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.

In the Valley, Moriarty and several other social-media types are using Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook) to get hundreds of people away from the computer and into the real world.

There's "Friday Nights," a series of social media-based meet-ups across the Valley that happen every Friday night. Moriarty's founded Improv AZ as well as a local chapter of Ignite, a presentation series that gives 18 speakers five minutes and 20 slides each to talk about their passions and inspire others to become part of what they're passionate about.

Moriarty has also founded a nonprofit organization called Phoenix Innovation Foundation, whose mission is to assist members of the creative community in organizing events.

Through these organization and events, a small but tight-knit community has been established, the demographics of which may surprise you. Though participants in these events are united by an Internet connection and a working knowledge of social media tools, there are far more than computer geeks and tech nerds in their numbers. Each week, 40 to 60 people attend East Valley Friday Nights, a version of "Friday Nights" that caters to people living east of downtown Phoenix, organized by a Twitter user who goes by Evo Terra. Many of those same people also attend Ignite Phoenix — along with hundreds of others. They are white-collar men and women; artists and musicians; business people and members of the media; educators, real estate agents, and stay-at-home moms.

Whether online or in person, these are real people and their conversations sound that way. That Twitter users are having a real-time, public conversation that can be followed by anybody does not mean they're always politically correct about it. Users are free to sling mud, spark debates or merely toss their innermost thoughts (or what they had for lunch) to the void. And just like in real life, no one needs an excuse to be an asshole. Luckily, Twitter provides a solution to that:

"Social media puts all the power in the reader's hands, especially Twitter," Moriarty says. "You can't ram your message down my throat if I don't want to see it. You start spouting a bunch of crap, I'm going to un-follow you and I'm not going to see your crap."

Twitter users are also quick to jump on anything they disagree with — including in person. When a presenter at Ignite Phoenix 4 dropped his original presentation to make a sales pitch, Twitter instantly began buzzing with comments calling him out for his misdeed.

At the moment, Moriarty estimates that between 40 and 100 people show up to his Improv AZ events, depending on the size and location of the prank. His most successful event, Ignite Phoenix 4, drew close to 600. That's not bad, but it's hardly the sign of a cultural image makeover.

Can this scene get its arms around an entire city? Or will the flurry of tweets ultimately amount to no more than an oversize clique?

It's 7 o'clock on a Monday night when Jeff Moriarty walks into Tea Infusion at Tempe Marketplace. He's tall with a mane of bushy brown hair that makes him look younger than his age, 40. He's got the kind of smile on his face that suggests his mind is in 50 different places at the same time — and he likes it.

He's just come from a planning session for the next round of Improv AZ events. He won't reveal just what those events are, only that they're going to be crazy and that he's unsure how the group will pull them off. He's eager to share his plans for Dart Phoenix, however. (Like Ignite Phoenix and Improv AZ, which are local adaptations of someone else's idea, Dart Phoenix started someplace else.) Here's the pitch:

"Get people together. Throw a dart at the map of Phoenix. Get them out of their comfort area or wherever they like to go and get them to go somewhere else in the Valley and document it."

If Moriarty has a defining characteristic it's that he likes to shake things up.

Moriarty does have a day job: director of social media at Sitewire Marketing Solutions, a Tempe-based new media marketing firm that helps build Web presence for companies like First National Bank of Arizona and Shasta Pools & Spas. The company's job is to make their business names appear quickly when someone types "Arizona bank" or "pool company Arizona" in search engines such as Google. Moriarty helps those firms market their businesses using Twitter and Facebook.

But he owes much of his social-media prowess to his days at Intel in Chandler, where he worked from 1999 to June 2009 designing social-media solutions for both internal communications and Intel's online presence.

The Chandler plant employs 9,700 people, making it the second largest Intel site in the world. The company's huge but progressive: It gives employees a two-month sabbatical every seven years. And it invites them to communicate with their 82,000 fellow employees via an internal blogging network.

"Even though Intel was big, they had a culture of: If you're creative, if you're innovative and you want to go out and do something, they'll let you do it," Moriarty says. For him, it meant his first foray into social media and a legendary (at Intel, at least) series of blog posts inspired by literary giant J.R.R. Tolkien.

It happened a few years back. Moriarty was on a business trip. At that time, Intel was going through a major reorganization and a lot of employees were unhappy about the way things were going, Moriarty says.

In 2006, Intel's corporate culture changed. Instead of focusing primarily on microprocessor production, employees were asked to tackle wireless communications, consumer electronics, and even healthcare.

"In particular, many high-level engineers working on PC products feel they've been stripped of their star status," a 2006 news report said.

