07/20/2014 11:00 EDT | Updated 09/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Where Twitter Parody Accounts Come From (And Why)


TORONTO - Meet Matt McGuire: software developer, activist and for one day in 2012, the Canadian penny.

When the federal government announced the penny would be no more, McGuire started a Twitter account called Savethepenny, sending out a flurry of joking tweets, such as, "want my two cents? this sucks."

The penny account garnered thousands of followers at its peak, he said, but his Internet infamy ended almost as soon as it began. McGuire sent out so many messages that Twitter blocked him from sending any more that day, so the Canadian penny's Twitter presence more or less burst onto the scene and fizzled out in a matter of hours.

The account is one of many in a phenomenon that sees ordinary people seize on a moment in popular culture, post Twitter messages — often as an animal or inanimate object — then just as quickly fade away.

When reports emerged that a shark was spotted in Lake Ontario — it turned out to be a hoax — not one, but two Lake Ontario sharks appeared on Twitter. At one point the two were even sassing each other.

The day a monkey in a little coat and diaper was found in an Ikea parking lot in Toronto, several people began tweeting as the Ikea monkey. The phenomenon knows no borders — when musician Pharrell showed up to the Grammys in a comically oversized hat, someone created a Twitter account for the hat and despite a significantly lessened flow of tweets, more than 20,000 people are still following it.

There are many long-term Twitter parody accounts — ones satirizing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford are numerous, to say the least — and while they serve the same purpose, these ones are quite fleeting, said Queen's University media professor Sidneyeve Matrix.

"The word that comes to mind for me really is this kind of microfame, or like Internet celebrity," she said. "The joy of that 24 hours of fame, that just seems to be part of the picture."

People who start those types of accounts tend to be very engaged citizens with pop culture savvy who can spot the trend that will engage other users, Matrix said.

McGuire said what makes this type of parody account successful is timing and finding the right issue.

"I think they become popular for a short period of time because they're just relevant at that precise moment in history," he said.

It was fun, but weird, to tweet as an inanimate object, said McGuire, who also has a personal Twitter account.

"You kind of put yourself in the place: What would a penny think in this situation?" he said. "Well, a penny doesn't think, so you get to have a little fun. You get to inject your own personality into it and you just kind of go with the flow of interactions from other Twitter accounts and other users."

Matrix said cyberdisinhibition allows people to say — or tweet — comments they wouldn't otherwise post under their own name.

"We have a voracious cultural appetite for news satire as we know from the popularity of late-night television," she said. "But the other thing is that the anonymity that's afforded by these kinds of accounts, I think, it's going to free up people to share satire that might be too political for them to share on their personal accounts."

That's how the shirtless caiman was born.

After a caiman was captured in a pond in Toronto's High Park, some Twitter users, including former Liberal MP Bob Rae, noted the alligator-like reptile was shirtless. It was a reference to a group of anti-Rob Ford activists who had taken to calling themselves the Shirtless Horde, inspired by a shirtless jogger whose rant at Ford during a Canada Day event touched off a social media frenzy.

The woman behind the shirtless caiman Twitter account doesn't want to be identified by name for the very reason Matrix mentioned; the shirtless caiman sends negative tweets about Ford — statements the financial district worker would not be comfortable sending under her own name.

But she didn't want shirtless caiman to be a "one-day wonder," like the pennies, the sharks and the Ikea monkeys, so she developed an anti-Ford persona for the shirtless caiman, who is gay, married and has adopted a caiman baby named Pedro with his partner, she said.

"You can't maintain a caiman account because the caiman has disappeared to Reptilia (zoo), it was supposed to be put up for adoption," she said. "Constantly it's on my mind: What happened to the caiman? Why has no one followed up? Without that follow-up information there's nothing else you can do with the caiman except fictionalize it at this point."

With a never-ending flow of Ford news it's not hard to fit in caiman references, she said, for example when Ford raised a fuss about expenses along Toronto's waterfront.

"The caiman got a day pass from Reptilia and went down to Sugar Beach," she said. "I very badly cut and pasted the caiman and his friends partying it up at Sugar Beach."

It's a lot of fun, she said, but also quite time consuming. She — usually — doesn't tweet as the caiman while at work, limiting herself to evenings and weekends, but is constantly composing tweets in her head.

"It's kind of fun to challenge yourself every day to think: How can I link a reptile to Rob Ford?" she said.

The Ikea monkey did not return a request for comment.

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