Follower

Follower, a short story by Annalisa Conti

“I will get the avocado toast, please,” Martha decided.
“You know, it’s the best in Williamsburg!” the waiter approved, grabbing the menu she was handing him.
“He’s right,” Becca confirmed from the other side of the table. “Popsugar ran an article last week on the best avocado toasts in town, and this place won for the second year in a row. It’s amazing.”
“Are you getting one, too?” the waiter checked with Becca.
“Obviously!”
Martha was not a foodie or an expert, that was Becca’s role, but when her plate arrived, rich and way more decadent than an avocado toast had the right to be, she smiled. She thanked the waiter and, guided by Becca’s knowing eye, she admired the work of culinary art that was sitting in front of her.
“Post a picture of it,” Becca suggested, “You’ll get lots of likes!”
“You know me, I don’t really care about likes and retweets…” Martha tried to excuse herself.
“I know, but this avocado toast is so unique and so famous that you just need to take a decent picture, add a couple of hashtags, and Twitter will do the rest.”
Martha sighed. Social media were definitely not her thing, but somehow Becca, a bona fide savant in digital communication, was often able to convince her to post or comment on some event. Martha took her phone out of her purse, she spent a few long seconds looking for the right angle with the right light, and she snapped a few pictures of her dish. After Becca selected the best shot, Martha opened the Twitter app on her phone.
“What should I write?” she hesitated.
“What about something like ‘Popsugar’s best avocado toast is worth the hike to Brooklyn’? Popsugar has to be a mention, and Brooklyn has to be a hashtag. Maybe ‘avocado toast’, too?” Becca’s wheels where working at full speed.
“Yes,” she then confirmed, “Avocado toast has a wonderful hashtag with the avocado emoji — “
“Does it even matter?” Martha interrupted her.
“Of course not, but it’s cool,” Becca’s eyes rolled, as if it was obvious. “And then you can add a couple more hashtags: #SundayBrunch, #CoolestPlaces #foodie… This kind of stuff.”
Martha nodded, while she was tapping on her phone not to miss any of her friend’s suggestions.
“Done?” Becca asked after a few seconds.
Martha nodded again, and she handed her phone to her friend for a final quality check before posting.
‘Tweet’, and done.
With a final sigh, Martha threw her phone back in her bag, ready to taste the amazing avocado toast. Which indeed was nothing more than a piece of bread with some slices of avocado on it.

“Can we please have the check?” Martha asked the waiter in the end.
While Martha and Becca were waiting for the waiter to come back, their cards ready in their hands, Martha glanced at her phone. Becca did the same, but she immediately raised her eyebrows and she looked at her friend.
“Did you check Twitter?” Becca asked.
Martha had quickly looked at her phone, but the locked screen had just reflected her face, no sign of incoming communications. She now tapped on Twitter’s chirping logo, and she waited for the app to load.
She had more than two thousand notifications on her avocado toast tweet.
“Is this what you expected?” Martha asked Becca, perplexed.
“No! This is crazy: two thousand retweets and likes and so many comments… This is unbelievable: your tweet went viral!”
It sounded like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse.
“Is it serious..?” Martha hesitated.
Becca was already drafting a response for Martha, “You have to take advantage of this, as you could become a Twitter celebrity now. How many new followers do you already have? No, wait, we’ll look at that later. Now you have to add another tweet to advertise for something. This is the great power of viral tweets. Let’s put your blog.”
Becca was waiting for Martha to start typing, but she was extremely confused, “Wait, why should I advertise my blog? That’s mostly for me, it’s kind of my journal. I don’t need to advertise it.”
Becca sighed and looked at Martha straight in the eyes, “This is Social Media 101, Martha: use this attention that has been created around you to make some money. If people come to your blog, you can then put commercials on it, and make money. You can use your Twitter profile to endorse products, and make money. You can become a social media influencer, and make money.”
“I get it,” Martha finally accepted, “I’ll write something.”
Becca smiled triumphantly.
‘Wow, this really exploded! If you guys want to know more about me, this is my blog. More avocado toasts here! #TwitterMagic #LoveNYC’
‘Tweet’, and done.

More avocado toasts here!

