Fandom acts of kindness

This story appears in the July 25, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

The Dwight Howard Twitter Experiment was conceived by ESPN The Magazine to evaluate the manner in which the Subject, Orlando Magic superstar Dwight Howard (henceforth "Howard"), exploits Twitter and the benefits he derives therefrom. Over a four-hour period in Orlando on June 4, we observed Howard as he used the social networking site to arrange one-on-one interactions with six self-described fans, as well as ancillary encounters with more than 100 others. His behavior, and that of the participants, is documented herein.

Dwight Howard has never been hard to follow. The 6'11" center has shoulders wider than the American political spectrum and makes more than his share of public appearances. If someone wanted -- for a presumably healthy reason -- to tail him, it would be a straightforward endeavor. Twitter, however, has made it even easier to track the man, and from the remote comfort of a smartphone.

When The Mag's research group decided to examine the role Twitter plays in narrowing the psychic gulf between athletes and their fans, we established a variety of criteria before determining Howard to be an ideal candidate.

1. Sufficiently large audience. Howard has 2,113,029 followers and counting, which ranks him seventh among U.S. athletes.

2. Consistent output. Howard is a compulsive communicator. "We'll be in meetings talking about million-dollar deals, and his head will be in his phone talking to fans," says Kevin Samples, Howard's manager and cousin. "The only time he puts it down is on game days."

3. Immediate relevance. We felt that anxiety over a then-potential lockout and, if that ever ends, Howard's looming 2012 free agency would compel fans to come lobby for their star's continued Orlando residency.

4. Affable disposition. A steady stream of @-banter and #planking photos on his feed suggests Howard just might enjoy spending some face time with followers.

Please note: The goal of this investigation was only to gain insight into the athlete-fan dynamic in the realm of social media. It should not be viewed as an effort to confirm or deny any existing hypotheses about the use, and/or usefulness, of Twitter. In this light, we deem it an unequivocal success.

To arrange encounters, Howard posted five tweets between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. ET. The dispatches, sent at least 45 minutes in advance of each rendezvous, promised participation in a predetermined activity to the first responder to arrive at the given address.

Observing the experiment was a field research team consisting of the study's author, a location producer, an indeterminate number of production assistants, a photographer and his assistants, a makeup artist, a stylist, her assistant, a video producer, a videographer and a sound technician. A four-row shuttle bus transported the team, along with Howard and Samples, to each destination. By ESPN standards, it was a modest production.

TWEET NO. 1 -- 10:17 a.m. Heey world! FUN day planned. Looking forward to meeting some followers. Watch my feed to see where I'll be. THIS IS FOR REAL!! Yuahhhhhhh

This pump-primer went out an hour and a half before Howard joined the research team. "THIS IS FOR REAL" was largely unnecessary; in 2008, preeminent tweeters Shaquille O'Neal and Chad Ochocinco pioneered the practice of arranging meets with followers, and it has been a common pursuit for idle, actively tweeting athletes since. Though Howard's tweet was met with skepticism from some (@Eman_B, for one, tweeted "Liar"), the majority of followers responded with enthusiasm. Some implored him to travel to their cities or reschedule for a different day.

TWEET NO. 2 -- 11:05 a.m. Here we go I'll take photo booth pictures with the first fan to get to the blue balloons at BBQ Bar, at 64 N. Orange at 12:00. See you there

Shane Shewfelt, with his auburn beard, stocky build and earthy wardrobe, evokes a twentysomething Santa Claus kicking back at Coachella. He'd been working on a car in his driveway when he saw the notification on his BlackBerry. He knew instantly it was Howard. The Magic center was the only person the 29-year-old pest-control technician followed, having added him the day before, moved by reports of the star's tornado relief work in Alabama.

Our shuttle slid into an alley behind the bar at 12:05. Howard emerged from the back entrance of the graffiti-chic dive bar to see Shewfelt inside and, behind him, a crowd of also-rans on the street, pressed against the floor-to-ceiling windows that line the front of the building. He blew kisses and gesticulated playfully, at one moment pointing at Shewfelt and mouthing, "You must be mad at him!"

We rerouted Howard to the photo booth for the shoot, where an impromptu "no lap" policy forced Shewfelt to bend into the frame of the photos, his butt pushing back the curtain.