Moriarty felt it, too. And he created an outlet for employee frustrations in the company's internal blogging network. Taking a bit of inspiration from the recently released Lord of the Rings: Return of the King movie, Moriarty posted "The Lord of the Re-Org," a parody in which Intel executives were cast as Middle Earth villains Sauron, Soromon, and even Golum, and the employees cast as Hobbits trying desperately to avoid the impending doom of corporate restructuring.

"It was in a quiet corner of Middle-Intel that the peaceful Cubeitts toiled, working hard, playing harder, and enjoying an occasional puff of stock options," he wrote. "The Cubeitts were small in stature, barely coming up to the height of a badge reader, but solid of heart and mind. They lived and worked peacefully in the OfficeShire."

Moriarty published part one of "Re-Org" on an internal Intel blog between stops on a business trip. At one stop, he found his in-box bursting with comments from those who had read it. Part one of what was to become five blog posts drew more hits than the internal blog had seen in the past two months. By the time part five was posted, "Lord of the Re-Org" had amassed 22,000 hits.

"That was when I had my epiphany," Moriarty said. "Holy shit! Look at the power in my hands."

Colleen Minniuk-Sperry is a Phoenix-based professional photographer now, but when "The Lord of the Re-Org" was published on Intel's internal blogging network, she was working there as a program manager for internal software development. She was friends with Moriarty and had worked on various projects with him but had no idea he was blogging.

Minniuk-Sperry agrees that Intel is a progressive place to work, where employees' opinions are valued and are not weighed down by political correctness, but "Re-Org," she recalls, blew the doors wide open.

"Jeff said what we all were thinking but weren't willing to say at that time," she says. "I can't speak on behalf of upper management, but I really don't honestly know if they knew what to do with it."

Moriarty gave 22,000 people something to chuckle about on their coffee breaks, but he also initiated a corporate-wide discussion about the reorganization. As is the case now, blogging software and other social-media tools outside the confines of Intel's firewalls were plentiful. Blogger. Wordpress. Livejournal — each allows anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to publish a blog about anything they wish for everyone else on the Internet to see.

"I found, outside of Intel, that people have more power than they realize and they don't take it," Moriarty says.

But some of them do.

In January 2009, Jeff Moriarty was riding the light rail with his pants around his ankles.

Improv AZ did not yet exist, but Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based organization that Improv AZ would use as a model, did — and it had organized a nationwide public-transit pants-drop.

"It was, like, two weeks after our light rail had started and I was, like, 'Oh, my god, for the first time we're going to have a train that we could actually do that with,'" Moriarty says. "Somebody had a need, a patriotic need to drop their damn pants on it and represent Phoenix and show that they weren't ass-backwards and didn't have our heads up our asses as much as everyone thought. If I had to step up and unbuckle, I would."

Moriarty sent out a call on Twitter for those interested in dropping trou, but he wasn't sure whether anyone would show up.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is an online, public conversation in which users post their thoughts, links, and photos in messages limited to 140 characters or fewer. Anyone "following" a particular user receives that users messages and can reply or forward those messages to their own followers as a "retweet." Unlike the more popular Facebook, you can follow someone without him or her following you.

At the time Moriarty sent out a message looking for others to ride the light rail pantless, he had as many as 900 followers, he says. These days, that number is closer 2,500 — a testament to him and to Twitter's popularity.

In April, eMarketer.com said there were 12.1 million Twitter users, up from 6 million users in 2008, with a projection of 18.1 million users next year. Because users don't have to identify where their tweets originate, there's no accurate way to determine how many users there are in metropolitan Phoenix.

Back to January. About 100 people showed up and rode the light rail in their skivvies. To Moriarty, the turnout indicated that there were like-minded individuals who lusted after the same sort of social disruption that he did.

"People like to be told what they know. People look for the familiar. They want to see what's comfortable and they want to be assured that the world is like they think it is," Moriarty says. "Well, they're fucking wrong. It's not. It's always changing and it's always evolving. So when I see something that no one else is doing . . . Why not?"

By pure coincidence, Kimber Lanning was on the same train as Moriarty while she filmed the latest episode of "The Train Tracks," a series of music videos by local bands performed and videotaped on the light rail.

Like Moriarty, Lanning is utilizing social-media tools to promote her projects around town — and there is much more than the Train Tracks. Lanning manages Modified Arts on Roosevelt, a local music Web site called Silverplatter (www.silverplatter.info), is the chair of Local First AZ, a nonprofit organization working to support local businesses, and still finds time to ring up Wilco CDs and copies of Juxtapoz magazine at Stinkweeds, the record store she owns on Camelback Road. Lanning has made sure each of these projects has a Twitter account.

