Twitter is a fantastic way to connect to the world. Not only can you share links, flaunt your ego to strangers and generally get involved with what is going on in the world, you can also direct effusive praise or destructive nastiness at a cavalcade of uninterested and generally baffled celebrities.
Provided, of course, that you actually direct your tweet at the right person. Because despite a number of measures instituted by Twitter to help you get your messages to the right people, such as unique usernames and profile pictures that pop up somewhere, there are unfortunate Twitter users out there who share names with famous counterparts who end up with the messages meant for them.
It even happens to me, @GeorgeOsborn, with this recent tweet during the Autumn Statement blaming me for the change in the retirement age.
— Steve Gore-Browne (@gorebrowne) December 5, 2013
But while I get away with just a handful of people who can’t spell the Chancellor’s surname properly, there are some users who really do stand in the firing line on behalf of their more illustrious counterparts. We spoke to three of them, @rvp, @theashes and @edwardsnowden, about their experiences under fire and how they turned them around into surprisingly positive online experiences.
A series of unfortunate events
The first thing that really jumps out from talking to Twitter users with unfortunate handles is the fact that none of them saw the problems coming. In fact, in the case of all of our tweeters, it’s remarkable to see how seemingly small decisions made a number of years ago have unluckily turned into sticks for the Twitter hordes to beat them with.
Ashley Kerekes, a blogger based in Massachusetts, was one of the first people to lay themselves an unwitting Twitter trap when she signed up for an account in 2007. “I chose @theashes because The Ashes was a nickname my fiancé had for me” she told me; a decision made possible by her understandable lack of awareness (at the time) of the fierce Anglo-Australian cricket rivalry that sparks to life across continents every couple of years. In the case of one of the people I spoke to, their misfortune was planted years before home computing became a phenomenon; let alone Twitter.
Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad, a consultant in telecommunications, information technology and defence sectors based in New Delhi, earned his nickname when the footballer who now bears the same nickname was barely able to walk. “I have been known as “RVP” in the technology world in USA and India since the mid-1980s.” he told me, meaning that he has had that nickname for nearly 30 years longer than Manchester United star Robin Van Persie. As with @theashes, Ravi was disadvantaged by his decision to join Twitter early, seizing hold of his now famous handle during the beta of the site as a result of a friendship with members of the original team.
But in many ways though, the tale of Edward Snowden, father of two and director at a firm of estate agents, is the most unlucky – he was simply born with the same name as the American whistle-blower. “I joined 3 years ago and chose my handle because it was my name” he told me in blunt, but completely reasonable terms. And that is what really struck me about everyone involved: all of them have had perfectly reasonable motives for selecting their Twitter handle and there’s very little to suggest they could or should have done anything differently to avoid a barrage they never knew that was coming.
The penny drops
So the more interesting question is what acted as the catalyst in each instance to turn these unwitting Twitter users into receptacles for misdirected messages. Put simply, the answer tends to be that a sudden controversy involving their namesake or the arrival of an event has put them in the firing line of Twitter users looking to express their opinion on the issue of the day. But it was also true that Twitter needed to reach a critical mass before this became an issue. “Social media wasn’t as big of a deal back then [in 2007]” said Ashley when discussing how she became aware @theashes was a problem. “Businesses and brands didn’t have Facebook pages and twitter accounts then, and who knew it would become such a vital part of marketing.”
By November 2010 during England’s tour of Australia, that critical mass had arrived and her username had finally emerged as a problem. Exasperated by the number of misdirected messages coming her way, she tweeted “I AM NOT A FREAKING CRICKET MATCH!!!” at a number of users who were involving her in a conversation. “When I tweeted back that now famous line” she said “I started to receive hundreds, if not thousands of tweets. It was literally impossible to keep up”. And it was that which was to establish her as one of the first victims of mistaken identitweets on the platform.
