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Crunching numbers with @fivethirtynate
Meet the man behind Nate Silver’s dark-hearted alter ego.
The presidential election had one clear winner, and it was not Barack Obama.
Nate Silver, a journalist and statistics whiz, correctly predicted the election outcome in all 50 states using hard and fast data and complex mathematical models. Away from the grind of working out the probability of the election result, we don’t know much about Silver save for his penchant for burritos, fantasy baseball, and poker.
That’s where the Twitter parody account @fivethirtynate, a.k.a. Nate Silver 2.0, stepped in.
The name of the account is a play on Silver’s New York Times blog, FiveThirtyEight (for the number of electoral college votes up for grabs in a presidential election), and his eponymous Twitter account. With just 35 dark, glorious tweets, since last Saturday, Ford hit 11,111 followers.
The pondering, surrealist tweets call to mind those of @NotTildaSwinton, a satire of actor Tilda Swinton:
Matt Ford, a 23-year-old political science graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno, began tweeting under the guise of an existentialist Silver as greater attention was placed on Silver’s predictions.
“The Silver controversies on Twitter and elsewhere in political media were ripe for satire,” he told the Daily Dot.
“For two months America had Nate Silver the person, a mild-mannered statistician-columnist who works for The New York Times, and Nate Silver the idea: a prophet cloaked in empiricism and intellect, striding across the battleground states like a colossus, armed with a mighty predictive model and inscrutable equations, giving hope and comfort to liberals, inspiring fear and outrage in conservatives, and spelling doom for the haughty and arrogant classes of entrenched political punditry.”
The account helped Ford take his mind off the election, about which he was “a nervous wreck.” Pushing that energy into @fivethirtynate “went a long way towards lowering my heart rate and blood pressure for those four days” between starting the account and Tuesday.
Ford’s long had an interest in politics. His parents took him to the polls with them, encouraged him to watch the news as a child, and pressed the “importance of civic participation.” He has friends who are also interested in politics and has volunteered for campaigns. “Growing up in a swing state, with all its biennial bipartisan bloodbaths, didn’t hurt either,” he added.
Pulling together the tweets on the account took some work—especially since Ford is self-admittedly “terrible at mathematics.” Opting for a surrealist tone helped compensate for that, he said.
Having a solid enough understanding of mathematical concepts, such as discrete variables and Bayes’ theorem, to derive humor from them took “a lot of time and effort.” Ford, who is currently job hunting while applying to grad schools, tweaked most of his tweets four or five times before sending them. For every tweet that made the cut, he said there were five or six he composed that did not.
The pensive election commentary did not stop with @fivethirtynate: The real Silver jumped into the fray as well. “On The Wall, The Writing,” Silver wrote in an election night message retweeted by Ford.
The satirical account received notice from the Washington Post and the interest in @fivethirtynate extended to several people in the public sphere, with people such as famed Twitter comedian Rob Delaney among his followers.
“[S]eeing words I’ve written appear on the feeds of well-known journalists, comedians, and political figures, some of whom I follow regularly on my normal Twitter account and highly respect in real life, was almost as surreal for me as seeing Meta-Romney’s poll numbers in the infrared states would’ve been for Nate Silver 2.0.”
Notably, this isn’t Ford’s first stab at a satirical Twitter account. When his favorite parody @GingrichIdeas closed shop when Newt Gingrich bowed out of the Republican presidential nomination race, Ford tried to take over the mantle with @RomneyIdeas. It wasn’t quite as successful as its forebear, garnering 117 followers to @GingrichIdeas’s 15,303. However, Ford learned plenty of lessons he put into practice with his more recent satire.
Keeping @fivethirtynate apolitical was key for Ford, given widespread fatigue over politics as the race drew to a close. He believes part of the account’s success can be attributed to it being not a parody of Silver, instead the public’s perception of him.
“I liked the idea of portraying Silver in mystical terms: not necessarily just making jokes about statistics or polls,” Ford noted, “but hitting upon the underlying idea that Silver’s understanding of the forces that guide our universe exceeds mortal comprehension. “
As the election season drew to a close, so to did Nate Silver 2.0. Ford became aware of comparisons between his account and those of @GingrichIdeas and @MayorEmanuel (a stellar parody of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel).
“What did those two have in common that made them so successful? They ended. Some parody Twitter accounts can be consistently funny over a long period of time, like @ElBloombito or @KimJongNumberUn. But the vast majority of them won’t be, and perhaps can’t be. A parody account of Clint Eastwood’s chair or Big Bird angry at Mitt Romney has a shelf life of perhaps two weeks. Silver himself could probably explain in mathematical terms how the longer a parody accounts exists, the likelihood it’ll lose its touch increases. So, once @fivethirtynate caught on, I decided to not risk it and gave it a firm conclusion – for now.”
There is an approximate 76.96 percent chance of @fivethirtynate returning, however. The midterm elections are just two years away.
Photo by Matt Ford
Based in Montreal, Kris Holt has been writing about technology and web culture since 2010. He writes for Engadget and Tech News World, and his byline has also appeared in Paste, Salon, International Business Times, Mashable, and elsewhere.