But as soon as the shoot wrapped, Howard's attention jumped back to the window shoppers. He clambered onto a shredded vinyl booth and placed his mouth on the glass, inviting women to kiss him through the pane. The gesture was well received. It became quickly evident that Howard was more inclined to riff with fans outside than with Shewfelt, who stood by the bar, hands in pockets, unsure of his next move. In time, though, Howard reengaged with Shewfelt.

When prompted to ask any questions he wanted, the contest winner opted for "the one on every
Orlandian's mind: Is he staying?"

Now it was Howard's turn to be unsure. Standing next to Shewfelt, backs to the bar, Howard looked to the ceiling as he spun a tale about sorting things out during a recent meandering conversation with Jesus. He didn't make eye contact and didn't share the result of the divine chat. With an expectant fan staring up and the research team's gear pointed his way, Howard looked as if he'd rather have been at the free throw line. We departed shortly thereafter.

TWEET NO. 3 -- 12:10 p.m. Anyone up to play me in HORSE? I'll take on the first fan to get
to the blue balloons at Amway Center practice court at 1. Bring your game.

Howard chose to audible to "PIG" upon meeting the stunt's winner. Tiffany Paulk, a willowy 10-year-old with tightly curled black hair pulled into a bun, had been in the hollering throng outside Bar-BQ Bar with her mom, also Tiffany, and her mom's boyfriend, Steven Green. It was the elder Tiff who got the tweet that sent them sprinting for the Amway Center. "They ran so hard they collapsed when they got to me," reported research team member Zach Scheffer. "Good thing, because the next guys in line got there right after them."

The game stayed mostly in the key, with Howard choosing shots that enabled Tiffany to sink a bucket or two during her giggly march to defeat. When the showdown concluded, Howard hoisted the girl to rim height so she could dunk and growl. Afterward, Howard and Tiffany stood by a padded blue wall, phones in hands, for photos. The shoot soon escalated into a vaudeville act, the two players trying to outham each other.

Tiffany, reticent upon arrival, held her own, ratcheting up the sass with a hand on her hip. As with Shewfelt, when the session ended, Tiffany was given the chance to pose a question. This time, Howard didn't look as wary. "What's your favorite food?" she asked. (Pizza.)

TWEET NO. 4 -- 1:14 p.m. Ok now I feel like singing. I'll do a karaoke duet with the first fan to reach the blue balloons at Bikkuri Sushi (1915 E Colonial) at 2pm!

In the interest of generating a larger sample size, we allowed four fans to join Howard in the karaoke lounge. Three -- Kari Hackett, a 25-year-old teacher; Chris McCoy, a 29-year-old film student; and April Aviles, a 20-year-old college student -- were plucked from the head of the 30-person line that wrapped around the two-story building. The fourth, 19-year-old college student Kelsie Wright, had been eating upstairs in the sushi restaurant when she saw Howard's tweet and wandered back to the karaoke room that sits at the rear of the top floor. We let her stay.

The lounge -- tables to one side, banquettes on the other -- was enclosed by walls covered with colored lights befitting a Close Encounters reboot. Howard retreated to a table in the back with Samples and some friends while the quartet of fans pored over songbooks. When their selections were in hand, Howard joined them, one by one, for the performances. Technical difficulties prevented the lyrics from appearing during the first two songs, but Howard struggled good-naturedly alongside Hackett and McCoy as they attempted to recall, respectively, "Purple Rain" and "All of the Lights." The words arrived by the end of the second number, allowing Howard to struggle good-naturedly alongside Aviles and Wright as they attempted to keep pace with "Hypnotize" and "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It."

As he performed, Howard put on a showcase of showmanship, reaching out with dramatic passion during "Rain," turning sideways to emulate Wright's "Jiggy" dance steps. During song changes, Howard made small talk with each of the followers. He asked Hackett about her teaching and teased Wright about her singing. It appeared that Howard was more at ease here than at his first two stops. There is, however, no way to control for the effects of karaoke.

TWEET NO. 5 -- 1:51 p.m. Next! Want to be on the cover of @ESPNmag with me? Be at Howard Middle School (800 E Robinson) by 3pm there is Room for everyone there yuahh

The all-inclusive nature of Howard's final tweet lured more than 100 responders, many of whom had been late arrivals at the previous stops. All waited patiently on an unshaded basketball court in 90 degree afternoon heat until go time, then again for autographs nearly an hour later after the shoot wrapped. Howard, insisting on thanking everyone for coming out, took a seat in the front row of the bus as, one by one, fans climbed the two steps to receive a signature or a hug. Only after the line was exhausted did our team file on. We ferried Howard back to the Amway Center, where he said his farewells and disappeared into the player parking lot.

