He appeared on Twitter for the first time just before 10 a.m. on March 10, 2008. And like most of what he has put out to the world since, his first tweet was pithy, self-deprecating, ironic and in questionable taste.
“Signed up for Twitter,” he wrote. “I am officially a douche.”
The anarchic world of online commentary that has exploded next to the traditional news media in New Orleans has never been the same.
Twitter and other social media sites have lent a bullhorn to local activists, politicos and concerned citizens of all stripes. But few, if any, have seized the medium with the zeal or commitment of Jeffrey Bostick, the librarian who appears on Twitter as a yellow and orange cartoon cat named Skooks.
Since that opening salvo, he has tweeted more than 130,000 times. He averages about 50 tweets per day, fixated on local politics, the Saints and, come February, whatever Mardi Gras parade he is attending.
It may be impossible to gauge the influence of any one Twitter user, but among his 4,265 followers — a larger flock than most professional journalists in New Orleans can boast — are the mayor, the sheriff, the city’s inspector general, members of the City Council and Legislature, the state treasurer, one of the two state teachers unions, most of the city’s editors and columnists, Wendell Pierce, Roman Harper, the New Orleans Opera and quite a few local bars.
Whatever the discussion in New Orleans turns to — an approaching hurricane, a City Council meeting, a playoff game — it is unlikely to pass without drawing the barbed sarcasm of a Skooks tweet.
On the approaching 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he wrote: “Can’t wait till #katrina10 is over so we can look forward to figuring out which awful person will be governor next.”
On the Saints game two weeks ago: “What channel is this budding disaster on…”
On the tropical depression then forming in the Atlantic: “Everyone say hi to Danny.”
Obviously this is not the Twitter feed to turn to for sunshine and optimism. But there are worse places to keep up with local news, presented as an endless stream of often cutting wisecracks.
To followers of local politics and the gridiron, Skooks has become a sort of ornery, left-wing Greek chorus, appearing at regular intervals to hose down effusive talk about the city’s post-Katrina comeback or overblown preseason expectations.
The nearest analogue was probably Ashley Morris, the late local blogger whose profane online tirades against officialdom in Katrina’s aftermath became the basis for John Goodman’s character in the HBO series “Treme.”
In fact, Bostick and Morris emerged — among many others — as a part of the same online movement after the storm, made up of locals who were furious both at the politicians who had let the city languish and a press corps they felt was getting the story wrong.
It was the era before social media had sucked some of the air out of amateur blogging, and in those days, Bostick’s main platform was a blog called Library Chronicles, subtitled “Paradise plastic. Cheap and fantastic.”
A ‘hilarious presence’
Unlike some of his peers, Bostick has not let this part of his online persona drop. To borrow from the vocabulary of crime statistics, he is on track this year, if he keeps up his current pace, to blog 978 times.
The online community of which Library Chronicles became a part eventually took physical form in the shape of an annual gathering called Rising Tide, which Bostick has had a hand in organizing. It will hold its 10th meeting Saturday, billed as a freewheeling, grass-roots antidote to the more buttoned-up panel discussions hosted this week by the city, the Urban League and Atlantic magazine.
For Kevin Allman, editor of Gambit, Library Chronicles was a regular source for local commentary in the year he spent out of town after Katrina.
“There was this whole community of people who started blogs after the storm, and a lot of those resonated for me,” Allman said. “Library Chronicles, I thought, was fascinating.
“As blogs kind of receded a bit and people turned to Facebook and Twitter, he just kind of emerged as this hilarious Twitter presence.”
Like a lot of people in traditional media in New Orleans, Allman also knows what it’s like to be the butt of the joke. Skooks is often at his most scathing in assessing the local press. “I think Skooks is an incredibly astute media critic,” Allman said. “God knows he’s taken a paddle to my publication.”
He certainly has. Gambit co-owner Clancy Dubos hardly ever gets away with a knock on former Mayor Ray Nagin or Gov. Bobby Jindal without Skooks pointing out that his paper originally endorsed them both.
After reports of impending layoffs at The Times-Picayune and nola.com, he wrote, “Neat how every cutting edge innovation that brings Advance publications into the Future of News Gathering involves firing everyone.”
He once dismissed a story about the mayor by this reporter as a “campaign flier.”
But his real targets are the people in town with money or power, or both.
Among his favorite whipping boys are Saints owner Tom Benson — “possibly the worst New Orleanian in history” — and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, “the worst person in New Orleans.”
‘We failed’ at rebuilding
Underlying his critique of both is a left-wing populism that sees NFL team owners as “unnecessary leeches who have attached themselves to a decent racket” and the mayor as someone who has run the city mainly for the benefit of the well-off.
“New Orleans was always going to be rebuilt,” he tweeted recently. “Challenge was to make sure it was rebuilt for everyone and not just the wealthy. We failed.”
Interestingly, Bostick has made no apparent attempt to parlay his online notoriety into a paying job. Some of New Orleans’ other notable voices on Twitter have landed regular columns, including Mark Moseley, who tweets as “erster” and for a time wrote a column at the Lens, and Robert Mann, the LSU professor and blogger who now writes for nola.com.
Lance Vargas, a local artist who tweets as RevVargVargas, said Bostick probably feels any real media job would somehow tarnish his independence. He was not surprised to hear that Bostick didn’t want to be interviewed for this article.
“It’s probably something to do with not wanting to sell out,” said Vargas, who calls Bostick “one of the purest critical thinkers in town.”
Vargas actually hangs out with Bostick in physical reality: “We play flag football, drink pints of Miller Lite, play darts, watch Saints games.”
He agrees that Skooks can come off as unable to see the glass as anything but half-empty. He teasingly calls him “pants” because a fellow blogger at one point started referring to him as “gloomy pants.”
What leavens all this is a sincere commitment to his hometown and home team.
Interspersed with the slashing commentary on City Hall will appear a straightforward analysis of, say, the Jimmy Graham trade: “I would argue that the goal is to make the Saints better on offense as well.”
His blogging did not let up during Katrina, and it reads now like a time capsule.
The initial shock: “Most of town is under water.”
The rage at President George W. Bush and his lieutenants: “This is the kind of aid and sympathy that poor people can expect from their government.”
The restlessness of an evacuee: “So I can’t buy a bottle of wine in the grocery store in Nashville.”
Back in town at the end of the year, he paused to reflect on the disaster, writing without any hint of irony and even italicizing the last few words for emphasis. “Above all else,” he wrote, “this year has taught me just how important this city is to me and that I’d be so sad if I lost it.”