Salem Communications to acquire Twitchy

Note: The following message from Michelle about the acquisition of Twitchy is cross-posted at

I am extremely proud to announce the sale of to Salem Communications.

On March 7, 2012, I launched Twitchy with great anticipation and excitement. It’s hard to believe that a little more than a year ago, we were greeted with a great deal of befuddlement and amusement. Many observers couldn’t figure out why was needed, what exactly it did, and who our audience was. Fast-forward: “Twitchy’d” has become a verb and every last media outlet – new and old – is elbowing its way into the Twitter curation/aggregation space.

As we noted on our first birthday this spring:

Twitter users publish something like half a billion tweets per day. Even if 99.999 percent of those tweets are unimportant or nonsense, that leaves 5,000 tweets per day that are potentially newsworthy, or at least noteworthy.

Our mission is to find those hidden nuggets and report on them to you, our readers.

We’ve been at it for a year as of today. Has our Twitter-based news-gathering model proven a success?

We believe our record speaks for itself:

We documented tweets and retweets by dozens of left-wing Hollywood cranks, including Cher, Alec Baldwin, Jim Carrey, Russell Crowe, Chris Rock, Jason Biggs, Samuel Jackson, Ellen Barkin, Eva Longoria, and Eliza Dushku.

We were among the first to uncover Twitter riot threats and vandalism by Obama supporters in the run-up to Election Day…

We broke a story about Twitter death threats made against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — a story that led to an investigation by law-enforcement authorities.

We caught mainstream media outlets lying about the Newtown, Conn., so-called “hecklers” and the health insurance situation of the former Navy SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden.

We were the first to report details about Aurora, Colo., shooting victim Jessica Ghawi, who was tweeting just before she was shot and was present at a separate mall shooting six weeks earlier.

Utilizing tweets, photos, and videos posted to Twitter, we were able to cover breaking news — from school shootings in the US to protests in Egypt to an NFL’s player’s homicide-suicide — faster (and in some cases better) than MSM outlets.

MSM dinosaurs consider our methods irresponsible. They insist that “real reporters” must wait around for government officials to confirm facts that are already widely known to anyone using Twitter.

Sorry, MSM, we don’t follow your rules. We have created a news model that allows people to read information that gatekeepers don’t want them to know. Our motto is “who said what.” Their motto is “which official source said what, and we’ll let you know when we’re good and ready.”

…Twitchy couldn’t be what it is without you: the community of readers, commenters, and tipsters who come to the site every day; the Twitter users who retweet our posts; the Facebook users who “like” and “share” our articles.

Thanks so much to all of you for making our first year a phenomenal success.

In a little more than a year and a half, Twitchy has grown from less than 2 million page views per month to more than 12 million. We’ve established a strong footprint both traffic-wise and editorially in an astonishingly short time. Twitter as a news-gathering and narrative-shaping medium is here to stay. And so is Twitchy.

As with Hot Air, I conceived and financed Twitchy completely on my own. But as a small, independent business owner, there’s only so far I can take the company. Salem’s mighty resources and corporate know-how will enable Twitchy to grow by leaps and bounds. Salem is a trusted enterprise and business partner with the highest standards of ethics and excellence. We know from our experience with the 2010 Hot Air acquisition that Salem understands the value of our brand, will preserve everything that makes Twitchy click, and will provide a great home for our employees. I’ll step down as CEO, but will continue to play an active role supporting and promoting Twitchy. It’s a win-win-win. Big thanks to Salem’s David Evans, Rick Killingsworth, and Jonathan Garthwaite for working with us again.

I’m forever grateful to all the initial staffers who were with me at launch. Your leaps of faith will never be forgotten. Like any start-up, we had our growing pains as we figured out how best to execute my vision. A huge turning point: Twitchy was blessed to hire Jenn Taylor and Lori Ziganto as co-managing editors. They are the funny, fearless, brilliant, and indefatigable dynamos who keep Twitchy running. I can’t say enough about Jenn and Lori’s political brilliance, editorial commitment, work ethic, impeccable judgment, and new media savvy. They set the crackling pace and irreverent tone for the rest of the full-time Twitchy team, whom I’ve come to know and respect as more than colleagues — but as family: editors Sarah Desprat, Brett Taylor, and Doug Powers (who continues to co-blog spectacularly here at as well as at Twitchy) and contributing editor William Amos. Much gratitude as well to contributing editors Jacob Bunn, Erik Soderstrom, and El Sooper and big thanks to Adam Brickley for his tenure as a contributing editor.

