Longform

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

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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.

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Jonathan McNamara