I should have known I was in trouble. Before I arrived home for a regular family visit, my dad asked a special request of me: “Katherine, since you are such an expert on social media, I need to sit down with you for a tutorial when you're in town.”
“Sure,” I agreed. “I’ll be happy to show you some things.”
My dad, while perhaps not always great at operating gadgets, has always been an early adopter. He was the first person I knew to have a BlackBerry, and he rushed out to buy an iPad when it came on the market. And he's always been keenly interested in the influence of technology. While I have friends who giggle about parents who share a joint email address and find text messaging wildly complicated, I thought: “Good for Dad. He’s really making an effort to learn.”
My dad had signed up for Twitter but was a little baffled by some of the finer points. Would I mind showing him if there was a way to see all of his followers clearly? And how does one retweet? As promised, I sat down with him and set him up with TweetDeck. I showed him how to use the retweet button, linked his Twitter and Facebook accounts, and added a column for the Twitter account of a student website that he oversees. “This is so cool! And helpful! I really feel totally set up now. Thanks so much, Katherine,” he gushed. All in a day's work.
When I set up Dad's account, I noticed that because he followed so few people, it was mostly just filled with my tweets. Some time shortly after that, I realized that my dad seemed to be reading every single thing I tweeted. If I tweeted something that had anything to do with my life, like asking for a restaurant recommendation, mentioning I was going to a concert, or making an observation about a business meeting, I’d receive a prompt email with his two cents about where I should go, or telling me to have a great time, or asking me how the meeting went.
I initially found it funny that my dad seemed to be watching my movements so closely, and it was sort of sweet how I would receive an email rather than a message back on Twitter. I asked him how he managed to always see every one of my tweets and respond so promptly. “Oh, I set up an alert to get a message to my BlackBerry every time you tweet.” It was then that I realized I had created a monster. His interest in Twitter had gone from curiosity to enthusiastic parental monitoring tool.
The idea of my dad hovering over my electronic movements perplexed me. My parents have never been prying helicopter parents. They’ve always encouraged my brother and me to be independent, travel alone, and make life decisions for ourselves without their nitpicking. They are always enthusiastic to talk about anything, but I’d never describe either of them as nosy. Twitter quickly changed that. My boyfriend and I were toying with the idea of taking a vacation to Beirut, Lebanon. I tweeted a question if anyone had visited or had recommendations. I quickly received an email from my dad, “I hope you mean Lebanon, Pennsylvania! You can’t seriously want to go to Lebanon.”
Our phone calls increasingly began with a 10-minute rundown of everything that he'd seen me tweet about since we last talked. My dad has always been an indefatigable cheerleader and PR agent to the point of embarrassment to his children, and it became clear that he was less trying to hover and more using Twitter to mine exciting life details that he was, perhaps, overly enthused by: “You met Norah Ephron!!” “You got to go to Facebook headquarters!!!” “You had a picnic this Sunday!!!” “You made roasted duck!!!”
While I mainly tweet things related to work and the news, the one in every 10 tweets that had something to do with my life seemed to provide my dad with a steady stream of insight that he'd been deprived of since I left for college.
I’ve never had any illusions that Twitter was private, and I’ve always been acutely aware that I should never tweet something unprofessional. But all of a sudden Twitter felt a little less fun: Anything I tweeted I’d likely have to discuss with my dad later, even if it was as harmless as going to a gallery. If I wanted to tell him about it, I would. Living in a city hundreds of miles of away provides a grown daughter with the privacy to selectively edit your weekend plans, or not have to tell Dad whether or not your scintillating comments lit up the conference room. Anything that I hinted at on Twitter I had to be prepared to answer for later. I couldn’t block him. I didn’t have the heart to do so. Instead I applied the test “Will I want to talk to Dad about this later?” to anything I tweeted.
Even as I became more aware of the degree of my dad's Twitter stalking and started gently teasing him about it, he was not deterred. When I saw him in person, he’d make a point to ask me in front of other people, “So how many Twitter followers do you have now, Katherine? It’s over a 1,000 now, isn’t it? Is it over 1,500? She has OVER 1,500 followers!” He’d brag to anyone in earshot. He loved the idea that this number somehow denoted a kind of status. “I only have 200!" he would add. Isn’t the dream of every father for his children to be more successful than himself?
I think the pinnacle of my dad’s Twitter mania came when Slate launched our newsblog, "The Slatest," which I oversee. Since he’d sort of gotten the hang of the retweeting thing, anything I tweeted related to the launch he’d retweet within minutes. He became one of the first followers of the newly created Slatest Twitter account, and because it had few followers in the beginning, when you looked at the list of @mentions, seven out of 10 of them were from my dad. I knew he thought that he was helping me succeed. I imagined he concluded that if he retweeted all of the stories, it would noticeably bring the site more readers. That’s how social media works, right? All he had to do to show his support was push a button.
He was in such a flurry about "The Slatest" that he even called me during the middle of the workday to discuss it. Twice. For my dad, there are few things more sacred than hard work. Calling me during office hours was the sort of thing I thought he’d only consider if someone had died. But Twitter also changed that. The tweets were so instant he couldn’t hold back his responses. “I saw your tweet and I was just so excited that I wanted to say congratulations again! How’s everything going?”
I found myself using the service less and less, keeping it mostly to news links that caught my interest. I started relegating my increasingly fewer updates about my life to Facebook. Dad seemed less into Facebook, and there wasn’t any easy option for him to get real-time updates sent to his phone. While he still brings up things he sees me tweet, over time he started to tone it down since there was less fodder. Maybe a bit of the novelty wore off. Maybe he started following more people so it became harder to focus solely on me.
My mom, although she has a Twitter account, for the most part had stayed out of the whole frenzy. She sheepishly admitted that she didn’t read all of my tweets and just let my dad fill her in on the most important ones. (Fine by me!) As my dad’s intensity waned, I thought the chapter on parental Twitter stalking had come to a close. Recently, I tweeted out to my followers that I was taking suggestions of possible topics for a four-week long-form project. I immediately got an email about it, but it wasn’t from my dad. It was from my mom. “I just saw your tweet, and I wanted to tell you …”