It takes one mind to think up a start-up, but it requires a village to execute. I’m grateful to the folks at 10up, WordPress VIP, Disqus, and Publir for their services, as well as lawyer Eric Costello for his work on the deal. We’re also grateful to Twitter staff, especially Adam Sharp and Sean Evins, for providing support and guidance as needed. Thanks again to tech guru Ed Burns for his invaluable help on our Apps. Bottomless thanks to all the readers, tipsters, and commenters who continue to visit and spread the word about our work. And as always, a big public thank you to my hubby, Jesse, who knew nothing about Twitter when I told him about my idea — but who threw himself into supporting me 200 percent as he always has with my entrepreneurial ventures. As with Hot Air, Jesse served as Twitchy’s human resources manager, payroll clerk, accountant, tech liaison, and CFO.

The lessons I learned from running Hot Air apply as well to Twitchy:

To survive, we needed to adapt, respond to market forces, and adjust the business focus to meet readers’ revealed preferences.

Loyalty is a precious commodity. So is industry. Like gold, they have many imitators. Never take the real things for granted.

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero. ( “Seize the day, counting as little as possible on tomorrow.”)

Every good hot air balloon needs strong anchor ropes. The pilots may get all the glory, but it’s the hidden support that makes all the difference between successful flight and crash-and-burn.

Over the past 20-plus years, I’ve been blessed to make a living on my words, ideas, bits, and bytes. Capitalism and the American Dream are more than theories for me, but everyday realities. I cherish the opportunity to do good and do well — and to do so alongside so many talented, creative, passionate people. On to 2014!

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The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams Has The Best Response To Critics

Yes, she’s not taking Jon Stewart’s job and no, it’s none of your business.

1. Jessica Williams has been a vital part of the Daily Show team for the past couple of years.

2. Remember her amazing segment on sexual assault at colleges?

View this embed ›

Profoundly good.

Comedy Central

3. When Jon Stewart announced he’d be leaving his role as Daily Show host, a lot of people began suggesting that Williams be considered for the position.

Comedy Central


4. But Williams took to Twitter to say she wasn’t looking to take over Stewart’s spot.

5. That’s when The Billfold’s Ester Bloom decided to write a piece claiming WIlliams was simply suffering from “Imposter Syndrome.”

Comedy Central


6. What’s imposter syndrome? Explained Bloom:

A well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves “unqualified.”

7. Bloom claimed that Williams’ was simply a victim of having a lack of self worth.

How modest! How self-effacing! You can almost hear all the old white people who benefit from the status quo nodding their approval. We did it, they whisper. We have succeeded in instilling in yet another competent, confident young woman a total lack of understanding of her own self-worth! We didn’t even need to undermine her; we gave her the tools and she undermined herself. Well done all. Good show. Let’s play eighteen holes and then hit up Hooters for lunch.

8. Bloom went on to say that Williams simply needed a Sheryl Sandberg-style Lean In group to give her a “pep talk.”

Bullshit. All Williams needs is a pep talk. Get Luvvie in a room with her, and Jazmine, and Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham. Get Paul Feig in there too, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and George R. R. Martin. Get her the best Lean In group of all time. She will emerge as from a funeral pyre, naked and coiled in dragons, ready to lead.

9. In response, Williams took to Twitter to defend herself.

10. In a series of tweets she’s since deleted, Williams decried Blooms assumptions about her own agency.

11. And chided Bloom for not respecting her choices.

14. Bloom eventually apologized for her piece.

Just going to say this & then keep listening & learning: I was wrong. I’m sorry. I was flip & presumptuous, & I offended someone I respect.

— shorterstory (@ester bloom)

Comedy Central


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Putting IBM’s $25 Billion Stock Price Crash In Perspective

IBM is an icon of the technology industry. Or at least it was.

Paul Morigi / Getty Images for FORTUNE

IBM once stood alongside Microsoft and Intel as icons at the forefront of the technology industry. But now, it’s on its way to making history — and not in the good way.

The technology company is sent to end 2014 as the worst performing stock among the 30 companies that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. And this would be the second consecutive year the company finished last among the blue chip stocks of the Dow — an achievement that, according to the Wall Street Journal, was last pulled off by Bethlehem Steel in 1995 and 1996.

For those paying attention to the technology industry, this doesn’t come as a huge surprise: IBM has long been playing a desperate game of catch-up. In 2014 alone, IBM lost more than $25 billion in value, despite IBM’s aggressive share buyback programs, which typically raises the value of outstanding shares.

Just how bad is that decline? Let’s put it in perspective:

In the same year IBM lost $25 billion in value, Facebook’s valuation rose by about $68.7 billion.

Stephen Lam / Reuters

Since going public in 2012, Facebook has quickly found its footing as a mobile advertising company, creating several lucrative lines of business. It also recently launched Atlas, a new flagship advertising product, that should expand its advertising footprint even further. Already, Facebook has surpassed many of the old guard technology companies and is well on its way to being among the highest-valued technology companies in the world.

At the end of 2014, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is worth more than $262 billion.

Jason Lee / Reuters

A e-commerce service that is dominant in China, Alibaba went public in the United States in one of the largest initial public offerings ever. By the end of the year, Alibaba was worth well more than IBM — and even Amazon, the dominant e-commerce service in the United States.

