Casper the Friendly Tweet

Last month, after Britney Spears (well, Britney Spears’ management team) was caught posting ads on Harvard job boards seeking an “online media manager” to manage (well, write) her Twitter feed, Newsweek wrote about the phenomenon of ghost Twitterers: PR and Web professionals who ghost-tweet for celebrities’ microblog feeds.

Well, today—on its front page, no less—The New York Times screens a compelling new sequel to The Ghost Twitterer, this one penned (well, we think) by meta-journalism reporter Noam Cohen.

In its short history, Twitter — a microblogging tool that uses 140 characters in bursts of text — has become an important marketing tool for celebrities, politicians and businesses, promising a level of intimacy never before approached online, as well as giving the public the ability to speak directly to people and institutions once comfortably on a pedestal.

But someone has to do all that writing, even if each entry is barely a sentence long. In many cases, celebrities and their handlers have turned to outside writers — ghost Twitterers, if you will — who keep fans updated on the latest twists and turns, often in the star’s own voice.

As in most original/sequel pairings, there’s a narrative structure connecting Newsweek and the Times’s ghost-Twitterer articles. Both start with an anecdotal lede (Newsweek’s about Britney; the Times’s about 50 Cent). Both posit a tension (conflict! oh, juicy conflict!) between the celebrities who do their own tweeting (Shaquille O’Neall, Lance Armstrong), and those who farm it out (50 Cent, Ron Paul, Barack Obama). And both are, in the end, completely and frustratingly non-committal about answering—or even addressing—the questions that underscore them: is ghost-Twittering implicitly dishonest, or does it represent, simply, one more layer in the implicit artifice of public identity? And where, when it comes to celebrities (and, really, when it comes to anyone) does the individual stop and the brand begin?

Maybe the Post or Time’s treatment—The Ghost Twitterer III: This Time It’s Personal, or some such—will try to answer those questions. In the meantime, today, expect several meta-ironic tweets from the celebrity Twitterers in your feed. “finding today’s frontpage nyt article on twitter ghost writers pretty funny,” Ann Curry tweeted this morning.

A few minutes later: “oh and yes, this is really me..”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.