When Martha got home, her Twitter profile had gained thousands of followers, driven by the tens of thousands of likes and retweets to her avocado toast. Her Instagram and Facebook profiles had been equally flooded with new fans, and even her LinkedIn account had received hundreds of new requests for connection. She spent her Sunday afternoon reading through the first hundreds of ironic and friendly comments on Twitter, until she bumped into the first trolls. “Avocado bitch”, “Idiot”, “Brooklyn scum”, “Brunch whore” were some of the names strangers were now calling her. There seemed to be a particularly heinous user who had posted multiple comments, in a progression of misogyny and hate that culminated in a “You fucking millennials destroyed America. You should pay for it.”
Martha was shaken, and Becca’s “Fuck him” response to her text didn’t do much for her. She checked the user profile, @dg9354, to find an empty bio and no profile picture.
“It’s just a bot,” Becca tried to calm her friend down, “Fuck him.”
Martha couldn’t stop thinking about him and his horrible and mean comments, which she felt were not only insulting her, but also mocking an entire generation that had to struggle with things her parents and other older people couldn’t fully understand. She couldn’t go to bed until she was able to draft an articulate response to that @dg9354, which she posted after having received Becca’s unconvinced approval.

The following morning, Martha woke up to thousands of death threats on her Twitter profile. 
“I will rape you and kill you, stupid bitch.”
“I will find you and kill your family.”
“You deserve to die, idiot whore.”
Her eyes full of tears, she called Becca.
“Becca, did you see what happened?”
Becca was trying to keep her cool, “Those trolls will go away, don’t worry.”
Martha was hesitant, but she decided to not look at her Twitter during her whole day at work.

By 6 pm, she had hundreds of thousands of followers on twitter, and uncountable insults, rape threats, and death threats for her and her family from perfect strangers. Mostly men, but not only.
“Becca, I will delete my Twitter. I don’t care about it enough to have it ruin my life and fear for my mom’s safety.”
Becca hugged her on the sofa, and they cheered to Martha’s decision with a glass of wine.

They cheered to Martha’s decision with a glass of wine

Next morning, Twitter gone, Martha woke up with the relief of knowing she was now safe. While brushing her teeth, she started to scroll down her Facebook feed, her usual five-minute distraction. She noticed she had many Messenger notifications, and she went and checked them, surprised.
“You can’t escape, bitch,” the first message said.
“Easy to find you here on Facebook.”
“Escaping twitter won’t help you, little whore.”
“Look what I found here: your email address! Martha.Willows@gmail.com. I am pretty sure I can find your phone number and physical address, too, do you want to bet?”
The last one came from an account with a familiar name: dg9354.
Her heart was pounding against her ribcage, terrified. She didn’t know what to do. Via text, Becca tried to dismiss the messages, but Martha was not convinced this time.
“What if they publish my address?” she asked.
“They won’t, dear, don’t worry. These trolls are cowards, they wouldn’t touch you in real life.”
Martha sighed. Should she delete Facebook, as well? She thought she would give it the day, and she left her apartment to go to work.

When she left her office at six, that night, she had thousands of messages, insults and more rape threats. With the claws of fear clutching on her chest, she deleted her Facebook account, now more and more concerned that some of those crazy men would find her and assault her.

The next morning, Twitter gone, Facebook gone, Martha’s Instagram was flooded with comments and mentions from the same bots.
In a private message, Instagram user dg9354, no bio, no picture, no followers, did his best to scare her, “I can confirm I do have your address right now: 59F Mott Street. This was way too easy, though; you should have protected your privacy much better if you didn’t want me to find you.”
Faster and faster breaths came out of Martha’s mouth. She was shaking.
Without second thoughts, she deleted her Instagram account. She went to work with a slight relief, coming from the fact that she didn’t have any more social media accounts.