Yahoo continued to become more valuable, but mainly because of Alibaba.

The Associated Press

Despite new CEO Marissa Mayer’s efforts to turn the company’s advertising business around, that hasn’t happened yet. Still, Yahoo is worth $11 billion more than it was at the beginning of the year, but that’s mostly thanks to the success of Alibaba, of which Yahoo owns a 16.3% stake.

Apple’s valuation rose by almost $200 billion in 2014.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Apple’s business continues to roll, with major launches of a new iPhone and a suite of new iPads earlier this year. The company also, ironically, signed a deal with IBM that would help it increase its footprint in large corporations, and also unveiled a smart watch that is supposed to come out sometime in 2015 — creating a brand new product line for the company.

In a little more than a year, one of the hottest new phone manufacturers has rocketed to a $46 billion valuation.

Jason Lee / Reuters

Xiaomi, a Chinese smartphone manufacturer that many industry observers compare to Apple, was worth $10 billion in August last year. This month, it closed a round of funding that valued the company at $46 billion, a jump in value well beyond the decline of IBM’s market capitalization.

This year, Uber went from a $10 billion company to a $40 billion company.

Quickly rising to one of the most valuable startups in the world, Uber earlier this month confirmed a $40 billion valuation, up from a reported $10 billion valuation earlier this year. Uber, like Xiaomi and other highly-valued startups, has built a lucrative business out of its service, which allows users to hail a car through an app.

Even Microsoft, with a new CEO in charge, increased in value by $81 billion.

Jason Redmond / Reuters

Earlier this year, after years of tepid growth in the company’s value, Microsoft named Satya Nadella as CEO. The stock promptly spiked, and since Nadella took over, the company has released its Office tools on mobile devices including the iPad. In the past year, Microsoft has accrued more than $81 billion in value.

And Google, which had a rough year, is still doing better than IBM

The Associated Press

Google’s valuation dropped by $14 billion in 2014, as its advertising business continued to face challenges as the advertising market switches to mobile. CEO Larry Page has re-organized the company in an effort to spur innovation and build new product lines like self-driving cars and Android phones.

Amazon took a $41 Billion hit to its valuation.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has always shown a relaxed attitude toward turning a profit, and this year his stock was punished for it. Still, the company is investing in new businesses like tablets and streaming services, and Bezos appears to have no interest in slowing that down.

Meanwhile, Snapchat’s value has tripled.

The Associated Press

Earlier this year, the company was valued at $2 billion. However, the company that rejected an offer from Facebook for more than $3 billion, is reportedly raising a funding round that values the ephemeral photo-sharing service at $10 billion.

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Tom Morello rages against Seattle cafe for not treating him like a VIP!/emzanotti/status/517067877183410176

That’s the trouble with communists, they only think the rules apply to the little people.

Over the weekend Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine got his elitist shorts in a bunch because he wasn’t immediately seated in a Seattle restaurant that was already filled to capacity. He took to Twitter to share the epic “don’t you know who I am?” moment with all his fans.

Five Point restaurant in Seattle is the WORST. Super rude & anti-worker. Shittiest doorman in the Northwest. Prick. Spread the word.

— Tom Morello (@tmorello) September 27, 2014

Spoiled musician experiences severe butt hurt over not being given special treatment, throws tantrum on Twitter. Spread the word.

@tmorello Wondering – A: Do people usually blindly do whatever you say? & B: Why not tell the doorman he's a prick, instead of telling us?

— Cayton (@StuffCaytonSays) September 27, 2014

Quote of the day: "Rock stars don't get special treatment at The 5 Point. We couldn't give less of a s**t."

— Ericka Andersen (@ErickaAndersen) September 30, 2014

The owner of the restaurant seems to be hard at work trying to implement the things Morello only talks about and took poor Tom to school.

@tmorello The 5 Point is totally pro worker & we pay more and have more benefits than any other small restaurant anywhere

— David Meinert (@davidmeinert) September 27, 2014

@tmorello higher starting pay, health insurance, retirement, paid vacation, sick days, and profit sharing.

— David Meinert (@davidmeinert) September 27, 2014

@tmorello we are or were fans of you & your work. Our staff are very cool & when they aren't it's typically a reflection of the customer

— David Meinert (@davidmeinert) September 27, 2014

@tmorello BTW I'm the owner & have supported & worked on paid sick days, higher minimum wage & city sponsored retirement for all workers

— David Meinert (@davidmeinert) September 27, 2014


@tmorello Attacking small business goes against your gimmick, asshole. Stop pretending you're a rock star.