As of press time, Modified Arts had 495 followers. Stinkweeds had 433. Given that there are 4.3 million people in metropolitan Phoenix (and the amount of those people on Twitter is a mere fraction of that number) the amount of people following Lanning's tweets is minuscule. Still, she's happy with the results she's seen.

"If I get a record in early, I can tweet about it and have 20 people show up before closing," Lanning says.

But Lanning will be the first to tell you that she's "not great at stuff like Twitter and Facebook yet." She's not alone.

With Local First AZ, Lanning has organized classes to teach local businesses how to get an account with Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook and why they might benefit from having them, but it hasn't been easy, she says.

"There's some people who have mastered [social media] already, and the rest of us are out here swimming for our lives," Lanning says. "We still have business owners in Local First who struggle with e-mail."

Lanning also e-mailed the businesses in Local First to persuade them to download an iPhone application designed to help users find local businesses. It's a great idea, but it would have been easier to implement had all the businesses understand the term "iPhone application."

"There will be people left behind," Lanning says. "I view our role as a nonprofit to teach them and bring them along with the rest of us."

As for giving Phoenix a sense of identity, her outlook is realistic.

"We stand a chance of uniting the creative community [which she defines as everyone from artists to architects and Web developers], no question, but do we stand a chance of connecting with that guy across the way that's a third-generation cobbler? Do I think that me and Jeff [Moriarty] tweeting about events is going to connect to him, probably not."

In August, Lanning saw some of the creative community united by social media when she attended the first "Light Rail Friday Nights." Organizers including raillife.com, a local blog about the light rail, and cenphotv.com, an online news show about central Phoenix, and others began tweeting about "Light Rail Friday Nights" only five days before the event was scheduled. Even with such short notice, 65 people showed up.

They started at Monti's La Casa Vieja in Tempe, picking up people along the way, until arriving at the Roosevelt station in central Phoenix. It was precisely the type of social interaction Lanning hopes will come about as a result of social media.

"The only thing that I'm excited about with regard to social media is that it might encourage people to show up and actually interact. I'm not at all excited about more sterile interaction while you're sitting on your couch at home watching television."

To illustrate her point, she recalls the days when high school students would head to Stinkweeds after school to hang out, something she rarely sees these days.

"I think peoples' social skill sets are changing," she says. "Their priorities are changing. Their attention spans are changing and I'm not convinced it's for the better."

"Where you go when you die is an age-old question. Here's the answer: Seventh Avenue and Jefferson."

A young woman named Stacy Holmstedt is standing onstage at Tempe Center for the Arts. She's tall, has long red hair, and she smiles nervously as she delivers the punch line to her joke, a reference to location of the county morgue. Holmstedt describes what happens to a corpse as if she were dishing some juicy gossip she'd just heard. She speaks about how bodies are drained of their fluids and describes in frighteningly intimate detail how morticians wire jaws shut to prevent the body's escaping gases from stimulating the vocal cords and scaring the hell out of a funeral party.

This is Holmstedt's passion, inherited from her mother, who worked at a mortuary, and it's a hit with the Ignite Phoenix 4 crowd.

Before there was an Ignite Phoenix, there was a question in the minds of Brady Forrest of O'Reilly Media (a tech-focused publisher) and Bre Pettis of Etsy.com (a Web site that allows people to sell handmade products). They wanted to know what people would say if they had five minutes and a slideshow (containing 20 slides that advance every 15 seconds) to speak about their passion. They started getting answers at the first Ignite, held in 2006 in Seattle. Presentations included such topics as cup noodles, how to make samurai swords, the history of fonts, and whether you should quit your day job and start a rock band.

Since that Seattle event, Ignite presentations have been held in New York, Paris, Helsinki, and other cities around the world.

In spring 2008, Jeff Moriarty attended social get-togethers in the business, arts, and tech communities and found there was practically no overlap between them. Roger Williams, a Twitter user from Chandler, reached a similar conclusion and initiated a Twitter-based discussion about what could be done to shake things up and get people in those communities to share information and ideas with each other.

"Jeff popped in and, suddenly, he responded to this discussion with, 'Does anybody want to do an Ignite event?'" Williams says. "It made too much sense not to do it."

Shortly thereafter, Moriarty and Williams met at over beer and onion rings at San Tan Brewery in Chandler to work out plans for the Valley's first Ignite.

A few weeks later, the two announced it would happen at Phoenix's Social Media Club, a group that meets on the second Thursday of each month to discuss uses for social media.

