Can a fake Twitter character speak truth to power?

Posted Sep 05, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Rebecca Bowman Woods, guest blogger


For the past two years, one of the most-discussed questions among the leaders and Twitterati in my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was “Who is Fake Sharon (@fakesharon)?”

That’s part of the reason Will Boyd, a self-described “outsider,” kept the Tweets coming — to redirect the conversation from speculation on the Twitter character’s identity toward more pressing issues like institutional decline and the lack of public discourse on GLBT inclusion.

The birth and death of Fake Sharon even raises some theological questions about transparency, identity, and truth-telling in the life of the church.

Boyd, a church website developer, introduced the satiric version of the Rev. Sharon Watkins, the Disciples’ General Minister and President, in 2009 as an April Fool’s joke along the lines of Fake Steve Jobs, a parody of Apple’s CEO created by a tech journalist who used the platform to offer pointed commentary on the tech world. “I didn’t expect anybody to catch on to it,” Boyd says. “At that time there were not many Disciples on Twitter.”

But within hours, Fake Sharon had gained dozens of Twitter followers — and the real Sharon Watkins had joined Twitter, something Boyd considers a victory for the denomination’s use of social media, which had been minimal. That evening, April 1, 2009, Fake Sharon signed off and immediately received a barrage of messages from Disciples urging her to keep on Tweeting.

Soon, Boyd says, Fake Sharon became almost a full-time job. She developed a distinct personality — cranky, impatient with bureaucracy, unwilling to suffer fools — the polar opposite of the real Watkins, an unfailingly diplomatic, pastoral leader whose critics (if she has any) might accuse her of being too nice.

Fake Sharon evolved over time, from “just trying to be funny” to “really trying to get the denomination to look at itself in a different way,” says Boyd.

Fake Twitter characters are still a relatively new phenomenon, says Boyd, who earned a degree in social media and is a long time Twitter user. So when it came to ethical questions surrounding Fake Sharon and the rules for engaging people on Twitter and offline, he was navigating relatively uncharted waters; yet, he says, he took those questions seriously.

First off, he took pains to make sure people understood that Fake Sharon was not the real Sharon Watkins. While the latter is a public figure and therefore not legally protected from satirical portrayals, some inside the denomination thought that anything to do with Watkins’ name should be officially controlled, he says.

Others were simply offended. “This is a small denomination, and other people’s lines got blurred between the public figure and the person they know and love,” says Boyd.

The true identity of Fake Sharon was a well-kept secret right up until Boyd chose to reveal it in July. At times, Fake Sharon’s observations were so spot-on that most people assumed her creator must be an employee at denominational headquarters in Indianapolis. Boyd’s work creating websites for congregations brought him into contact with enough Disciples that he gleaned bits from their conversations, but he never had anything like an “inside source,” he says. Most of Fake Sharon’s Tweets were simply inspired by perusing the denomination’s biweekly news releases and reading between the lines — in some cases, guessing — and knowing Fake Sharon might be off-base.

Fake Sharon’s biggest successes, Boyd says, came when she was able to spark real conversation and action. Prior to the denomination’s biennial General Assembly in July of this year, she launched a t-shirt campaign on Café Press to Make the DOC Gay Okay. More than 100 people wore the t-shirts during the Assembly, bringing fresh awareness to a subject not on the official agenda.

Then on July 13, 2011, Fake Sharon Tweeted her final Tweet—a link to her own obituary, in which Boyd “came out” as Fake Sharon’s creator and explained his motivations.

One reason Boyd decided to reveal his identity was to dispel rumors that had resulted in warnings to those wrongly suspected of being Fake Sharon, he says. After Fake Sharon received a couple of messages from people who said they were suspected or accused and feared for their own careers, Boyd decided it was time.

Boyd’s revelation changed the conversation from “Who is Fake Sharon?” to “Who is Will Boyd?” Although he’s a Disciple and is married to a minister, Boyd didn’t grow up in the denomination and “couldn’t be more outsider,” he says. From a larger perspective, that may be what’s most revolutionary about Fake Sharon.

Just as the Protestant Reformation was “brought on by great theological ideas but facilitated by technology,” says Boyd, in the age of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and whatever’s next, anyone can publish. Boyd is reluctant to compare Fake Sharon to Martin Luther, but in terms of using media and technology to widen the conversation, there are some parallels.

“It’s the ability of people like me to have a voice in a process that I was not invited to,” he says. “The church has to embrace that or fight it, and fighting it doesn’t work well.”

Since revealing himself as Fake Sharon, most responses have been positive, Boyd says. Overall, he adds, only a tiny percentage of Disciples even knew Fake Sharon existed. As he sees it, her legacy is now in the hands of those who decide to step into the role of catalyst and keep the difficult and sometimes controversial conversations moving — or not.

Rebecca Bowman Woods
Rebecca Bowman Woods is a Disciples of Christ pastor, freelance religion writer, and contributing editor to Banned Questions About the Bible (Chalice Press, 2011).

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Steve K. 31 Jan
    Rebecca, I'm SO glad you took the time to write this article and tell the story of "Fake Sharon." I think it's an utterly fascinating tale and potentially a very important one, especially for religious communities (from local churches to denominations) to wrap their brains around.

    As Boyd says, "It's the ability of people like me to have a voice in a process I was not invited to. The church has to embrace that or fight it, and fighting it doesn't work well." Amen and amen.

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