— Jason. (@GabrielPomerand) September 27, 2014

So Rage Against The Machine has become the machine they raged against:

— Nik Martin (@nik_martin) September 30, 2014

lol, @tmorello uses his celebrity to get special treatment, then makes political accusations when he doesn’t get it

— J. Arthur Bloom (@j_arthur_bloom) September 30, 2014

@tmorello turns out to be just another douche rock star wanting special treatment. via @po_st #shocker #antidoorman

— Jennifer Cobb (@jencobb1978) September 30, 2014

@tmorello Perhaps Yelp would be a better outlet for your hurt feelings then?

— m. pinero (@stabulousness) September 27, 2014

@stabulousness: @tmorello Perhaps Yelp would be a better outlet for your hurt feelings then?” On it

— Tom Morello (@tmorello) September 27, 2014

@gechsor15 @tmorello "Rebellious social activist" didn't get rock star treatment, trashes small business on Twitter. #whenrockstarsyelp

— m. pinero (@stabulousness) September 27, 2014

@gechsor15 "Local business I've never been inside of is THE WORST. They're anti-worker! Spread the word." Yes, my attitude is the issue here

— m. pinero (@stabulousness) September 27, 2014

Willing to forgive the Seattle Evil (Egg) Empire 5 Points Cafe doorman powertrip if good guy owner D Meinert fully embraces #15Now min wage

— Tom Morello (@tmorello) September 29, 2014

So big of him. He’s willing to forgive the restaurant he trashed to 384k Twitter followers … but only if they meet his conditions.


Pancake Gate update: Luv&respect the workers.Glad to sit down w/owner next time in Sea, happy about his commitment to pay raise for workers

— Tom Morello (@tmorello) September 30, 2014

@tmorello that's awfully big of you, mister rock star.

— Ben Ecker (@BenEcker) September 30, 2014



Rage against the ‘official story': RATM’s Tom Morello enjoys a little JFK conspiracy reading

Occu-twerp Tom Morello: ‘Heroic’ Bradley Manning ‘deserves the Medal of Honor’

‘Chavez RIP': Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello retweets Chavez slam on Bush

Snit fit idiot: Rage’s Tom Morello: Ryan is ‘embodiment of machine our music rages against’

Full Twitchy coverage of Tom Morello




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Is It Time For Us To Take Astrology Seriously?

In an April marked by angry eclipses portending unexpected change, the ancient, long-debunked practice of astrology and its preeminent ambassador might be weirdly suited for the 21st century.

Illustration by Justine Zwiebel for BuzzFeed

Every Tuesday and Thursday from noon until 7 p.m., Bart Lidofsky pins a small plastic name tag to his shirt (“Bart Lidofsky, Astrologer”) and receives customers at the Quest Bookshop on East 53rd Street in New York City. After I wander up to him and introduce myself — I am there to have my natal chart read — he leads me to a little table in the back of the store and pulls a gauzy green curtain closed behind us. “For privacy,” he says.

Quest specializes in spiritual, esoteric, and New Age literature, but also sells crystals, runes, incense, divination equipment, mala beads, essential oils, candles, pendulums, gemstones, and “altar supplies.” It smells like church in here. You can picture the clientele — people who are comfortable pontificating about auras, people who know how to hang wind chimes. Lidofsky has been performing astrological readings for 20 years, and his bio contains a long string of bona fides: He’s a member of the American Federation for Astrological Networking and the National Center for Geocosmic Research, and frequently delivers lectures for the New York Theosophical Society. Or, as he calls it, “the Lodge.”

After we sit down, Lidofsky asks for the precise date, time, and location of my birth, and spends the next 45 minutes determining, in his words, “how things fit together.”

Before I leave, Lidofsky — who wears a robust white goatee and small wire-frame glasses — hands me his business card. It is pale blue, and features a photograph of Saturn alongside all the pertinent contact information. “Feeling lost in a difficult world?” it wonders in extra-large type. “Help is available.”

Until recently, I thought of astrology, when I thought of it at all, as frivolous and nearly embarrassing — a pseudoscience unworthy of consideration by serious people. I’m sure I felt at least partially implicated via my age and gender: A short screed in an 1852 edition of the New York Times called astrology’s audience “women and girls who are compelled to struggle as a living,” and declared the practice more odious than “the dozen other species of street swindles for which our city is famous.” In the late 1980s, when a former chief of staff published a provocative memoir claiming Nancy Reagan relied on a San Francisco astrologer to, as Time magazine put it, “determine the timing of the President’s every public move,” Ronald Reagan had to publicly insist that “at no time did astrology determine policy.” It was a major humiliation. Even the celebrity astrologer Steven Forrest has acknowledged his field’s dubious image. “I am often embarrassed to say what I do… Astrology has a terrible public relations problem,” he wrote in an essay for Astrology News Service.

