I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.
No, seriously. A big part of this “talking to weirdos on the Internet” job involves unearthing stranger’s personal email addresses and tweeting at people I’ve never met in the hopes they’ll waste twenty minutes of their life answering my questions. A surprising amount of people are completely awesome and willing to sacrifice some of their time and privacy to talk with me. Frequently, though, I hit dead ends. No email address, no message back, no desire to talk to journalists. Radio silence.
Earlier this semester I encountered digital silence so profound I wrote an entire post about it. I’d just finished composing my forty-sixth tweet at @common_squirrel. For those of you not among the 90,000-strong throng of followers, common squirrel is the best thing on the Internet. It’s a Twitter account entirely dedicated to tweeting squirrel stuff. And that’s it. “Hop,” “sniff,” “run run run,” “tree.” This is the prose that’s garnered a follower count the size of a small city.
The thing about an account that dedicated to being a squirrel is, well, squirrels don’t have blogs. Or websites. Or email addresses. Or any way to contact the person behind the Twitter account. Hop, hop.
After loosing my umpteenth tweet asking for an interview with the squirrel, certain I’d once again be ignored, I wrote a post half fawning over the account’s inherent genius—of course tens of thousands of people love it, it’s the greatest idea ever conceived— and half frustrated at my inability to get in contact with the account owner. I went so far as to call snagging the interview my semester’s goal. The post went up and I largely forgot about it, considering the @common_squirrel story a dead end.
Enter the kindness of strangers. Well, one stranger.
Weeks after writing my @common_squirrel hail Mary post, an unknown person tweeted at me.
Stranger: I know the name behind the squirrel.
How the tables have turned. Someone I don’t know asking for my attention? Well, he had it. Naturally I responded like the consummate professional I am.
SK: HOW. WHO.
Fortunately my overeager, monosyllabic response didn’t deter him.
Stranger: How? I’m a genius. Who? Um. . .s***, I forgot. Give me five minutes, and I will email you [sic]
I gave the stranger my email address and tried to keep the excitement from rupturing any of my major organs before verifying this guy truly had a good tip. Minutes later there was a link in my inbox. Not an email address, but a link to a blog run by the same person who created Common Squirrel. A little poking around the blog and I found an email contact.
At this point I’d lost a gall bladder and both kidneys to excitement-rupturing. I responded to the stranger, whose name I learned thanks to the magic of Gmail, promising him bronzed statues, fine jewelry and a personal ziggurat. Also I promised him a public “thank you.”
Stranger: I wish you the best of luck in your quest for an interview, but I will politely decline a public thanks. I’ve done a lot of less-than-favorable things in my life, so anonymity is my… way of reconciling that.
Okay, a little Deep Throat-esque, but nonetheless a very helpful tip and a very friendly correspondence. Next up, emailing the squirrel creator himself.
The man behind Common Squirrel is named Dave.
The man behind common squirrel whose name is Dave has requested limited anonymity, because “People seem to like a bit of a mystery.” The man behind common squirrel whose name is Dave told me “I like the idea that people can figure out who I am, but I don’t want to make it too easy to do so.” The man behind common squirrel, whose name is Dave, told me I could reveal certain things about him. For example I can tell you the man behind common squirrel whose name is Dave is named Dave.
Fortunately I can tell you a bit more than that. I can tell you Dave lives in a major East Coast city, attended a small East Coast college, is married and walks dogs for a living. I can tell you he performs comedy on the side. I can tell you he was as surprised as I was to find someone discovered his squirrel alter ego, and that he was incredibly friendly throughout our correspondence, which was as follows:
SK: When and why did you start common squirrel? Was there a goal and a Grand Artistic Vision, or was it just “What if a squirrel tweeted?” Was there ever a goal greater than the Twitter account?
CS: I started common_squirrel a few years ago when I worked at a particularly crushing desk job. I was very, very bored. Right around that time, Twitter started to catch fire, and I thought it was interesting. I like stuff like Twitter. It’s both extremely silly and, I think, important. It’s a medium to freely express oneself with only like two rules. That’s really neat… no one tells you how to use Twitter. You can use it to talk about your lunch. You can use it to tell jokes. You can use it to talk about model trains. You can talk about Greco-Roman art.
