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Twitter's spooky secret: It's full of ghosts

A New York Times piece exposes the underworld of Twitter ghostwriting. We already knew, of course, that Britney Spears' Twitter account wasn't really written by her.

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A Friday piece in The New York Times exposes what we all sort of knew already: some of those celebrity Twitter accounts are actually ghostwritten. Other ones are fake. That guy twittering as Christopher Walken is not actually Christopher Walken.

It's not terribly surprising. Nobody actually thought, for example, that the official Britney Spears Twitter account was actually written by the pop singer herself. But some others, like rapper 50 Cent's, come across as fairly authentic to the degree that some fans could be miffed to find that it's actually the head of his digital-media team doing the twittering. And it does seem a little bit unnerving that "ghost-Twittering" is now an actual job skill for some freelance writers.

See, here's where the dissonance lies. Twitter has become one of the hallmarks of the Web 2.0 "transparency" movement, recommended by new-media consultants left and right as a way for businesses and brands (not to mention celebrities) to put their real faces forward. It's been effective image repair for tarnished brands such as that of cable giant Comcast, which runs an account called "Comcast Cares" to conduct customer service; then there's former White House strategist Karl Rove, whose shadowy, man-behind-the-curtain persona from the Bush administration is a far cry from the Twitter account with which he converses with followers, hosts trivia contests, and debates which third-party Twitter apps are the most efficient.

If that's your opinion of what Twitter is or should be, ghostwriting just doesn't seem like it's playing by the rules.

Basketball player Shaquille O'Neal, whose @THE_REAL_SHAQ Twitter account has become one of the service's most popular, seemed to disapprove of Twitter accounts that aren't actually written by the people whose names they bear. "It's 140 characters. It's so few characters," he told the Times. "If you need a ghostwriter for that, I feel sorry for you."