But then there was this sense — suddenly, on the street — that astrology had credence. A 2013 New York magazine story claimed that “plenty of New Yorkers wouldn’t buy an apartment or accept a new job without an astral okay.” An occult bookstore opened on a dusty corner of Bushwick and was rhapsodically covered by the Times (its name, Catland, referenced a song by the British experimental band Current 93; its location in Brooklyn indicated a certain kind of culturally conscious clientele). People were talking frankly about their aspects. They knew which planets are in retrograde; they were jittery about eclipses. And it turns out what I’ve been observing anecdotally in New York — among my undergraduate writing students at New York University, in the press, between the otherwise high-functioning attendees of Brooklyn dinner parties — is supportable, at least in part, by statistics. According to a report from the National Science Foundation published earlier this year, “In 2012, slightly more than half of Americans said that astrology was ‘not at all scientific,’ whereas nearly two-thirds gave this response in 2010. The comparable percentage has not been this low since 1983.” While this sort of acceptance isn’t unprecedented, it’s still a curious spike. Astrology is gaining believers, and has been for a while.

In some ways, these numbers jibe with some broader cultural shifts: Whereas an astrological dabbler may have previously glanced at his horoscope in the newspaper while swirling cream into his coffee, there is now a vast and endless expanse of websites featuring complex, customized forecasts, some further broken down into insane and arbitrary-seeming categories (on, for example, you can consult a “Daily Flirt,” “Daily Home and Garden,” “Daily Dog,” or “Daily Lesbian” horoscope, among other variations). There is more access to astrology, just as there is more access to everything: A person can shop around, compare their fortunes, wait to find what they need.

When I speak to a former student, now 22, about the increase — it seems likely it’s at least in part attributable to her and her peers — she describes astrology’s mysteriousness as its most alluring attribute. She reads her horoscope every month, faithfully. Its inherent fallibility, she says, is precisely what makes it fun. For her, astrology is about feeling the strange thrill of indulging something (vaguely) supernatural, but it’s also about getting what she is really after, what we are all really after now: actionable, interactive information. These days, there aren’t many problems Google can’t solve. Except the problem of what happens next.

While folks her age are hardly the first group to feel the draw of the unknown, it also makes sense that a generation that came of age with the whole of human knowledge in its pockets might find the ambiguity of astrology a little welcome sometimes. For people born with the web, information has always been instantly accessible, so astrology’s abstruseness — and, ironically, its promises of clarity regarding the only real unknowable: the future — becomes appealing. This generation’s predicament, as I understand it, has always felt Dickensian: “We have everything before us, we have nothing before us.”

But then I’m reminded, again, that inaccuracy, or, at least, a belief in the fluidity of truth, is at the heart of the present-day zeitgeist: Our news is often hasty and unverified, our photos are filtered and retouched, our songs are pitch-corrected, our unscripted television programs are storyboarded into oblivion, and most everyone shrugs it all off. Astrology might not offer the most accurate or verifiable information, but at least it offers information — arguably the only currency that makes sense in 2014.

In that way, astrology seems perfectly positioned to become the defining dogma of our time.

The earliest extant astrological text is a series of 70 clay tablets known collectively as Enuma Anu Enlil. The originals haven’t been recovered, but copies were found in the library of King Assurbanipal, a seventh-century B.C. Assyrian leader who reigned at Nineveh, in what’s presently northwestern Iraq. (Some of the tablets are now held by the British Museum in London.) The Enuma Anu Enlil contains various omens and interpretations of celestial phenomena, and accurately notes things like the rising and setting of Venus. According to the historian Benson Bobrick, the Assyrians at Nineveh had distinguished planets from fixed stars and figured out how to follow their courses, allowing them to predict eclipses; they also established the lunar month at 29 1/2 days.

By 700 B.C., the Chaldeans — tribes of Semitic migrants who settled in a marshy, southeastern corner of Mesopotamia — had discerned that the planets traveled on a set, narrow path called the ecliptic, and that constellations moved 30 degrees every two hours. In his book The Fated Sky, Bobrick explains how “the twelve [observed] constellations were eventually mapped and formed into a Zodiac round (about the sixth-century B.C.), and the signs in turn (as distinct from the constellations) were established as twelve 30 degree arcs over the course of the next 200 years.” As early as 410 B.C., astrologers had begun making natal charts, noting the exact alignment of the heavens at the moment of a baby’s birth.

Bobrick eventually suggests that astrology is, in fact, “the origin of science itself,” the practice from which “astronomy, calculation of time, mathematics, medicine, botany, mineralogy, and (by way of alchemy) modern chemistry” were eventually derived. “The idea at the heart of astrology is that the pattern of a person’s life — or character, or nature — corresponds to the planetary pattern at the moment of his birth,” Bobrick writes. “Such an idea is as old as the world is old — that all things bear the imprint of the moment they are born.”

It’s at least hard to untangle the development of astrology from the rise of astronomy, and for a long time, the two fields were essentially synonymous; the divide between the supernatural and the natural wasn’t always quite so entrenched. As Bobrick writes, the “occult and mystical yearnings” of Copernicus, Brahe, and Galileo helped to “inspire their scientific work,” and astronomy and astrology remained close bedfellows until almost the end of the 17th century.

