Who's actually writing your favorite celebrity's tweets?
Inside the world of social media ghostwriters.
Now in his mid-70s, actor George Takei has found new fame as a beloved social media maven boasting millions of followers across his varioussocial networking accounts. That's some heavy digital mojo for an actor best known for a supporting role on a short-lived 1960s TV series and occasional guest appearances on The Howard Stern Show. There's a very good reason for his newfound digital popularity, though: Takei's meme-orific posts are absolutely delightful!
But many of Takei's virtual admirers might be disappointed to know that Mr. Sulu is not solely responsible all that delightfulness. A few months back, the world learned that some of the humorous quips posted under his name were written by a ghostwriter being paid ten bucks per Facebook post.
As it turns out, Takei's use of outside help for his social media work isn't unique among celebrities. If you've ever wondered how Sarah Palin managed to translate her complicated relationship with the English language into coherent long-form Facebook posts, or how the mayor of America's largest city finds time to post several times a day, the answer probably points to a professional social media ghostwriter. In fact, public figures ranging from Britney Spears to Kanye West to Barack Obama have admitted to using paid professional help to maintain their social media profiles.
"At this point of having worked in this industry for a few years, I just assume that everyone has a ghostwriter," said Oriana Leckert, the director of operations at Gotham Ghostwriters, a NYC-based firm that pairs professional ghostwriters with clients ranging from corporate to professional to celebrity. "Whenever someone sounds drastically more coherent in a tweet then they do in person, they probably had some help."
Gotham matches writers with celebrity or corporate clients for long-term arrangements that pay the writer to produce a specific number of blogs, posts, or tweets per day. Her firm chooses from a vast stable of writers to find ones who understand the culture and voice of the particular client. For example, a writer with a hip-hop background probably wouldn't be retained to tweet for a pharmaceutical exec (although that might have a fresh sound).
Ghostposting deals are nearly always involve writing for multiple social platforms. When a celebrity or the celeb's "people" hire a ghostposter, they are looking for someone to mimic and project their client's voice across the digital spectrum. This was the situation Anna (whose name we've changed to protect her identity), a Brooklyn-based writer who spent 18 months ghostwriting for a "pretty ubiquitous B-list star," found herself in.
"I wrote all the 'personal' blog posts, tweets, and Facebook updates in her voice," Anna explained via email. "Occasionally I even handled written interviews as well."
"I was given a monthly edit calendar of topics that was created by the celebrity's team based on the needs of various sites she was partnering with," she writes. "When not promoting one of the celebrity's projects, I covered pretty standard ladymag topics--fashion, beauty, and relationships."
Anna says she shared tweeting responsibilities with a publicity team and the celebrity herself. Anna was not allowed to publish a post or tweet herself--she emailed all content to the celeb's team, which then approved and posted various items.
The amount of interaction between celebrity and ghostposter varies. Anna says she received very little guidance: "Sometimes I would find useful information by Googling old interviews, but for the most part it was total guesswork."
Many of the purportedly "personal" blog posts were either wholly or partly fabricated by Anna. "I might get a topic like 'My Favorite Christmas Memories' and never get any info about [the actress's] actual favorite Christmas memories beforehand."
"It's a spectrum; All the projects are different," says Gotham Ghostwriters' Leckert. "Sometimes the clients don't want to have anything to do with it, and sometimes they really want to be involved and be like 'here's the issue, here's what I want to say about it, and here's the tone I'd like to take.'"
There's no business like tweet business
Gotham Ghostwriters was founded as a full-service speechwriting firm, but it gradually got into the ghostposting business as social media became more and more prominent.
Leckert believes the ghostposting business is still gaining steam. "I think that social media itself is a little bit new; so is the idea that you can pay someone to do it for you, let alone pay someone who won't say they are doing it for you," she says. "Ghostwriting [for social media] is definitely gaining ground; The stigma around the whole thing is being lifted."
In Anna's case, she was contacted and hired "the old fashioned way" through her literary agent. As this is a relatively new field, a bit of negotiating had to take place to come to acceptable terms. "It was the first time that my agent had to negotiate a per-tweet rate, but it definitely was not the last."
While Takei seemed to take his social media "outing" in stride, ghostwriters in any medium are not supposed to reveal their own existence. "The job of a ghostwriter is to fool everyone into thinking they don't exist," says Leckert. "That's why they're ghosts."
Some celebrities and professionals freely acknowledge that they've had assistance in social media realm. "Some corporate clients have been like 'I'm a busy person, I can't be bothered to tweet, so I'm smart enough to hire a tweeting expert,'" Leckert explains. "Other times, whether it's hubris or professional concern, there might be a more ironclad arrangement regarding disclosing their ghostwriting."
Anna found herself in one of those ironclad agreements. "I signed a pretty ridiculous nondisclosure agreement, especially considering that I ultimately had no personal contact with the celebrity," she says. "There were clauses forbidding revealing the celebrity's identity through miming."
"If I revealed whom I worked with, I could potentially be sued for all the money I have and probably ever will have," Anna says.
While we mere mortals may receive social media feedback from a small circle of close friends and family, the tossed-off thought sneezes of a celebrity with millions of fans are subjected to the Talmudic dissection of the global peanut gallery.
The public has long accepted that celebrities with little or no training in crafting the written word will bring in outside help for their memoirs, speeches, and award ceremony zingers. So it was only a matter of time before those with the means and the need would begin to outsource their social media communications.
But before taking the latest tweet from a celeb you follow at face value, read it carefully: It might be the work of a stealthy stand-in typing away at a pay computer in a coffee shop.