem pleased when one of the tweets was read to him: "Yes I fired [NHLPA executive director] Paul Kelly and yes I'm voting for a lockout."
"I hope those people who are following it know it's not me," Laich said.
Both Alzner and Schultz have had a family member or friend contact Twitter about having the phony accounts suspended. But no action has been taken, and according to Twitter's impersonation policy, none will.
"Parody impersonation accounts are allowed to exist," the policy reads. "The profile information on a parody account must make it obvious that the profile is fake, or it is subject to removal from Twitter.com. If it is not evident from viewing the profile that it is a joke, it is considered non-parody impersonation. Non-parody impersonation accounts may be permanently suspended for Terms of Service violations."
Twitter did not respond to two e-mails seeking further comment on the policy, but the fact that most of Washington's players' accounts are parodies is not obvious to everyone. Last week, one member of the team's front office called Ewell to ask if Alzner's alleged account was legit.
"If that can happen to a staff member . . ." Ewell said.
Ewell said he plans to urge Washington's players to sign up for accounts in an effort to discredit the fakes.
"That way, they can say: 'Hey, this is the real Jeff Schultz. I might not post on here, but this is me.' " Ewell said.
Kathleen Hessert, whose company, Sports Media Challenge, has advised professional athletes such as Shaquille O'Neal on social networking, agrees with Ewell's approach.
"When I launched [O'Neal's Twitter page], it was because there was a fake Shaq [account]," Hessert said. "There was talk about calling in lawyers. I said: 'Don't do that. Just go on there and be your larger-than-life self and the other person will be obliterated.' Something else we've done on behalf of our clients with the fake [Twitter accounts] is reach out to them and say, 'We love that you're a fan. But real fans won't do this to the people they follow.' "
Twitter, meantime, is also experimenting with a "Verified Account" feature aimed at assisting celebrities who are commonly impersonated.
Green said he created his account to connect with fans. But he also said he's careful not to divulge sensitive team information. For example, one recent tweet reads: "Finished practice I'm exhausted. It was really good to see all the fans there today thanks for support."
"There's limits to what you say," Green said. "I'm not going to say anything about hockey except that I'm excited for the season to start. People want to know what you do away from the rink."
Not all players, however, are interested in sharing that sort of information.
"The weird thing is people talk about my girlfriend, my dog, weird stuff," Alzner said. "They have too much time on their hands. It's not right."