Nick Popper, a historian and author who has studied the intersection of science and mysticism, explains the relationship this way: “In Europe before the Enlightenment, for example, most individuals recognized a distinction between the two. Astronomy was the knowledge of the map of the stars and their movements, while astrology was the interpretation of their effects. But knowledge of the movements of the stars was primarily useful for its service to astrology. On its own, astronomy was most valuable as a timepiece.”

For early modern Europeans, astrology was undeniable and ubiquitous, a guiding force in various essential fields, including medicine. “Every noble court worth its salt had an astrologer on consultation,” Popper tells me. “Typically a physician skilled in taking astrological readings. Many brought in numerous people to help interpret significant events. These figures were [frequently] charged with determining propitious dates, anticipating future transformations, and using horoscopes to assess the character of all sorts of figures. This predictive capacity was not deemed a ‘low’ knowledge, as now, but seen as an utterly vital political expertise.”

Johannes Kepler, one of the forefathers of modern astronomy (he determined the laws of planetary motion, which allowed Newton to determine his law of universal gravitation; Kant later called Kepler “the most acute thinker ever born”), wrote in 1603 that “philosophy, and therefore genuine astrology is a testimony of God’s works, and is therefore holy. It is by no means a frivolous thing.” Three years later, in 1606, he declared: “Somehow the images of celestial things are stamped upon the interior of the human being, by some hidden method of absorption … The character of the sky flowed into us at birth.”

“There are so many misconceptions about astrology, it boggles me.” Susan Miller, arguably the most broadly influential astrologer practicing in America right now, is sitting across from me at a white-tablecloth restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side wearing a dark blue sheath dress, black tights, black knee-high boots, and Hitchcock-red lips. “The biggest is that it’s for women. I have 45% male readers. People just assume that it’s all women. It’s not.”

She is petite and precisely assembled, but not in a grim, bloodless, Park Avenue way. There is something openhearted about her, a vulnerability that borders on guilelessness. I find her instantly kind. We will sit here together for over four hours.

Miller founded a website called Astrology Zone on Dec. 14, 1995; the site presently attracts 6.5 million unique readers and 20 million page views each month. She released a new version of her smartphone app (“Susan Miller’s AstrologyZone Daily Horoscope FREE!”) late last year; her old app was downloaded 3 million times. Miller is hip to the way astrology functions online, having embraced the web from the very start of her career. She is active across most social media platforms, and fluent in the quick rhythm of virtual interaction, often acting as a kind of kooky, round-the-clock therapist. Offline, she employs 30 people in one way or another, has written nine books, and is aggressively feted by the fashion industry, a community in which she functions as an omniscient, beloved oracle.

Miller was born in New York, still lives in the city, and doesn’t have a whiff of bohemian mysticism about her. Instead, she presents as intelligent and detail-oriented, with none of the candles-and-crystals whimsy endemic to New Age bookstores. (A minor concession: Her iPhone, which beckons her often, is set to the “Sci-Fi” ringtone.) She appears legitimately compelled to help people, and offers an extravagant amount of free services to her followers. Of course, “free services” can be a potentially devious vehicle for other, less altruistic pursuits — and Miller does sell her books and calendars on her website, and frequently pushes a premier version of her app featuring longer horoscopes — but it is very, very easy to read and follow Astrology Zone without ever making an explicit financial investment in it. (Miller insists she makes “pennies” from the non-pop-up advertisements on the site.) I believe her when she says she considers her readers friends.

It had started to feel like a colossal waste of energy, fretting over whether or not astrology is “real” — whether or not there are accurate indications of our collective or individual futures contained in the cosmos, whether or not those indications can be massaged into utility by trained interpreters — because the fact is, even beyond our present disinterest in objective truth, reasonable people believe in all sorts of unreasonable things. True love, the afterlife, karma, a soul. Even high-level cosmology, the study of the origin and evolution of the universe, hinges in part on tenuous scientific presumptions. When I considered astrology objectively — the notion that celestial movements might affect activity on Earth, and that people born around the same time of year share might certain characteristics based, in part, on a comparable environmental experience in utero — it didn’t seem nearly as dumb as, say, waving one’s hands around a crystal ball. Or calling someone your soulmate.

Still, astrology is often (rightly) equated with charlatanism: hucksters peddling snake oil, burglarizing the naïve. As with any unregulated business, there are practitioners who aren’t properly trained, who haven’t done the work and don’t know the math; they will snatch your $5 and spit back some vague platitude about the stars. It makes sense, then, that astrology is so routinely conflated with fortune-telling, mysticism. “People think it’s predestination. It has nothing to do with predestination,” Miller says, forking the salmon on her chopped salad. She is careful, always, to emphasize free will in her readings — when properly employed, astrology doesn’t dictate or predict our choices, it merely allows us to make better, more informed ones. As the astrologer Evangeline Adams wrote in 1929, “The horoscope does not pronounce sentence … it gives warning.” It’s the same idea — in theory, at least — as a body undergoing genetic testing to unmask certain proclivities or susceptibilities: to find out what it’s capable of, to preemptively protect the places where it is softest, most at risk.

