It's amazing how attached one can become to a fake raccoon on the Internet. But it's true, and when the raccoon told me it was thinking of ending it all, I reacted with a surprising lack of equanimity, given the fact that the raccoon didn't actually exist.
The raccoon appeared on the Internet a few weeks ago, and has been gaining in popularity since. It rummages around the newsfeeds of Twitter, which plays in the background of so many computer-bound workdays, much like Facebook feeds tick off a never-ending river of human minutiae.
Amid the flow of news and thoughts and links and grumbles, in pops the creature, identified only as " @City_Raccoon". It's nothing fancy. It pops up from time to time, gnomically doing the things that raccoons do, and little more.
"Climb a tree, hop onto the roof."
"Nibble on an apple core. Nibble nibble. Chomp."
And it's taken off. As word of the raccoon's simple shtick has spread this month, more than 2,000 readers rushed to sign up. (Deducing its author's identity has become a bit of a local parlour game.) Like so many Twitter feeds, it seems impossibly inane when viewed as a single stream. But when you sign up for Twitter, and the updates arrive in real time, dropped into conversation over the course of the day in little interstitial slices of life, they knit themselves into a compelling character sketch.
"Peer down through the skylight. Blink blink."
As long as there's been an Internet, there have been people using it to role-play other characters, and occasionally other species, to generalized adulation. But the rise of Twitter – that bizarre sphere that's one part bubbling creative space, one part promotional nightmare, and one part asylum for frothing Justin Bieber fans – has put a new spin on the idea. In the time of the newsfeed, long-form serialization is out of place. But new forms of drama appear where old don't fit, and the impressionist serial drama is coming of age.
In part because Twitter, unlike Facebook, welcomes pseudonymous accounts, imaginary, inhuman and even historical figures can slip in and out of newsfeeds without seeming terrifically out of place. Satirical accounts have traditionally been the most popular. There's a thriving sub-genre of parodied literary figures who pass commentary on the news of the day. (One of my favourites is the disembodied voice of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who has retained his 18th-century affectations: "No Shave November begins: a worthy Enterprise, save in BROOKLYN, where all Menfolk do sport the facial Growth of the American Civil War," he pronounced last week.) Animals, like the cobra that escaped from the Bronx Zoo last year, have provided relatable entertainment fodder, with pithy observations scattered over a series of days, weeks and months. And even real people, long passed, work seamlessly into the medium: In one particularly fascinating experiment, the famous diary of Samuel Pepys, the revealing and very real account of a 17th-century London man-about-town, is being serialized on Twitter – in real time, at the same pace as events unfolded in 1668. At the moment, @SamuelPepys is having no end of trouble with his wife, having been caught canoodling with the help. But there I go – "at the moment." The moment came and went 400 years ago. But string a narrative out over a stretch of time, and readers fall into a groove.
Which brings us back to the raccoon, which is a phenomenon most remarkable for its minimalism. Unlike other phony accounts, which strive to fit some pith, wit, or zing into each bite-sized missive, it's a work of simplicity: A pair of black eyes staring out from the screen, capturing a raccoon's focused, unquestioning view of the world.
What's more interesting than the raccoon itself is the way that humans have responded to it. It never speaks directly to its readers, but they send it a slew of tiny notes of feedback, suggesting things to eat, concerning themselves with where it's got its paw stuck, hoping that it's not caught up in the fight between slightly more corporeal raccoons that can be heard fighting outside.
None of this is easy for its creator, who has remained strictly anonymous. (And who wants an unmasked raccoon?) He does, however, explain that, despite having a lifetime's experience with raccoons, he sometimes watches Hinterland Who's Who for inspiration.
The creature's popularity, as always on the Internet, was unexpected. "People sure like diversion ... especially if it's upbeat," he noted in a Twitter conversation last week. But maintaining the account – which has hewed to an authentically all-hours raccoon schedule – has proved to be a challenge.
"Seriously thinking of an encounter with a fast-moving vehicle," he told me last week. "This is a great deal of work and more of a commitment than I imagined."
"No!" I said. "Nooooo!"
That is, in fact, exactly what I said. It was a slightly unprofessional, but very real response. I can hear you groaning already. Is it insane that thousands of people get bound up in the life of an imaginary raccoon? Hardly. The account is pure drama: A compelling and familiar character, lightly but precisely drawn, and extended over the frame of small stories. It would be inhuman not to take to it.