That night he sent only one tweet, a response to a shout-out from our photographer, @ahetherington. The next morning, though, he was back at it. The first of the day's 25 messages went out at 9:01 a.m.

Howard has tweeted more than 12,000 messages since joining the service in October 2008, sometimes dashing off more than 100 a day. The majority are @-mentions directed at followers who asked a question or talked some trash. Howard's feed, then, is mostly filled with brief, casual exchanges. This is its strength. "He once made an appearance at an event where Estelle was performing," Samples says. "At one point, she asked him how he got so many followers. He told her, 'You just have to talk to them.'"

Much of the appeal of conversing on Twitter is the virtual barrier it provides. After departing Bar-BQ Bar, we asked Howard how often he gets questions about free agency. "It's all anyone wants to talk about," he said. "I was with my mom at a nice restaurant on Mother's Day, and a guy walked up to our table and yelled, 'Stay!' That's it." By Howard's estimation, every other tweet directed his way these days is a question about his future. His standard response is to point out that he has one year left on his current deal while reiterating his love for Orlando. That is, if he responds at all. On Twitter, he can ignore inquisitors. Even at Bar-BQ Bar, the fans on the street couldn't ask questions Howard didn't want to answer. Only the man on the inside, Shewfelt, was afforded the privilege.

Twitter is the pane of glass that ensures Howard has to discuss only the topics he wants. Then again, it does give him a 24-hour platform. Why does Little Tiffany Paulk's mom follow Howard on Twitter? "I added him because he tweets tips about parenting," said Big Tiffany, who otherwise follows mostly family members. "I appreciate his values." And that is not a side of Howard most people see. Beyond the gossip pages, where the ongoing domestic battles between Howard and his ex-girlfriend and mother of his 3-year-old son, Braylon, play out, his parenting skills aren't a common subject in stories about him. But Howard wants to share links about being a parent, just like he wants to promote his charity work and discuss religion. "Twitter gives us our leverage back," says Chad Ochocinco. "Before it, the only side of athletes people saw was the one the media presented. Now we can show fans who we truly are. People respond to that." Tiffany Paulk is proof.

Howard, who is launching a free app this month to create a one-stop social media destination for his fans, agrees that Twitter is more than a marketing tool. "The way I speak makes people feel they know me personally," he says. "When I meet them, they come right up and say, 'Hey, man, we've been talking on Twitter.' It's like we're real friends."

This was made evident by the way he interacted with the followers at karaoke, all of whom exhibited a degree of comfort uncommon for fans meeting a hero for the first time. The real-life conversations were similar to those they'd already had on Twitter, playful and brief. "Fans just want to be around the people who interest them," McCoy says. "And more than anything, Dwight is an entertainer. He needs an audience. By making time for his fans on Twitter, he gets one. It's win-win."

There's no doubting the passion of his sizable constituency, even if Howard acts surprised by it. Just five days before the experiment, on Memorial Day, Howard invited followers to a downtown barbecue. Several hundred came. But when he spoke of fans and followers it was with no trace of ego. Rather, he was grateful for the support. "It means so much that everyone came out today," he said as he surveyed the crowd at the day's final destination. "People have family, friends and plans. They don't need to be standing around at a photo shoot." Being followed is validation.

So when he said between locations, "Sometimes, when I see that someone's not following me, I feel bad," it rang less of arrogance than it did of failure. Someone not following Howard is someone he hasn't entertained or impressed or helped. Someone he hasn't connected with. "I spent a lot of time listening to people talk while they waited in the lines," reported Scheffer. "When they spoke about getting tweets from him, it was always, 'He tweeted me!' or 'He invited us.' His followers feel like he's talking directly to them."

Since we conducted the experiment, Howard has added more than 45,000 followers. Few, if any, will ever get a chance to meet him. Most, if not all, will feel as if they have.

"Twitter Feed." @Eman_B. 2011

Neil Janowitz is a general editor for ESPN The Magazine. You can find him on Twitter here.