Miller has written extensively about the debilitating, unnamable ailment she suffered as a child (“I had sudden, inexplicable attacks that felt like thick syrup was falling into my knee,” she wrote in her 2001 book, Planets and Possibilities), and over lunch, she tells me she was bedridden for weeks-long stretches, and endured bouts of extraordinary, life-halting pain. She describes the problem as a birth defect, but her doctors were mystified by her condition, and routinely accused her of total hysteria. Around her 14th birthday, Miller’s parents finally found a physician willing to further investigate her case, and she spent 11 months in the hospital that year, undergoing and recovering from various vascular operations.

“The other doctors were like, ‘You’re very clever, aren’t you? You don’t want to go to school, and you’ve hoodwinked all of us,’” she recalls. “And you know, my mother and father were on my side. But they were the only ones. I could feel how a prisoner would feel when unjustly accused. It was the most horrible thing. To be in so much pain and to be screamed at!”

To date, Miller has received more than 40 blood transfusions. Although she no longer endures attacks, if she were injured again in her left leg — in a way that suddenly exposed her veins — she could easily bleed to death. As of 2001, there were only 47 other documented cases of her particular affliction on record.

The pain kept her out of high school, but Miller studied from bed, passed the New York State Regents exams, and graduated at 16. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled in New York University, where she studied business. The whole arc is remarkable: a narrative of redemption. I can’t tell whether I find it incongruous or inevitable that a kid who was constantly told her pain was not real grew up to adopt a profession that gets ridiculed, nearly incessantly, for being its own kind of con. It speaks to Miller’s self-possession that she is charitable, always, to her skeptics.

“No astrologer believes in astrology before she starts studying it,” she says. “What I have a problem with are people who pontificate against astrology who’ve never studied it, never looked at a book, had no contact with it. And they criticize it without opening the lid and looking inside.” She pauses. “But I’m not an evangelist.”

Miller is famously available to her readers, particularly on Twitter. The medium suits her: Her dispatches are sympathetic, personable, chatty. Aggressively educated young women, especially, share them in a half-winking, half-sincere way, indulging in astrology’s prescribed femininity and wielding it in a manner that feels almost confrontational. It reminds me, sometimes, of the way women talk to each other about nail polish: as if it were a political act to not be embarrassed by it.

Miller, for her part, spends loads of time answering questions from her more than 177,000 followers, like, “I need to have oral surgery. when should I schedule? Aries w/Virgo rising.” (“Every Aries I know is having oral surgery,” Miller wrote back. “My daughter had it too. Go ahead and have it — think of it as repair work. Good time!”).

Advice like this would be troubling if Miller was not always exceedingly mindful of her influence (she says she would never tell someone not to have surgery or not to get married on a specific day), and it is, in fact, troubling regardless; her readers take her work seriously. She is pestered with inane questions like some sort of human Magic 8 Ball. If there is any delay in the appearance of an Astrology Zone forecast — they are posted, en masse, on the first of the month — people get agitated. The tweets accumulate, and range in timbre from bummed to slightly desperate: “Waking up the first day of the month to find that Susan won’t post for another 24 hours is the worst,” “It won’t officially be spring until Susan Miller posts her March horoscopes,” “This wait on @astrologyzone is killing me,” “Why is @astrologyzone always late? Every other astrology website posts on time but the best.”

Eventually, the forecasts always appear. Miller stays up very late — until 2 or 3 in the morning, most nights — and wakes up at 7 to exercise, screen several news broadcasts (she likes to compare them, to see how certain stories are prioritized), run errands, and, eventually, around 11 a.m., start writing. She generates at least 40,000 words every month for Astrology Zone, and produces detailed horoscopes for Elle, Neiman Marcus, and a slew of international publications, including Vogue Japan.

Anyone who’s ever interviewed Miller has observed that she’s a circuitous, digressive storyteller, and her monthly forecasts are far longer — they’re essays, really — than a typical newspaper or magazine horoscope, which usually contains just a sentence or two of fuzzy wisdom. Miller can be specific in her advice (“I suggest you do not accept a job now, not unless the offer emanates from a VIP from your past. In that case, you would be simply continuing your relationship, not starting a new relationship, and you therefore would be on safer ground during a Mercury retrograde phase,” she cautioned in February), and she calls her work “practical astrology,” which differs, she said, from “psychological astrology.” She wants to be service-oriented. She wants to give people information they can use.

