I follow author Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) on Twitter. Who cares, right? So do some 1,642,000 other people. But yesterday, I was sort of absentmindedly noticing from his tweets that he seemed to be having a pretty interesting start to his day.
At around noon, this one showed up:
@neilhimself: They turned off the security cameras in the Degas exhibition so my wife could take her clothes off while I sketched her in chalks. #herIdea
I happen to know a new Degas exhibition is about to open at the MFA in Boston, and that Neil’s wife, the intimidatingly cool Amanda Palmer, is based in these parts. So that piqued my interest — it seemed the odds were pretty good that Amanda had just gotten naked at a local museum.
And then a few minutes later, while I’m eating lunch down the street from work, Neil posted this:
@neilhimself: Now in a cab en route to record mysterious THIS AMERICAN LIFE bit. I think this has been an unlikely sort of morning.
So I’m thinking, oh, I must be wrong, they must be at a museum in New York, where "This American Life" is based (unrelated, I’m also thinking, sweet, Neil Gaiman is going to be on "This American Life"). But all of this is sort of just floating around in my head with a million other half-formed thoughts, as much of the pseudo-information that I take in on Twitter tends to do.
But then I’m coming back in from lunch and I walk through the lobby of our station and see a guy waiting in a chair looking suspiciously like Neil Gaiman. First it seems too surreal to be possible — like, that’s not how it works, you don’t just think about somebody famous and then they appear in front of you. But then I realize it really is him and my next reaction is to be embarrassed to see him, like somehow he knows I’ve just been reading about his escapades with his naked wife on my lunch break, which of course is crazy, but it’s what comes into my head.
Then, as I get back to my desk, I realize I was right the first time. He was at the MFA. He must be taping his "This American Life" segment from our studios in Boston — it’s common to do these things remotely. Now, I swear I don’t normally stalk celebrities who come to our studios, but this whole story seemed so strangely intimate and interconnected to my life that I had to follow it through.
I go hunting around and find him down the hall, indeed on the line with "This American Life." I can hear both sides of the conversation and it’s Ira Glass on the other end. Which is sort of cool, to hear that voice in any other context than on the radio. He and Neil are just shooting the breeze a bit at first, and Neil gets to telling him about his morning — the whole story of the Degas exhibition.
Ira is laughing and sounds almost disbelieving and then he says, you know, this is pretty funny, because the whole reason you’re here is to record a story you wrote about how completely UN-adventurous your life is (Neil seems to be doing a story for an upcoming “adventure”-themed episode) — and on your way to doing this you have the most absurd adventure imaginable.
Neil laughs and they chat a bit more and then Ira gets off the phone, leaving Neil to record his story, in which he claims his definition of adventure is a trip to the grocery store or something. Clearly not the case. Anyway, I go back to work (which, obviously, is what I really should have been doing all along), but an hour or so later, I notice Neil pop up again on my Twitter feed:
@neilhimself: Told Ira Glass the story of my morning, prior to recording my This American Life piece. Could tell his suspension of disbelief wobbled.
I know I’m starting to lose credibility at this point, but it’s also not typically my style to tweet at famous people, but again, this just all felt so wrapped in to my own life, so I respond to the tweet:
@lisannette: I just listened in at the @WBUR studios!
Like I said, this is a man with more than a million and a half people following him, so I figure that’s the end of that. But a couple minutes later, this:
@neilhimself: @lisannette did you enjoy it?
I couldn’t believe he wrote back. I respond and say:
@lisannette: @neilhimself Highlight of my day. Excited to hear the show now, hoping @ThisAmerLife finds a way to build in the irony of your morning …
And that really was the end of that.
But then my colleague, an arts reporter who knows nothing about any of this, sends me an email about the Degas exhibition, with an idea for some coverage we might do. So I’m telling her the whole story and, being a good reporter, she says, oh! we have to hear the MFA side of this. She emails the MFA and they respond to say, yes this did indeed happen, Amanda was recording an audio guide for us, too bad you missed the excitement. Then they follow up with the official press release:
“Today, (Amanda) Palmer and her husband, Neil Gaiman, received a private tour of the exhibition with curator George Shackelford. A former figure model, Palmer felt inspired by the works in the gallery, and asked permission to undress and be sketched by her husband. Museum staff were present in the exhibition, and worked with Palmer to ensure her privacy, covering one camera in the gallery.”
Then, a couple minutes later, there the museum is getting in on the whole Twitter conversation, too:
@mfaboston: We have the pictures to prove it!
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the pictures, and I’m guessing those won’t be showing up on Twitter. But it was one of those days where the world just feels so unbelievably interconnected. Like, somehow, me, Neil Gaiman, Ira Glass and the folks at the MFA just shared some kind of, well, adventure. But we really didn’t. Or did we?
The part that I really like is this idea: Last night, when I first checked, Neil had 1,641,749 followers, plus me. Now it’s the next afternoon, and he’s gained 322 more, which is just ridiculous.
So that’s 1,642,072 followers and, seemingly, growing fast. And if they use Twitter with any regularity, they probably saw this play out over the day. They might even have noticed that Neil responded to some girl who works at WBUR and spotted him there. And of that group, I bet you a few use the WBUR website. And if they’re reading this post, having already seen this unfold on Twitter, then they must be having an experience very similar to the one I had when I walked into the lobby and saw Neil in the clothed flesh right after reading about his naked wife online.
These people who seem so far away can also be right here. Social media can make the world seem absolutely huge one minute and impossibly small the next.
Update: Neil Gaiman has now blogged about it from his perspective. He's got a blurry little not-totally-safe-for-work image that's proof it happened.
This program aired on October 5, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.