Four People Whose Twitter Lives Are A Nightmare

by Chris Stokel-Walker

1. The guy mistaken for a game developer

Jeb Boniakowski is one of the lucky few people who possess a short, apposite Twitter handle directly related to his name: he’s just @jeb.

He’s also one of the unlucky people who happens to share his Twitter name with someone or something else that people tend to tweet at on accident.

The other-world Jeb that Boniakowski is often confused for isn’t even called Jeb. Well, he is, after a fashion. Jeb is the nickname for Jens Bergensten, one of the main developers of Minecraft. You might’ve heard of the game. Nearly 12 million people have. Between 10,000 and 15,000 people buy it every 24 hours.

Boniakowski’s kind of glad about the confusion: “I don’t know if I’d really know anything about Mojang [the company behind Minecraft] or Notch [its creator] if it wasn’t for this accident, and now I really admire them a lot. So there’s maybe a manufactured serendipity angle to it? At the end of the day isn’t that a lot of the reason we make stuff like Twitter accounts?”

But still: 15,000 people a day are coming into this world. Jeb — the real Jeb, not the nicknamed game developer — is swimming against that mass of humanity who play the game, want new features but aren’t aware that the Jeb they’re looking for tweets at @jeb_. That Jeb has nearly 770,000 followers, at the latest count, and they’re quite demanding of him, if this selection of tweets is anything to go by.

“My favorite people are the mothers,” Boniakowski wrote in an email. Yup: Hyped up teen gamers often go crying to mom when their Minecraft game corrupts. “Every once in a while I get a mother who is tweeting at me on behalf of their son who plays Minecraft. It will be like ‘@Jeb My sweet Kayden lost his save game file pls reply w/ help immediately.’ Every once in a long while they’ll be get super mad and be like ‘@JEB I HAVE ALREADY ASKED YOU THREE TIMES TO FIX MY SON KAYDENS MINECRAFT SAVEGAME FILE IF YOU DO NOT REPAIR THIS IMMEDIATELY I WILL REPORT YOU TO THE POLICE!!!’ Those kids are gonna have rough lives.”

Boniakowski engages in gentle trolling of some people who tweet at him, while for others he’ll offer advice like “try turning your computer on and off again”: “Every once in a while they’ll be like, ‘Thanks that fixed it right up!’ I think that’s hilarious.”

He’d never give up his Twitter handle. “It’s my goddamn name,” he wrote. “Mostly it’s super cheesedicks like small town politicians and people whose twitter bios say ‘Sales Training Professional’ who are like ‘I’d like your twitter handle. I think it could help my [campaign|business|church].’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah? Well I’d like your car, fuckface. How delusional are you that you think because you would like to have something, someone else who has it will give it to you?’”

But it gets worse.

2. The dude mistaken for a racist-nationalist group

The English Defence League (EDL) was formed in 2009. They describe themselves as a “#WorkingClass movement who take to the streets against the spread of #islamism.” A group calling itself @EDLNews was created to oppose them — “Bringing you the news that the English Defence League often won’t.” Finally, Edward L (he’d rather not give his last name) was formed by the mingling of sperm with an egg 27 years ago. His Twitter handle is @EdL. You can see where this goes bad.

“I liked [the Twitter handle] because it’s short and easy to remember,” Ed explained. This is part of the problem. The EDL can rile people up, and angry people often don’t double check that the user they’re calling a racist pig is the right racist pig. (Kidding, Ed!) Ed’s username is “EdL,” but, of course, that’s just EDL.

Every day Ed wakes up and will have a few more @-notifications from people unwittingly calling him racist (or right-wingers tweeting messages of support for the group). “I turned off email notifications a long time ago,” he wrote.

In the immediate aftermath of the killing of Lee Rigby on the streets of London in May 2013, those few tweets a day became a torrent. (The incident ripped off the Band-Aid of progress in interfaith relations in the UK and left a gaping wound; for a couple of days it looked like Britain was kind of falling apart. Right-wing groups rallied support, and there were clashes on the street. Mosques were bombed, and Muslims attacked.)

“Sometimes I’m tempted to weigh in on the debates,” Ed said, “but it doesn’t feel like Twitter is the right platform for it. Also the tweets tend to be at the extreme end of the scale.”

Ed’s a politics graduate, the ultimate irony of ironies. And though his friends tell him that it’d be much easier if he just relinquished the account to the EDL, he’s not prepared to do that. “I’ve had my account for over five years,” he explained. “It existed before the EDL were started, and the abuse isn’t directed at me. Why would I be bothered by it?”

