Clive Thompson is one of the best technology journalists in the business. He writes for Wired and The New York Times Magazine, among other excellent publications. He's well-regarded, serious and married with two kids. Also, his Twitter handle is @pomeranian99. This has always made us curious. What's up with that alias? So, in the first of a series of pieces about off-beat Twitter names, we called him up in Brooklyn and demanded to know the backstory of his handle. His explanation, lightly edited, is presented below.
This is the story, the reason why I'm Pomeranian99. I'm Canadian. I grew up in Toronto and my grandparents on my mother's side were Ukrainian dairy farmers. They had a farm with lots of cows just outside Toronto. It was in the farmlands around Oshawa. And every Sunday, we would drive over and I'd play around either at the farm proper or the home they had with a couple of acres. And they owned a Pomeranian dog.
First, this is a weird thing for a couple of farmers to own. I later learned that there is a link between old Eastern European folks and Pomeranians. They are very heavily owned by young Asian women and 70-year-old Eastern European dudes. I was in Ireland once and I was told a theory by a farmer there about farming with animals. If you have pigs or chickens or cows, you have to not get too attached to animals because they might get sick and you have to kill them, or if you're raising a pig for slaughter, you have to kill it and feed it to people. So one of the things that farmers do is buy one spectacularly useless little dog. It's like a Chomskyan release valve on a farm. That's why these Irish farmers have little Jack Russell Terriers. They can pet them and love them and not have to worry about having to kill them.
So this Pomeranian dog and I would go play out in the woods. And it would come back covered, every inch of it, in burrs. We'd have to spend an hour extracting the burrs. So, I spent 10 years of my life playing every Sunday out in the woods near the farm with this Pomeranian dog. I grew to love Pomeranians.
Pomeranians have this reputation for being stupid, but there was this book, The Intelligence of Dogs -- quite controversial -- that ranked dogs by their intelligence. I can't remember what the criteria were, they were probably fatuous, but Pomeranians, I think, were in the top quarter.
Also, they were bred down by Queen Victoria very rapidly. Someone took a bunch of sled dogs and bred them down to be tiny as fast as you can. So, if you take a cross-section of a Pomeranian, it actually still has the musculature of a sled dog. Other little dogs can't walk, so you go three blocks, and you have to carry them home. But Pomeranians will just go and never stop.
I really like Pomeranians.
In 1999, I'd been writing about the Internet for a bunch of years. I frequently wrote about it for a Canadian magazine, the Report on Business. I wrote a monthly column about the impacts of technology on everyday life. I'd gotten interested in the rise of instant messaging. So I signed up for AOL IM. They wanted a screen name. AOL was already really popular, so CliveThompson was taken. CliveThompson76 was taken. I put Pomeranian in, and it was taken. It was 1999, so I put in Pomeranian99.
It's one of these classically idiotic names of someone who is adopting a trend too late on a service that's really, really popular ... like PencilLover12.
I sort of had no idea that IM would become a huge thing that would go away. I had no idea that I'd still be using Instant Messenger 12 years later and still have this name. There is a sort of lock-in there. A couple years later, I started blogging. And I'd say, contact me on IM, "I'm Pomeranian99." This ridiculous name starts getting cemented into your identity.
There is an upside to it. It forces me not to take myself too seriously. You'll be at a conference and say, "You could IM me at Pomeranian99." It sounds like I'm a 12-year-old girl. It's useful for deflating any elevated sense of self I might be tempted to have. And it produces some spectacularly interesting ideas in people who read my stuff and try to find more about me.
So, it creates cognitive dissonance in people who try to Google me, and I like the dogs. I get to make jokes about Pomeranians.
When I decided to make this my Twitter name, just as it was with Instant Messenger, I had no idea that Twitter was going to blow up. Now, of course, it's this massive dominant pipeline and again I'm @Pomeranian99. I actually do have @CliveThompson, but it's a private account and I don't use it for anything.
I have a book coming out, and when it comes out, I'm going to have to do publicity. It's an interesting dilemma. Will I try to move 10,000 followers over to @CliveThompson or be like, "Yeah, contact the author at @Pomeranian99."
Probably, I'll end up 75 years old in the mid-21st century with my dog. Or the Singularity will arrive and I'll be stuck with this tag until the sun burns out.
Maybe there may have been some residual sense back in the '90s that I should stay anonymous in certain contexts. I remember my first email address was very strange. I do sort of wonder now, though. If I'm interviewing someone and here is a putatively serious journalist and we're talking about some issue of global importance, and if they ever Google me, there is Pomeranian99.
I've contemplated getting a Pomeranian, but I had cats for a while. I've got two kids and I just got out of the phase where I had to deal with a lot of feces. I'm not going back. It's really only proper when you're a retiree and I'm going to stick with that.
But the outside benefit is that I get delighted emails from Pomeranian owners. I can only imagine the joy that I must bring to people who have like nine Pomeranians. Though that's not very often, maybe once every two months.
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