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Home, Tweet Home: Jeff Moriarty Is Trying to Create a Cultural Identity for Phoenix, 140 Characters at a Time

Jeff Moriarty is standing across the street from the Borders at Scottsdale Fashion Square, wearing a sequined Elvis outfit with a removable ball of oversize chest hair and a skull mask. He is surrounded by a group of people wearing similarly homemade super-villain costumes, all waiting for the light to change so they can cross and attack a group of costumed "heroes."

Moriarty and his pals are here because of a call to action that went out months ago from Improv AZ, a group founded by Moriarty that pulls pranks and stages such events as public pillow fights and the greeting of strangers at the airport. For the "heroes" battle, Improv AZ members were instructed to converge on the battle site wearing costumes of characters they created, not of licensed characters. Their mission: to act out a superhero battle, to draw attention from onlookers, and have a great time being silly in public before popping off to laugh about it at local watering holes.

The lights change and heroes collide with villains on the steps of Borders. Musical Theater Girl stuns her opponents with a flashy song and dance routine, while Condom Girl loudly espouses the virtues of safe sex. Though she carries a sack full of contraceptives, they are of little protection against repeated volleys of water-gun fire. Then, Moriarty — as Dark Elvis, armed with a removable patch of furious chest hair — appears in skeletal glory to show the heroes that the undead still have a little life left in them.

To the Scottsdale shoppers just trying to get to the valet, it must appear as if all hell has broken loose from a spandex factory.

Yet what would become known as the "Epic Superhero Battle" was more than a fun way to spend a Saturday evening. For Jeff Moriarty, who is much less frightening than his alter ego might suggest — but in some ways no less powerful — the battle was another step in his fight to give Phoenix something that many say it sorely lacks: a cultural identity.

The tools he's using to wage this battle are the same ones that organized groups of costumed crazies to fight each other on a blazing-hot June day in Scottsdale: Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media.

"Phoenix has a reputation," Moriarty says. "Joe Arpaio. Dry heat. That kind of junk. It's not a personality, and I think it's because so many people come here from somewhere else."

And then they move into tract homes and never talk to each other. Moriarty's out to change that, to give the city a personality — or at least get it to mingle. He's lived here for 22 years and says it is only recently that he's noticed people starting to identify with the Valley instead of the place they moved from, as they've started putting down roots and raising children.

Moriarty, 40, was raised in rural Minnesota on a street where everyone knew everyone else. Then his family moved him to Albuquerque, where he endured a miserable high school experience. By the time he landed in Tempe for college, he knew what it meant to have community — and what it meant not to. But it wasn't until he went to work at a large computer company and started tinkering with social media that he realized it had the potential — maybe — to revolutionize a city. Or at least make it more interesting.

And because he grew up in a family without a lot of means, Moriarty's not waiting for someone else to do it.

"I think growing up with nothing is sort of like this: If you want something, just go do it . . . because no one's going to give it to you," he says.

And he wants to see what Ignite Phoenix, Improv AZ, and a seemingly never-ending list of ideas bouncing around his head can do for Phoenix.

"Part of what I'm trying to do with social media is ferret that out," he says. "What is the identity of a city or any other community other than what its active participants define it to be? Social media allows any fool like me to stand up, do big events, and try to change things, and as more people realize it, this place is just gonna come unglued."

Unless you're still doing most of your correspondence by carrier pigeon, chances are good that you've watched a video on YouTube before. Maybe you've checked out a set of photos on Flickr or you've listened to a new track from a local band on MySpace or killed time in your workday reading blog posts. These sites and several more like them are mere tools for viewing user-generated content on the Internet.

But when you exchange restaurant recommendations on Twitter or leave a comment on that YouTube video or hook up with old friends on Facebook or share a link to a blog post you found insightful, you're using social media. It is the participatory nature of social media that defines it — it's an open conversation where anyone can toss their two cents into the fray provided they have an Internet connection.

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Jonathan McNamara