140 CHARACTERS. 17 billion dollars.
Those are the two driving factors in the new series “Unfollow,” by writer Rob Williams and artist Michael Dowling, which debuts today in print and digitally from Vertigo Comics.
When a young, 20-something social-media billionaire learns he has no chance of making it to his 30s because of terminal cancer, he decides to leave his fortune to 140 random people. Instead of a golden ticket, however, the “lucky” winners of this social lottery are informed of their fortune when a “140” app appears on their digital devices, with instructions on how to collect their riches.
In a “perfect” world, the story would end there. But the point of “Unfollow,” according to Williams, is that the world is far from perfect, especially when money is involved.
“There’s so much good that comes out of” social media, Williams told The Post’s Comic Riffs. “I follow people that I’m interested in, the subjects that I’m interested in. But then [there are] the negatives. You just end up following people who are likeminded to you. You don’t see how the real world actually is [sometimes].”
Williams refers to “social-media bubbles” which he underscores are created when you tend to “follow” or “friend” those who think along the same lines as you — from tastes to political outlooks. Social media may connect people, of course, but those bubbles can become awfully insular.
“Unfollow’s” social network of these 140 characters brings together people from all walks of life — diminishing any areas of commonality. There’s Dave, a young African American man from St. Louis. And Courtney, a young woman who’d rather give away her fortune — before she finds out she’s inherited another one. There’s the former special-forces veteran in Alaska who believes the 140 is a mission from God, as well as a Wall Street numbers expert and an Iranian journalist.
In that way, “Unfollow” — not unlike some reality shows — explores what it’s like being placed in a social network, but not having chosen your “friends” with vast sums of money thrown into the mix.
Pulling the strings of the 140 from his deathbed is Larry Ferrell, who possesses a few Zuckerberg-meets-Jobs traits.
He’s a billionaire who had a fortune-fueled dream ahead of him that he’ll never get to live out — and now he will use his billions to test whether they bring out the best, or worst, in humanity.
In this case: Expect the worst. Especially once Ferrell informs the 140 of a special rule.
“He’s our Mark Zuckerberg. In our world, he’s the guy who invented social media. He’s still in his 20s and a genius and life should have been amazing for him … ,” Williams said. “He’s going to give his money to 140 characters. He wants to see what they’re going to do with it. And he says to them, if one of them dies, the money gets spread 139 ways. And if 139 of them die, one [person] gets all his money. And he’s not making them do bad things. He’s just putting the money there and going, ‘Well, let’s see what you do with it.’
“In one sense, he has high-minded reasons for doing this. He sees it as a social experience, but also, deep down, he’s lashing out at the world because he hasn’t got long left. He feels that an incredibly cruel twist has been played upon him.”
In other words, blood will be spilled. Not that it has to be that way, though. Each character can walk off into the sunset with their money, never to be heard from, or cause problems for, anyone ever again. But for that to happen, the presumption has to be made that everyone will think the same. Part of the power of a social network not created by you, though, is that there are no guarantees that you can gain independence from the group.
“That’s made clear to them. That’s inherent when you see them all come together (in a later issue). It’s up to them,” Williams said. “You can go back to your lives and not harm a soul. You can be a completely peaceful human being and just live off of the millions they’ve inherited and be very happy. But there’s an awareness — you know some human beings will just look and go maybe if that girl just got pushed in front of a subway train and suddenly I’ve got [more money].
“You’d like to think you wouldn’t do that, but there’s some bad humanity out, there just as there’s good,” Williams continued. “And this book is [asking]: Despite the technology, are we just the same animals in the food chain that we always were?”
Dowling, who acknowledges to not being as connected to his personal social media while drawing “Unfollow,” looks at the questions the comic asks and simply says:
“We’re all a part of this experiment, really.”