That’s a bit off topic. I love Twitter, it doesn’t need me to defend it, certainly. Common squirrel came into my head somewhat fully formed. I think I was poking around Twitter with an eye to finding how people were using it for ridiculous means and found a community of these people who tweeted as their dogs, really anthropomorphized. They were hardly the most ridiculous people tweeting, they’re really sweet people, by and large, and they love their dogs, which I understand very well. Dogs are great! But just as you say, the thought popped in, “What if a squirrel tweeted?” Dogs clearly have a world going on behind their eyes, though I doubt they’d tweet with the eloquence their owners imagine. Squirrels are funny. They’ve got personality, but they’re not thinking very long term. They’re very in the now.
So, I’m not sure I answered your question. I guess it was a combination of being really bored at a bad job and being really charmed by Twitter and the people using it.
SK: Where is this pocket of people tweeting as their dogs?
CS: They’re pretty great, but I haven’t yet found a good hashtag that they use that’s searchable. Poke around, though, they’re out there. A bunch seem to follow common_squirrel, and tend to tweet about wanting to eat him, which makes natural sense.
SK: Were you one of those kids who wanted a squirrel as a pet in elementary school?
CS: Not particularly, that I recall. I wanted a dog, but we lived in apartments all my life, and the buildings didn’t allow them.
SK: What are your thoughts on squirrels in general? Do you pay more attention to them now that you have the account? Do friends who know you run common squirrel send you squirrel facts and squirrel gifs?
CS: Squirrels are funny. They’re bold. Kinda cute. Can be really enormous dicks. I always have noticed them; they’re everywhere in NYC.
I keep who I am fairly on the down-low, simply because I really like the idea that, somehow, a squirrel has figured Twitter out. Several of my friends know. They’re lovely, very supportive.
SK: How do you run common squirrel? It seems to post all hours of the day, but you’ve admitted to keeping strange hours. Do you tweet manually, or do you use something like Tweetdeck and write two weeks worth of tweets in a night?
CS: I like the immediacy of Twitter, so I update manually. Between my computer and my smartphone it’s very easy for me to be online fairly constantly.
SK: What do you like about the immediacy of Twitter that’s kept you there, instead of making a squirrel Tumblr or something?
CS: I do like the immediacy very much, and the impermanence that gives rise to: the way tweets eventually seem to disappear (even if they stick around, it’s pretty hard to dig out any given user’s tweet from a year ago without some serious work). With that said, I think the thing that keeps me on Twitter is a combination of inertia and
enjoyment of the rules. If I went to Tumblr, there’d be all these different options about what I could post, and how I could configure it. The confinement of Twitter really works for a squirrel, I think. They lead somewhat enclosed existences.
SK: What are your thoughts on the amount of followers you’ve accrued?
CS: It’s very nice! It’s rather strange. But sweet! I just crossed 90,000 the other day and I really never expected anything of the sort. It’s surreal, and awesome. I’m grateful to the people who follow, and really happy that people seem to like this odd little thing.
SK: Does common squirrel get a lot of fan tweets? I know I’ve tweeted at you more than a few times— do you pay attention to that kind of thing, the response that the account gets?
CS: A shocking and very flattering amount, to the point that it’s very difficult to follow. I’m sorry if I missed your @s, or the @s of others. I do try to read as many as I can. He never replies, of course, because a squirrel wouldn’t. He has a very limited vocabulary, after all.
SK: What do you think it is that’s drawn so many followers?
CS: Tenacity is one fairly big thing. To do this every day (give or take) for threeish years. People seem to admire the dedication. There’s also no real reason not to follow it. He’s not going to say anything that’s in any way objectionable. Honestly, on the Internet, that’s fairly rare. And people seem to enjoy the surreality of having a bit of what a squirrel is up to inserted into what the humans in their lives are up to.
SK: Let me ask you one really artsy-fartsy question: Do you think Twitter can be used to make art? Like capital-A art, like “show at the MoMA” art?
CS: Oh, I’m sure someone’s already doing it. I don’t think art’s limited by medium, particularly. People express art with just about every tool they have available, which is neat. I have no idea what successful capital-A art would look like in tweet form, but I bet someone, or several someones are working on it.
SK: Are there any Twitter accounts you think are particularly awesome at the moment?
CS: There’s several I really like. Paul F. Tompkins (@PFTompkins), Rob Delaney (@robdelaney), Matt Koff (@mattkoff) and Emmy Blotnick (@emmyblotnick) are all straight up hilarious.
