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Nuts & Bolts

October 25, 2013

Anonymity is fleeting when people are tweeting

WASHINGTON — In the ego-driven game of Twitter, Jofi Joseph was, for a while, one of the winners.

His 1,600 followers put him far below a Kanye West or even an Andrew Sullivan — but they were quality followers, an international relations In Crowd that lapped up his 140-character snark and insight. The Atlantic last year commended Joseph's shrewd analysis of White House maneuvers; Foreign Policy wrote a mournful blog post when his tweets about national security policy came to a sudden end.

But what did it get him? While Twitter has launched many once-obscure wits to social prominence, TV bookings or publishing deals, Joseph — the National Security Council staffer fired this week when he was revealed as the secret author of @natsecwonk — could never benefit from a growing fan base. As with the Capitol Beltway's busy community of Internet phantoms, he had to be anonymous because of the sensitivities of his day job. So then why tweet at all?

Just ask @PourMeCoffee, a short-form pundit who has managed to rack up more than 140,000 followers, including a media-political elite that has no idea of his identity.

"You know when you were in college and you hung out with your favorite friends telling jokes and trading [bogus] theories and it was the best thing ever?" he said in an e-mail. "Twitter allows you to do that again."

You don't need a spotlight to get your ego stroked, explained the pseudonymous @HillStaffer. "Faves and retweets and kind words feel good, even if not accredited to my real name."

Some of Washington's anonymous tweeters write from a stance of insider authority, such as @Httr24_7, who for a couple of seasons tantalized sports reporters with solid tips about Washington Redskins personnel moves. Others mock a stance of insider authority, such as the anonymous parody accounts @DCJourno ("just posted my take on what Obama's big speech means for 2016") and @SrWHOfficial. A few exist in an blurry middle ground, like Unsuck DC Metro, a thriving blog and Twitter feed that began as a series of rants by an unknown subway rider and evolved into a clearinghouse of news and tips about the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

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