— Ashley Kerekes (@theashes) November 27, 2010
One of Ravi’s secretaries spent an entire month blocking the people who abused him
Ravi’s moment of fame came a bit further down the line when his namesake made a controversial transfer between Premier League rivals. “I only started getting tweets meant for Robin van Persie (RVP) in mid-August 2012, when he left Arsenal for Manchester United.” he said “In August 2012, I received 600,000 – 700,000 very abusive messages from Arsenal fans accusing me of being a traitor and the language was very foul and abusive”. It got so bad that one of Ravi’s secretaries spent an entire month blocking the people who abused him; both a considerable inconvenience as well as a thoroughly unpleasant job.
As for Edward Snowden, abusive messages kicked off after the ex-spook he shares a name with revealed his identity in June 2013. “Someone tweeted me from America to state I should go into hiding or switch my phone off for a while once the news broke about my namesake” Edward told me, but he was keen to emphasise that he hadn’t received the volume of messages that either Ravi or Ashley received. Nonetheless he continues to receive a number of misdirected messages even now, even garnering support from slacktivist members of the Occupy movement in the U.S.
— SoyTenochca (@SoyTenochca) December 18, 2013
You’ve got to laugh
How then do you deal with the sudden arrival of misaddressed mail on your virtual doorstep, much of which can be nasty? While the temptation to be frustrated is strong to begin with, the only real response that worked for our interviewees is a refreshing one: a sense of humour. “After a few hours of tweets, I thought embracing it with humour and an open mind was going to get the best reaction” said Edward and it was an approach that was to prove popular with the rest. Ravi, in particular, has embraced the power of the gag in an attempt to fight off the abuse. “There is no point getting annoyed about it since it is bound to continue. So it is best to respond as humorously as possible” he told me, just days after he had posted this tweet mocking Robin van Persie’s “feeble legs”.
— RaviVisvesvaraPrasad (@rvp) December 12, 2013
It’s not the only approach that can be taken though. Ashley took the chance her name thrust upon her to learn about the sport that she is now so closely associated with it after the hashtag #teachtheashestheashes took off. “I’ve definitely had fun with it” she said and, judging by the search results for the tag on the site, so did the public.
Riding the wave
And, most refreshingly of all, many of the people affected by it have actually managed to turn that negativity into something positive. The recent case of John Lewis, aka @johnlewis, receiving a gift voucher from @johnlewis_retail as a result of his inconvenience is one such example but Ravi and Ashley in particular managed to turn their initial misfortune into something far more substantial.
Ashley’s story is perhaps the best. She managed to successfully turn a profit on her “I’m not a freaking cricket match!!!” quote by setting up an Etsy store and her story helped her to land a writing job as it impressed her employer so much. Her ultimate triumph though was the free trip to Australia to watch the Ashes after the hashtag #gettheashestotheashes convinced Qantas to fly her over for it. As she enthused to me “The trip to Australia was certainly a fantastic perk!”
Ravi meanwhile got to tell his story after Robin Van Persie scored a sublime hat-trick in April 2013 to seal Manchester United’s title win led to another downpour on his account. “This [torrent of tweets] got featured in several magazines and newspapers, and I was interviewed a couple of times by BBC TV, BBC Radio, and a few TV channels, as well as many newspapers in UK and India.” And despite the fact that he still gets tweets meant for Mr Van Persie, there is now a quiet following of people who have embraced his position as the official place for all things nearly Robin Van Persie related.
— Lady_Ramsey (@ash_goonerette) December 17, 2013
A Happy Ending
And that’s ultimately what’s actually proved to be the really nice thing about this story: that something rooted in a torrent of nastiness has ended up producing a lot of positivity between all those involved. Sure, rude tweets have been flung in the direction of innocents but the humorous replies from those who receive them and the reciprocal sympathy from the general public is noticeable – the likes of @avb and @ianwatkins who have also been on the receiving end of a Twitter backlash recently have received a surprising amount of support from the public.
— New York Spurs (@nyspurs) December 18, 2013
And the reason this has happened is because it’s ultimately one of those funny misunderstandings we can all enjoy. Like a kid at school calling the teacher mum or someone talking on the phone at length to the wrong person, those little mistakes are proving to be surprisingly funny on social media for all involved. With a touch of patience from those given a hard time and an appreciated “my bad” attitude from those who make the mistake, a case of mistaken identitweet proves to be a surprisingly positive and friendly online experience.