If Paul Gardner was lying, he’d say it was the people that drew him to Baltimore. But to be more accurate, it was the birds.
Although the 33-year-old grew up in nearby Millersville, venturing inside city limits for reasons other than attending sporting events “was never a thing.”
“It was coming to these Ravens games and our seats were always the last row and we’d look out and, I don’t know, there was a lot of pride,” Gardner said. “I think I started to get it that, yeah, being a part of a city is awesome. It’s the best. There’s something primal and territorial about it but it’s also important.”
Gardner’s now-passion for Baltimore, spawned by a move to Mount Vernon to attend the University of Baltimore (where he still lives), is evident to his Twitter followers, which number about 3,500. That passion often takes on a critical tone toward local politicians in his online presence, one that gained traction during city unrest following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
Gardner’s feed is often political – he spent a college break interning for the Howard Dean campaign, saying “if I wasn’t completely self radicalized before that, I was by the time I got home.” He has the NBA to thank, however, for his foray into the social medium – he only joined Twitter because he wanted to follow basketball players.
“I thought Twitter was like texting,” he said.
Those players, along with local reporters, comprised most of Gardner’s Twitter feed in the beginning, when he joined in 2010. However, he soon learned the social medium, where he often shares cat photos, Vines and retweeted local news coverage, rarely provided a dull moment, and that any possible interest was covered.
“It just kind of really sucked me in. I love Baltimore politics. I think it’s so interesting and shady and back-rooms-y and there’s so much going on,” Gardner said. “I think I joined Twitter right after Sheila Dixon resigned, if I remember correctly. It’s such an interesting thing.”
Long a prolific tweeter about all things Baltimore, Gardner found himself thrust into an Internet spotlight of sorts (and with a slew of new followers) when unrest broke out in the city after Gray’s death. Looking to locals for up-to-date information, many Twitter users flocked to the profiles of Baltimore reporters and citizens, and Gardner followed the case closely.
“I tweet more in the day ever since -- everything that’s happened since Freddie Gray really sucked me in,” he said. “I probablly find more time during the day than I ever have previously, just because who wants to miss anything? You get away for six hours and you come back and the whole city’s changed.”
Whatever readers or followers think of Gardner, he said, there’s value in the fact that he doesn’t work for a media organization or owe anyone anything in terms of opinions (he works in construction in Anne Arundel County and mostly tweets during necessary breaks from the physical labor). Although he doesn’t have a journalistic responsibility to be right, Gardner does feel a moral imperative, especially now that more people are listening.
An incident in which Gardner wrongly thought he saw blood at a presumed police shooting at Pennsylvania and North avenues, also incorrectly reported elsewhere, and tweeted about it, particularly gave Gardner pause.
“OK, you’re going to have to do a better job of making sure what you say is right,” he told himself. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I tweet. I’m not going to change more than a dozen minds. But you can’t predict when something you say gets retweeted a bunch of times.”
Above all Twitter’s benefits, Gardner most values the real-life friendships he’s made via the social network. For years, Gardner mostly knew people who lived within a few blocks of him, but Twitter has allowed him to meet up with other local users and strike up conversations with people on the street he recognizes from their avatar photos.
“There’s something really valuable about that, to have two people live a block away from each other who have never met who can have a conversation completely out of the blue,” he said. “When you meet people in real life, that’s when it really clicks and it’s like, wow, social media is really cool.”
"The 410 in 140" puts the spotlight on prominent Baltimore Twitter personalities. If you have a suggestion of someone to be featured, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out the first installment, with @dennisthecynic, here.