He’s the most popular cat on Twitter, and has been featured in People. He lives in a beautiful, old house in Waltham, Mass. in a portrait of cozy, domestic bliss: two other feline friends (Penny and Tweetie, a.k.a, Sockelganger); a “Food Lady,” who “provides regular meals, expertly prepared”; and a “dad” called Fatty, who lovingly channels his every cat-thought (“PURRRRRRR… hey where’d you go THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE FOREVER”) and diatribe (“OH NO MY CAT XBOX DIED there’s string everywhere IT’S THE RED YARN OF DEATH”) into the blogosphere.
But like a lot of things on the Internet, the Sockington story is not quite what it seems.
“Socks is kind of stand-offish about me,” says Jason Scott. “He’s always been that way. When he was a kitten he was playful and happy, but after awhile, he was like, ‘You know what? I don’t need you.’”
Or at least not as quaintly homespun as it would appear for the handsome gray-and-white kitty with the snow-white paws, who recently reached 1.5 million followers on Twitter. A peek behind the scenes reveals that Sockington’s success—unparalleled when it comes to social media pet stars—was propelled as much by the rabid adoration of cat lovers as by the Twitter corporate machine, which seized on Sockington as a representative of the kind of wryly funny, and totally cute, voices it wanted to promote its brand.
As for the idyllic scenario that one fan, at least, assumed, while browsing the Sockington blog (penned from the perspective of Penny) and watching Sockington’s two short movies, in which adorable cats do adorable cat things like stare out the window and sit on sinks, it turns out that this, too, is a construction—the kind of self-designed projection that virtual media allows us to indulge in.
The image of a helplessly devoted and abundantly creative cat-owner hunched over his desk, typing up clever Tweets and blog posts throughout the day, cats nestled at his feet? Not quite. Jason Scott, i.e., Fatty, the late-thirty-something man behind the Sockington phenomenon, says that he writes up Sockington’s Tweets in one sitting and then feeds them into a computer program that ferrets them out over weeks and months. Occasionally, he’ll insert a timely reference, about the World Cup, say, or the Kanye blow-up at the MTV Video Music Awards. But otherwise, Sockington runs on auto-pilot.
“At my old day job, I was once asked, ‘Are you just going off and tweeting as a cat all day?” Scott, a fast-talking, self-professed “obsessive technogeek” who makes documentaries about computer history, said over the telephone. “I was like, ‘No, it’s a shell script’—which was something we used at work—and they were like, ‘OK’”
Scott’s relationship with his cats is also more virtual than one would guess, as well as more complex—as relationships, and lives, tend to be when they’re not Internet-scripted. When he and his wife (Food Lady) got divorced about a year ago, Scott moved out. The cats, however, remained living with their “mom.”
Scott said that since the (amicable) split, he stops by to visit with the cats “three to four times a month for a couple hours.” To make up for his absence, he always brings sushi, a delicacy favored by Sockington and Tweetie. Penny prefers “birds.”
Now, as before, the cats serve as a kind of bridge between Scott and his ex. “The wife and I always bonded over the cats. It was part of the few things that we shared in our marriage.”
But he admits that as for the cats, they’ve primarily bonded with Food Lady.
“Socks is kind of stand-offish about me. He’s always been that way. When he was a kitten he was playful and happy, but after awhile, he was like, ‘You know what? I don’t need you.’ I love to pick him up, but he hates to be picked up.”
When some Sockington fans—a devoted bunch who Tweet as many as 50 responses to each Sockington pensée, buy Sockington T-shirts, and send Scott photos of their own cats—have gotten wind of the bifurcated household, their reaction is along the lines of, “Oh my God! Fatty’s not with Sockington!” Scott said.
But his reasoning is nobly selfless. “She has a bigger house and they’ve lived there for years,” he said. “You can’t overlay your problems on to the cats. You have to do what’s best for them.”
Sockington made his debut in 2007, back when the biggest non-tech celeb on Twitter was comedian Stephen Fry, who had 25,000 followers. Scott’s Tweets were witty, dry, and, rang true to anyone who’s ever had a cat. Most important, Sockington, like another, acerbic cat icon, Garfield, had a voice. (Fatty plays the part of the put-upon doofus, à la Jon.)
He was immediately really popular. But he became really, really popular when Twitter made Sockington a recommended feed in early 2009. Suddenly, Sockington’s followers shot up from 10,000 to 500,000 in six months. Then, Twitter made Sockington a mandatory feed for anyone who signed up for the service, and Sockington was on his way to one million followers and beyond.
The mandatory move caused some backlash among non-cat people, who would Tweet, “What the fuck is this Sockington thing?!” and “Unfollow Sockington!,” Scott said. But it also garnered a lot of Sockington lovers, who have remained loyal followers. (This past February, Twitter removed Sockington’s mandatory status.)
Twitter’s embrace of Sockington was because “he was consistently funny for a year and a half, utilizing their service. This was verified to me at the All Things Digital conference last year,” Scott said, recalling that on one panel, the Twitter co-founders described the Twitter experience as, ‘You join, you acclimate, you follow the Wall Street Journal and Sockington the cat, and then you wait for updates.’
Scott has used Sockington’s growing popularity for good, though he emphasized that the animal advocacy element of his websites are a “side dose” and that “I think of this primarily as entertainment.”
Sockington, Tweetie and Penny are all rescue cats (it was Food Lady, not Fatty, who initially wanted to take them in), and when Scott was made aware of a woman who’d found a cat with a crushed leg and needed around $1,000 to pay for surgery, he had Sockington Tweet for help. Within an hour, the $1,000 was raised through online donations.
The short movies that Scott made when Sockington’s fan base hit the million and 1.5 million marks also incorporate a pro-rescue message.
Unsurprisingly, Scott has been inundated with pitches from book agents and cat-product companies looking to strike up sponsorship deals. But to all of them, Scott has said no.
“Part of me is like, am I being too stringent about this?” Scott said. “But part of my rule is, if I ever did anything with [Sockington’s celebrity], in a few years, if I open a drawer and see the resulting product, would I close the drawer immediately or would I take it out?”
Thus far, the only product Scott has endorsed is the Sockington T-shirt, because he said he liked the design, which was submitted to him by an artist named Meg. (The shirts have made Scott a “hundred-aire.” He and Meg split the $500 he made on them.)
These days, Sockington’s Twitter fame has plateaued a bit. He might get 500 new followers in a day, but he’ll lose another 100. “It bounces up and down,” Scott said.
Scott tries to reward those who stick around, and he thinks he does. He said, “I’ll see things like, ‘My day was so sucky. I’m just gonna read back a Sockington Tweet.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.