That afternoon, she had a strategy review meeting with her boss, the marketing director at Ecolothing, the small eco-responsible clothing firm where she worked as the brand manager for one of their women’s lines. She had expected other people to be in the room with them, like the advertising and supply leads, as it was custom, but to her surprise only her manager showed up. John sat next to her and he opened his computer, to show her something.
“Did you check LinkedIn today?” he asked her.
A sting in the back of her brain warned Martha that some more shit was about to hit the fan. She shook her head, and she waited for him to say something more. 
With a sigh, he clicked ‘Play’ on a video in a LinkedIn article.
In the video, someone was interviewing a girl who looked just like her, with the exact same clothes she was wearing that day.
“I know exactly what I’m talking about,” the girl was saying, tucking her hair behind her ear just like Martha always did, “because I work there. Ecolothing is not only a shitty brand of shitty clothes, of the poorest quality you can imagine, but it is also a scam! They’re not eco-friendly at all! They buy all their stuff from Bangladesh, from those factories where people die the most, to have clothes for cheaper!”
“And you said you work there?” the interviewer seemed astonished.
“Yes, I am a marketing manager there. My name is Martha Willows, if you want to check my LinkedIn.”
Martha jumped up from her chair with a shriek, “No!”
John looked at her with pity.
“No?” he whispered.
“That’s not me.”
He kept looking at her, the pity now transforming into spite.
“I don’t know who did it or why, but they faked it! That’s not me: I would never say those things!”
“Honestly, I don’t care. A million people already watched the video on YouTube and LinkedIn. Our CEO personally called me and asked me to fire you.”
“No!” Martha didn’t want to hear what was coming next. “Please, don’t! You know me, I would never say any of those things, especially not on camera!”
“You’re fired.”
Tears were rolling down her cheeks, a waterfall of despair and questions with no answers.
She rushed out of the office, not to have to face her colleagues and friends, and their furious looks. On the subway to meet Becca at her office, she deleted the LinkedIn app from her phone, and her account on it. She deleted her never used profiles from snapchat and goodreads, her Spotify and Netflix accounts, in an attempt to completely disappear from the internet.
She now had no friends, other than Becca, no job, and she was too scared to go back to her apartment, where dg9354 could be waiting for her.

She was too scared to go back to her apartment

As soon as she got to Becca’s office, Martha collapsed in her arms. She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t move anymore. Becca was terrified by her friend, who seemed to have lost any confidence and strength.
“Let’s have a drink,” was the only thing Becca could think of.
Martha dragged her feet behind Becca as the two girls walked downtown from Becca’s office to the closest bar, a few blocks south in the East Village. 
Becca put her arm around her friend’s shoulders, “Everything will be fine, dear, don’t worry!”
Martha’s eyes were empty and pale.
She didn’t say a word when the waiter approached their table and he asked them if they had decided on their drinks, and Becca ordered two glasses of Pinot Grigio.
“I’m sure it will all go away soon, and you’ll be able to re-access your accounts and find all your friends again, no worries!” Becca chatted. “And John will realize what a mistake he made, and he will re-hire you in the blink of an eye!”
Martha drank her wine in one long sip, and the waiter rushed to get her a second one.
“Haha sure let’s drink to this, fuck it! That’s the best way to forget these little crazy troubles! It once happened to a friend of mine that — “
“Sorry to bother you,” the waiter came back with a second glass for Martha. 
“That guy at the bar asked me to tell you, this one is on him,” he gestured at a man who was giving his plaid back to the girls. 
“He also asked me to give you this,” he mysteriously added with a wink, handing a napkin to Martha.
When she opened it to read what was written on it, the words stabbed Martha in her heart.

“I will always follow you. dg9354.”

With blood boiling between her ears, and adrenaline rushing with pure anger, Martha jumped up from her chair and she looked for the man at the bar. He was gone. With the corner of her eye she saw him disappearing through the door and she ran to follow him, unaware of Becca’s yells behind her.
She left the bar in one heartbeat and she rushed in the street, searching for her troll. She spied a corner of what looked like his shirt in the middle of a crossroad to her left, and she sprinted in that direction, her legs moving faster than her mind. She stopped for a brief second in the middle of the intersection to turn her head left to find him again. She decided to keep going right, but her legs resumed their run before she could turn her head right again, to check where she was actually going.
She didn’t see the taxi arriving in front of her. 
He didn’t see her either, since he had just reached the crossroad from a side. 
He didn’t have time to brake.

She died almost immediately, a pool of blood flooding the street under her body.

A man grinned next to Martha’s body. He was wearing a plaid shirt.