A friend of mine recently had her Twitter identity stolen. Within hours this impostor was trolling her world, gathering followers under her eyes. It was terrifying. It was horrible. Naturally, my first thought was, why didn’t someone want my Twitter identity?
I’ve been stolen from before. Someone grabbed my checkbook from the mailbox and tried to get into my bank account. Someone divined my credit card number and shipped stereo equipment to Romania. But these were crimes of opportunity. They wanted my money, but they didn’t want me.
Indeed I thought I caught a hint of pride in my friend’s distressed voice as she told me the details. The thief had not taken her actual handle, as many do. Using her name and her Twitter icon, the perp had opened a new account. Clearly it was her identity that had some value, though what exactly that was, she couldn’t say. The Twitter impostor wasn’t even tweeting. S/he seemed intent instead on gathering followers. Within a day the impostor had 432! The power of my friend’s identity was clear. It just had to stride into a room, stop, and look off into the distance without a word. People would then scamper eagerly toward it.
My friend didn’t see it that way. Her real Twitter account had a respectable 4000 followers, but this had taken years. How did the impersonator rack up so many fans in just a day? It seemed someone had not only stolen from her, but had one-upped her as well.
A call to Twitter was in order. The identity robbery, which my friend said had been both creepy and flattering, and was now also galling, needed to be stopped.
The Twitter police apprehended my friend’s alter-ego very quickly. Turns out, the criminal was an automated Bot. In addition, the Bot’s following was also mostly Bots. But why? I wondered. I could understand the human emotion of envy which might lead to appropriating someone’s life, or the human need for status, and thus to gain followers, and even the human need to steal. But what the heck were the Bots in this situation getting out of it?
My friend said it didn’t matter. “A robot can follow me, pretend to be me, and make connections with other people. But it can’t do damage to my real online identity, I’ve realized, because I’ve created a community, and a robot can never come close to doing that.”
Caroline Paul is the author of “East Wind, Rain” and “Fighting Fire.” Her latest book is “The Lost Cat,” an illustrated collaboration with Wendy MacNaughton. Find out more at www.carolinepaul.com and www.wendymacnaughton.com.