He wasn't really Shaq. He couldn't have been. The person known on Twitter as THE_REAL_SHAQ sometimes posted more than 50 Tweets 140-character dispatches daily, broadcasting his thoughts, actions and feelings to some 327,000 subscribers to his Twitter feed. Surely the four-time NBA champion had better things to do than tell random people what he was up to more than twice an hour.
That's what Phoenix software engineers Jesse Bearden and Sean Neden thought until they used THE_REAL_SHAQ's Tweets to find out. (See the top 10 celebrity Twitter feeds.)
More than 6 million people mini-blog about their lives on Twitter, including a surprising number of celebrities. Sean (Diddy) Combs recently Twittered about a tantric sex session, a 48-hour juice fast and taking a bubble bath with an Oscar statue. John Cleese has written about his pet chickens, while MC Hammer has mused on the economy ("We just fed the nation 15 [years] of evil soup. Now we're throwing up"). Other celebrities, including Shaquille O'Neal, post actual information about where they are and what they're doing. And they encourage fans to meet them.
When THE_REAL_SHAQ wrote that he was eating at 5 & Diner a chain of 1950s-themed restaurants throughout the Southwest Bearden and Neden drove over to the downtown Phoenix location to see if it was really him. They found the 7 ft. 1 in., 320-lb. Phoenix Suns center seated alone in a corner booth, futzing with his cell phone. "He looked just like a random guy at a diner," says Neden. "Except, you know, he was Shaq." (Read 10 Questions with O'Neal.)
The men ignored the superstar as they walked to a nearby table, where they proceeded to argue about whether they should approach him. "We tried to act cool," says Bearden, "but I guess he could hear us arguing." Suddenly Neden's phone vibrated with a Twitter message. "R there any twitterers in 5 n diner wit me?" asked THE_REAL_SHAQ. "Say something." So they slid into the booth next to their idol, talked about Twitter and cell phones, and got their photo taken with the man whose hands, they say, "were like bear claws." (See the 25 best blogs of 2009.)
It's debatable whether O'Neal, who commands a $20 million salary from the Suns and has earned more than $250 million during his NBA career, should be giving out his real-time location on the Internet. But it's clear that he isn't the only celebrity for whom Twitter has changed the relationship between object of adulation and adulator. (Read "Congress's New Love Affair with Twitter.")
Earlier this month, actor Levar Burton sent a message to his 146,000 Twitter followers inviting them to a "Tweetup" at a Toronto bar. About 40 people showed up, some because they were die-hard Star Trek fans, others because they had nothing better to do. Burton says he felt safe because of the type of fans he attracts. "Star Trek, Roots and Reading Rainbow had great cultural impact and inspire great fondness in people," he explains. "I don't have the type of fans who come up to me and want to put a cigarette out on my arm."
John Hodgman, an author and the PC in the Mac ads, uses his 50,000 Twitter followers, whom he refers to as "Hive Mind," as a focus group for his books. He considered removing a reference to Tron in the paperback version of More Information Than You Require, but Hive Mind unanimously asked him to keep it in. "So I will," he says. "And I will probably note that the Internet liked it." (Read TIME's interview with Hodgman.)
"I see this whole Twitter thing as a social experiment," says Burton. "When I meet fans, normally a studio or somebody has set up an event and there is an agenda. Now I can do it myself." Burton plans to host another meetup in the future, though he has to be careful, he says, because his wife doesn't like them. "She said it was dangerous," says Burton. "Then again, she's from Indiana."
So far, O'Neal's fan encounters have been safe. Sometimes when he plays hide-and-seek, no one even comes to find him. But as Twitter user and host of VH1's Best Week Ever Paul F. Tompkins puts it, "Anything's easier to do if you're a giant."