3. The woman mistaken for a soccer club

Even as I was talking to Chelsea Henry (@chelsea), Manchester United was playing Chelsea in a crucial early-season Premier League soccer match. “My @mentions right now are INSANE,” she told me on GChat.

I looked at the real time results for @Chelsea and she was not wrong. “CRAZY CRAZY dude,” she types. “I didn’t know people were that horrible at Twitter.”

Henry’s married to a Brit, so she’s aware of the potential confusion. Chelsea FC are one of the world’s biggest soccer clubs, and get an awful lot of mentions on social media. But they weren’t quick enough off the mark to snag @Chelsea for their team.

Henry’s husband worked at Twitter at the time, and managed to secure her the short, single-name handle. Those of us blessed with more complicated names don’t suffer from this problem: there aren’t a cavalcade of Choires, or a small army of Stokel-Walkers to get confused with. But — sidebar! — look out; ask Lia Bulaong about the dangers of having a short first name as a Twitter handle:

Jeb and Lia should maybe… get to know each other?

“When Twitter added auto-complete on handles and mentioning it got bad — because people don’t really look at it,” Chelsea typed at me. “I wish it would be more obvious that they’re not mentioning the right people.”

Initially, when Twitter was relatively low-profile and small, the mentions weren’t a problem for Henry. But then as large corporations such as the soccer club began expanding their presence on Twitter, the wrongful mentions increased.

“It’s not so much a problem as it is kind of annoying,” she says. “I run a blog and am a photographer and lots of people send me @-mentions and it’s hard to find them” in amongst the soccer dross.

That means she can’t just ignore her @-mentions for 90 minutes every weekend when the team are playing — or when they do something newsworthy. She skims her feed and picks out the relevant mentions. Sometimes there are direct mentions of her that aim to make light of her situation. “Some people are really funny about it, some genuinely don’t know what they’re doing, some harass me.”

Quite often those aiming abuse at her will be shouted down by others. “I reply to some people,” she says,” but mostly I just ignore or block.”

I ask her whether she’s thought about ditching the username for something less popular: “I have and I haven’t. I wouldn’t give it up mostly because why should I? I’d rather just deal with it because at the end of the day what are a few extra tweets, ya know. It’s gonna happen no matter what the username is, if it’s common at least.”

4. The fellow mistaken for a department store

This whole fascination started for me with a man named John Lewis. Lewis lives in Blacksburg, VA, the former hometown of Google’s Eric Schmidt. Lewis also happens to share the name of one of the UK’s biggest department stores, and one bored afternoon on Twitter someone linked to his good-humored responses to misdirected tweets.

This is the curse of having a relatively common name, and being an early adopter on Twitter. Lewis joined Twitter in November 2007, back when it was possible to get prime usernames such as plain old @JohnLewis. (He’s forced the department store chain to the less superior @JohnLewisRetail.)

Lewis fascinated me because of the way an ordinary man can get caught up in the unbridled, scattergun anger of the ordinary person that has become common in the age of social media. We’re now able to complain at airlines, fast food joints, supermarkets and banks in a public forum and under 140 characters — and they feel obligated, as part of some PR push, to respond. That means people are increasingly tetchy over the smallest things (I’ve whined publicly to a train operator about faulty wifi on Twitter, just because). .

Lewis’ conundrum got even better when he started being confused for congressman and civil rights campaigner John Lewis (who tweets at @RepJohnLewis, for those keeping score). Still, he took it on the chin, though I’m certain I’d get tired of constant notifications telling me that someone was unhappy with my service, or that I’d given an inspiring speech. Lewis had a come-what-may attitude that I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have the patience for.

I don’t know that for certain, though, and I’m not going to ask him. It could be that John Lewis wakes up in the morning and dreads looking at his Twitter feed:All those people asking him about music choices and wanting to complain about staff.

Maybe all he wants to do is live his life without being attached to Twitter. After all, he gave up on the site five years ago. Maybe the misdirected tweets are dragging him back, forcing him to defend the good name of John Lewis of Blacksburg, VA, against the tweeting hordes.

And I’m part of the problem. Before I wrote this goofy story about John Lewis being confused for a department store, he had 321 followers. Now he has 359. Who’s to say that John Lewis doesn’t want to be left alone? Maybe John Lewis should be left alone.

Chris Stokel-Walker writes for The Economist, The Sunday Times, and BuzzFeed.