"Immediately people were interested in presenting and attending it," Williams recalls. "It was not a hard sell."

The first Ignite Phoenix was held August 12, 2008, after-hours at the business offices in Jobing.com Arena. About 100 showed up, and the event was considered a resounding success.

Ignite 4 filled every seat in the main theater at Tempe Center for the Arts. The June 16 event's free tickets ran out in less than an hour with virtually no marketing, outside of social media.

One week before Ignite Phoenix 4, the Arizona Republic ran a small story previewing the event, but by that time the tickets were already long gone.

And the idea is expanding. Joe Johnston, of Joe's Farm Grill and Liberty Market in Gilbert, sponsored Ignite 4. Now he's discussing the possibility of a food-centered Ignite. Moriarty has also considered doing an Ignite with subject matter — including torture techniques, as described by a man trained to use them — that he says could be too mature for the usual Ignite crowd.

"The idea is to expose people to things and ideas that they haven't seen, and, at a minimum, they become aware of something they didn't know before," Moriarty says. "But ideally they engage and people do."

Two weeks after seeing a presentation on taiko drumming at Ignite 4, 34-year-old software engineer Brandon Franklin started learning how to play the Japanese drums.

"I was at a place in my life where I was feeling like I was in a huge rut," Franklin says. "All I did was computer stuff. I just need something else." Several years ago, Franklin was a heavy-metal drummer and said his learning to play taiko drums reawakened that part of his past.

Now Franklin is volunteering to help with the registration committee for Ignite 5 on November 3. He's not the only audience member to become a volunteer.

Tomas Cariollo is a 33-year-old human specialist (meaning he helps out with Web sites and other projects) at a Phoenix-based software company called redPear. Before that, Carrillo worked for 18 years as a process engineer at Intel, where he heard about Jeff Moriarty through the company's internal blog. The two would meet face-to-face at Gangplank, a Chandler-based collaborative workspace for freelancers and small businesses.

"He [Moriarty] bugged me enough to the point that I actually submitted to Ignite," Carrillo says. His presentation on "10 new business ideas for Phoenix entrepreneurs" was part of the very first Ignite Phoenix. It was after his presentation that he saw a need for his help if there were to be more Ignites.

"I hated the fact that they had to manually advance the slides with a stopwatch," Carrillo says. He took over the behind-the-scenes work on the presentations at Ignite and created automated slides as well as finding presenters, answering comments, and posting submissions on the Ignite Phoenix Web site.

Now Carrillo is working to bring TedX — a series of public presentations that, like Ignite, happen all over the world yet tend to focus on technology, entertainment, and design and feature celebrity speakers such as Al Gore and Bill Gates) — to the Valley.

"I honestly believe that Phoenix is on the cusp of something big and I don't think people realize it," Carrillo said. It's a sentiment shared by Brandon Franklin, who said he finds the potential of the creative events around town exciting. "They're too negative or too involved with what Phoenix was to see that that's the case. I really think that this is just providing that little extra push."

But what about the people who aren't plugged in yet? How do events circulated primarily via Twitter and Facebook affect people who don't know a social-media platform from a URL?

"At the last Ignite, we had a lot of people show up who are not on Facebook and not on Twitter — because we've gone off of that now," Moriarty said. "People who heard about it on Twitter or Facebook came and they liked it so they brought their friend, their co-workers, their mothers, the kids, whatever, and they connected."

It's just after 7 p.m. on a Wednesday in August. The workday's been over for two hours and while the rest of us are at home sitting slack-jawed in front of Food Network, Jeff Moriarty is at Terralever, a Web design firm in Tempe, leading 25 people through a presentation on volunteering for Ignite.

Moriarty is already steadily working toward Ignite 5, scheduled for November 3 at Tempe Center for the Art. There are more Ignites on the way, including one for high school students. This month, Moriarty will continue running the Social Media Club. Meanwhile, he's planning on picking up the pace on Improv AZ now that the summer's over.

He tries to keep his weekends "sacred," Moriarty says, to spend time with his wife, Dannie, a corporate trainer for Verizon, and their two dogs. It must be a nice change of pace for a man who spends his weeks engaged in endless side projects.

On August 28, he tweeted ecstatically about the Whole Foods in Chandler having Dogfish Head Brewery's Theobroma on tap during "East Valley Friday Nights," which he regularly attends. On August 29, Moriarty attended Bar Camp AZ, an idea-sharing conference at Gangplank.

Such is the calendar of a social-media evangelist. And he's not slowing down.

"The thing that keeps me going," he says, "is all these things are fun."

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Jonathan McNamara