Discographies (@Discographies), TNG Season 8 (@TNG_S8), and Fake Louie Eps (@FakeLouieEps) all exploit something Twitter’s pretty great for— loosely described: listing stuff, but funny like— and do it very well.
It’s pretty inside, but I love @ElBloombito. @fart is sometimes a little mean for my taste, but rarely fails to make me giggle. I love that NASA puts up a Twitter for every one of their missions, and has their rovers tweet in the first person.
SK: I’ve found there’s a certain mesmerizing rhythm to your posts, even though (or perhaps because) you maybe only use 10 or so different words. Do you consider things like that when you tweet, or is it more that you’re just in the mood to say “acorn” at that point in the day?
CS: I have my own little rules to the thing that lend it a certain rhythm, I think. I try not to use the same word for two tweets in a row. I try to consider where he’d be in his day (I use the male pronoun, but I’ve never really considered the gender of the creature). If he’s been running a lot, he’s probably going somewhere, like a tree or something. Stuff like that.
SK: So do you come up with little story arcs for it, or realize “Oh, I typed “run run run” an hour ago, so he probably found something?” And why does he never run into, say, another squirrel?
CS: I do think of the day as a little story. Ran, jumped. What else is there to do? Dig? Scratch? It’s a story that gets told over and over with the only real variations being the order of tasks. Which was a lot like my life working in an office.
I’ve been asked why he never runs into other squirrels. I’m not sure how I’d express that. If he’s running, it’s possible he’s running from or towards one? But I don’t think he’d tweet, like, ‘squirrel’ or ‘investigate’. It seems complicated to get across, and this isn’t a very complicated creature. I’ve also been asked why he never poops,
but I don’t think anyone really wants to read that. Maybe he’s figured that much out. There are things people want to hear about, and things he shouldn’t tweet.
SK: It’s interesting that you never thought about the squirrel’s gender. Why do you think that is?
CS: I’m not sure, it just never really occurred to me. I think it’s common to assign genders to some creatures, regardless their actual sex. I think of most dogs as boys, they’ve got a very boyish energy. Tigers seem female. But with a lot of animals, it never really occurs to me to do that. Cows don’t seem particularly one way or another. Chickens, either, even though they’re dymporphized (which is not a word).
Squirrels are that way to me. Or maybe it’s me, and most people are thinking about it. That, and that alone, would make me weird. I do seem to use ‘he’ most of the time when talking about him, so maybe I’ve worked it out and just haven’t let myself know.
SK: In the age of blog-to-book deals, I have to ask: so you have a tremendous amount of followers. Have any advertising people tried to get you to tweet their product (I don’t even know what they’d suggest— birdseed, maybe?) Has anyone ever been like “hey, let’s make a TV show” or a book or something? Common squirrel is sort of brilliant in how non-marketable it is, but would you ever entertain doing something like that, especially if it meant maybe you’d get to quit your day job?
CS: I haven’t been approached by anyone that I’m aware of, though, again, following the @s can be difficult. I think you’re right that the built in limitations would make it hard to market anything using common_squirrel, and, by and large, I’m not big on selling things. The idea of doing commercial work comes up in my non-Twitter life too, and I tend to pass, not that anyone’s really kicking my door down begging me to appear in ads for their bagels. I’d do ads for bagels, is the point.
TV or a book deal, I mean, I’d be nuts to pass on that sort of thing. But, as regards ads, over time I’ve developed a fondness for this weird thing I do, and I do really believe, as silly as all of it is, that there’s a certain amount of time that the followers of it give me; that I should honor that. I don’t want to punish the decision to
follow me by turning around and being like “the Subaru Outback is the
official car of @common_squirrel. When run run running isn’t fast enough, it goes 0-60 in 45 seconds.” That’s probably more than 140 characters anyway.
 “Journalist” used very loosely in this case.
 Conservative estimate.
 While most Real Journalists conduct their interviews in person or, worst case scenario, over the phone, I’ve found most Internet People prefer to communicate with overeager strangers through the Internet machine. This is less lack of editorial rigor and more the nature of writing about people who spend most of their time intentionally not communicating with people face to face.
 The stranger, fittingly enough, found my article through looking for the man behind the squirrel himself.