On Thursday, August 30th, at 10:39pm, I became @InvisibleObama.
I had no choice.
Watching Clint Eastwood berate an empty chair was one of those moments, right up there with Angelina Jolie’s right leg. Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. The last episode of The Sopranos. I knew everyone was thinking the same thing. I knew everyone was going to talk about it tomorrow. And thanks to social media, everyone was talking to each other about it within seconds.
I just accidentally took advantage of it.
Before it all happened, in the weeks leading up to the Republican National Convention, I personally felt compelled to joke, criticize, and mock the current state of politics in America. Following politics closely has been a hobby of mine for quite some time, and a big reason why I went to school in Washington, DC (go GWU!). So that all came naturally for me. But this particular political climate has created a highly charged and polarized electorate; one that would probably be more equally engaged anonymously.
I started while Clint Eastwood was still on stage, and with an obligatory “I can’t believe no one has this account yet” exclamation. I then tweeted its existence from my personal account (@ischafer), knowing full well that I’m followed by several people in the news media. But I didn’t expect what would happen next.
Within 20 minutes, the account was on fire with retweets, @replies and mentions, quickly becoming the default descriptor for the vacant chair on stage at the convention in Tampa. Every refresh of the page added another nearly 200 followers. The first tweet, “…” wasn’t going to cut it. @InvisibleObama had an audience, and I felt an obligation to perform. The tweets (and puns) started pouring out. The freakish nature of Clint Eastwood’s performance and the silliness of the initial tweets got me my first wave of followers. I made a quick decision to keep what I was tweeting bi-partisan (or with dual meaning):
This had both Republicans and Democrats claiming the account as their own, and helped the account’s growth even exponential. #Eastwooding took off as a meme (I can’t take credit for that), but quickly became inseparable from @InvisibleObama. There was a steady stream of hundreds of photos of empty chairs, car seats, and toilets (a surprisingly common submission) being sent to @InvisibleObama each hour.
According to OhMyGov.com, the account got more new followers in the first day (over 42,000) than Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan did over that same day, combined. @InvisibleObama was the one who benefitted from a social media “bounce”. Conservatives’ “Empty Chair Day” (seemingly organized/inspired by commentator Michelle Malkin) on Labor Day, invoked @InvisibleObama even further, and gave the account a lot of steam.
The growth of the account continued over the course of the next few days and week leading up to the Democrats’ convention. People’s most intense interaction with it happened around live political coverage, proving to me that the behavior of people seeing something on TV, then reacting on Twitter is quite real.
The thrill of seeing celebrities (Zach Braff, Ricky Martin), political pundits and journalists (Ezra Klein, Frank Rich), and just people that I personally knew all get in on the action was addictive. @InvisibleObama tweets found their way into the MSNBC “tweet” crawl and onto NBC Nightly News, CNN, and other press outlets. It became “a thing”, and a bona fide meme. When Stephen Colbert interviewed an empty chair on The Colbert Report, people referred to him as interviewing @InvisibleObama.
Perhaps the most fun I had was @replying to random people. The delight they got in getting some personal attention from the first invisible President has been surprisingly rewarding.
The success of @InvisibleObama has attracted a lot of attention. Notably, from other, similarly inspired Twitter accounts seeking to anthropomorphize Michelle Obama’s curl and arms, Chris Christie’s speech, and other objects. But there was also a lot of attention from “trolls”. People on both sides of the aisle attempted to get @InvisibleObama’s attention with racial epithets, conspiracy theories, and partisan slurs. It got quite depressing, actually. And they haven’t stopped.
But neither will I.
I’m going to keep going with this, even if I have to fend off haters. I’ve found it to be not only therapeutic for me, but for thousands (nearly 70,000) of others. I never did it for the personal attention (believe it or not), but as an advertising guy, I’m OK with that attention. At times I’ve felt like a satirist or a critic, and at others, a vigilante against misinformation & disinformation. I think the favorable response has been there because the reality is @InvisibleObama actually lies somewhere in between, and all sides can and should relate. The upcoming debates should be a lot of fun, and I honestly have no idea what @InvisibleObama will say next.