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9 lives, and 1.5 million Twitter followers

Posted by Your Town  February 25, 2010 12:54 PM

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WALTHAM – Cats are up to something. They are mysterious creatures, and invite speculation if an owner is to even pretend to understand them.

Winston Churchill gave it some thought and determined, simply, that “cats look down on us.”

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Jason Scott tried a different approach. His cat, Sockington, was definitely odd. “At night, he changed personalities,” Scott said. “Sometimes he was paranoid. At others, he could care less.”

So, one day three years ago, Scott sat down at his computer in his Waltham home and wrote out 100 “cat-like things” from Sockington’s point-of-view, and posted them on Twitter. Today, Sockington has become an Internet sensation, with more than 1.5 million people following his “inner-monologue.” He has his own fan club, the “Socks Army,” a T-shirt line, and his own rap song.

It began innocently. Sockington was found in 2004 when he was still a kitten by a friend-of-a-friend of Scott’s at a Red Line stop south of Boston (Scott is not exactly sure which one), and eventually made his way to Scott’s home, where he joined Scott’s other cat, Penny.

Scott, 39, makes a living as a computer historian, and has always embraced the latest and greatest in technology. In 2007, that was Twitter, the micro-blogging site where users write short, 140-character thoughts and send them out into cyberspace.

Scott was unsure of what to do with Twitter at first, so, on a whim, he decided to create a separate feed for Sockington. He and his wife, Nicole Sparks, had already built up a mythology around Sockington (known more familiarly as Socks to his fans).

Where Penny was the perfect cat – she would come when called – Socks was always up to something. So Scott created the Twitter account, and posted those 100 “thoughts” (Scott wrote his own program so they would constantly appear on rotation). That went on for about a year, then Scott mentioned the feed during a talk at an Internet seminar, which got him mentioned on several blogs.

Scott began adding more content, and, by last January, Sockington had slowly made his way up to 10,000 followers. Then Twitter, which was exploding at the time, added Sockington to its “suggested users list.”

Scott, who drinks Red Bull in the morning, sports proper 18th-century mutton chops, and is known to his cats as “fatty” (his wife is “food lady”), said the addition to that list changed everything. He began picking up 5,000 followers in a single day, hit half-a-million, got some media attention where Sockington was dubbed the “new Garfield,” and soon his innocent idea had officially become a phenomena, with marketers dangling money to get Socks to plug their products and rescue groups trying to get Scott to use his surprise platform for a larger good.

Scott has largely refused the offers. “I hate marketing,” he said recently while sitting in his living room, his black shirt speckled with tiny cat hairs. And to those who blame him for wasting his power by Twittering useless things, he says that’s the basis of Sockington’s fame: they are the banal musings of a banal cat.

He sticks to the basics: food, litter box, catnip, and the occasional surreal cat hallucination.

“HMM YOU ARE VERY INTERESTING TO ME oh it looks like you're finished eating NOT QUITE AS INTERESTING ANYMORE.” “OK WHAT IS UP WITH THE TEMPERATURE HERE can someone set the thermostat to legs.” “HOORAY THE LITTERBOX IS CLEANED it's a wonderful present AND NOW LET'S EXCHANGE PRESENTS nggggggghh WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU ALREADY HAD THIS.”

Scott says he treats Sockington’s feed as a comic strip. He’ll sit down, get into character, and write out dozens at one time, then post two to three new ones each day.

“Hopefully, you’ll see that there’s a constructed humor in there,” he said, and insists he’s happy that they all fall flat if read them aloud.

If he’s stuck for material, Scott will create a plot, like when Socks goes on basement safari, and says he sees his role as “breaking up the self-important and bland Twittering.” In some ways, Scott said, Sockington is a parody of the micro-blogging form.

“My biggest concern is that he suffers from the same thing everyone else does, which is a life of boredom,” he said.

Sockington is currently number 98 on the list of the most-followed feeds on Twitter (and the most popular non-human), sandwiched between the band Jimmy Eat World and the ABC program “Nightline.” But according to Nick Douglas, the editor of the book “Twitter Wit,” that’s not all due to the suggested-users list. He thinks Scott deserves huge credit.

“The jokes are clever enough for smart people to like, and simple enough for people who like easier things,” Douglas said. “He’s a good, solid crowd pleaser. There are people on that suggested-user list who are only getting a couple of hundred thousand followers, and it only takes one bad post for someone to ‘unfollow’ you. In many ways, [Scott] has earned that 1.5 million.”

Scott tries not to take the whole thing too seriously. There’s talk of doing a Sockington book or even a TV show, and he finds great humor in the on-line mythology that has sprung up around Sockington, including some parodies and a Twittering parrot named Rudy who hates Socks and fantasizes about attacking him (when Sockington hit a million followers this summer, Rudy tweeted “8/12: NEVER FORGET.”)

For the most part, Scott shrugs off all that it has become. Twitter recently got rid of its suggested users list, so Scott expects his numbers will begin to decline. If anything, Scott said this will remove a bit of the pressure. His core audience is “cat people,” mostly women, who understand that it’s hard to understand a feline.

“If you have a cat,” he said, “you realize their life is mostly food and sleep.”

At the moment, the real Sockington, who they guess is about five or six, spends much of his time lounging on sofa pillows (there’s a framed note in Scott’s living room that reads “Do not wake the cat—signed, cat”), sitting in the window watching “Cat TV,” and dealing with a new intruder in his lair. In September, the Scotts adopted a new kitten named Tweety, and he looks just like Sockington (on Twitter, he’s known as Sockelganger).

On-line and in the house, Sockington is still feeling Tweety out, trying to decide whether he’s a new playtoy or a new annoyance.

“OH YES INDEED I AM LICKABLE totally running out of acreage to lick,” Sockington tweeted recently. “GOING TO START ON NEARBY FURNITURE AND @SOCKELGANGER hold still kid.”

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