“I can tell right away if you had a harsh father or a critical mother,” she says. “I might mention it. But I’m not going to delve into your childhood and growing up. I think that’s the work of a psychiatrist.” Instead, Miller finds out how certain astrological phenomena have affected a client in the past, and then, when those events are about to repeat, asks them to recall the state of their life at that prior moment. “When I do a chart the first time, there is so much information there. I have to watch your proclivities.”

Miller pulls out her MacBook and opens a program called Io Sprite. She plugs in my birth information, and a pie chart appears on the screen. It contains several concentric circles; the outermost circle is divided into 12 sections, one for each sign of the zodiac. Individual slices contain glyphs representing the sun, the moon, planets, nodes, trines. It is a snapshot of the sky at the moment of my deliverance, and it is the lynchpin of Western astrology.

Besides the placement of celestial bodies, astrologers also consider what they call “aspects” — the relative angles between planets — and use the natal chart to determine an ascendant or rising sign (the sign and degree that was ascending on the eastern horizon at the time of birth; astrologers think this signifies a person’s “awakening consciousness”). The planet closest to one’s ascendant is that person’s rising planet, and is believed to indicate how we approach or deal with other people. Every astrologer will interpret a natal chart slightly differently. Miller compares this to how various broadcasters report the same news, but emphasize or deemphasize certain narratives. She tells me it is important to find an astrologer that I like and trust.

“You have Uranus rising the same way I do,” Miller says, staring closely at my chart. “Your thought patterns are different from everybody else’s. You think they’re the same because you’re living inside of your body, but they’re different. That influences your personality. People will remember you. And at some point in your life you will form a path for people. You will expose something or teach them something that they didn’t know about.” I’m not sure how or if I’m supposed to respond, so I chew on the end of my pen and look up at her like a puppy dog. I want her to tell me everything. Maybe I don’t believe in astrology, or at least not entirely, but I’m also not immune to the lure of whispered prophecies.

Obviously, the personality attributes commonly associated with most signs (and repeated by astrologers) are positive, and if they’re not immediately complimentary, they’re at least forgivable (“secretive,” “stubborn”). In astrology, no one is “strangely shaped” or “sort of dense.” I am a Capricorn, like Joan of Arc and LeBron James, which means, according to Miller, that I’m rational, reliable, resilient, calm, competitive, trustworthy, determined, cautious, disciplined, and quite persevering. “Your underlings see you as a tower of strength,” she wrote of Capricorns in Planets and Possibilities. “And indeed you are.” Meanwhile, I have Scorpio rising at 19 degrees, which means I have “awesome sexual powers” and a set of “bedroom eyes” that, I’m told, will get me “just about anything I want.” Like many people, I find my astrological profile to be spot-on.

The most noteworthy scientific repudiation of astrology was conducted in the early 1980s by a UC-Berkeley physicist named Shawn Carlson. He tasked 28 astrologers with pairing more than 100 natal charts to psychological profiles generated by the California Personality Inventory, a 480-question true-false test that determines personality type. The idea was to figure out if a trained astrologer could accurately match a natal chart to a personality profile. “Astrology failed to perform at a level better than chance,” Carlson concluded in Nature in 1985. “We are now in a position to argue a surprisingly strong case against natal astrology as practiced by reputable astrologers.”

It is a surprisingly strong case, in that I’m legitimately surprised that the astrologers fared so poorly, and then further surprised by my own surprise. I wonder, for a moment, if astrology has become so omnipresent and accepted in America — nearly everyone, after all, knows their sign, and has since childhood — that we’re all unconsciously performing our attributes now. That we have assumed them. This seems bonkers.

I recall Wittgenstein: “We feel that when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.”

These days, it’s not terribly easy to find a reputable scientist willing to go on the record about astrology. The practice is so heavily disregarded that folks don’t even want to expend the energy required to debunk it. The American Museum of Natural History tells me they do “not have anyone to talk about this.”

I eventually get in touch with Eugene Tracy, a chancellor professor of physics at the College of William and Mary, who studies plasma theory and nonlinear dynamics, and who recently co-authored a new book (Ray Tracing and Beyond: Phase Space Methods in Plasma Wave Theory) for the Cambridge University Press. Plasma theory — that’s heavy. It posits that plasmas and ionized gases play far more central roles in the physics of the universe than previously theorized. It’s also what’s known as a “non-standard cosmology,” meaning it essentially contradicts the Big Bang, and hypothesizes a universe with no beginning or end. I get a little bug-eyed just thinking about it.

Tracy, who has taught high-level graduate courses in physics and undergraduate seminars in things like “Time in Science and Science Fiction,” acknowledges that science and mysticism now sit in total opposition. “The separation between what we would now call science and religion, philosophy and art, is a very modern development,” Tracy says. “The [early] motivation for studying things in the sky was the belief that either these things were gods, or they were the places where the gods lived,” he says.

Tracy and I talk for a while about Kepler, the last great astronomer who maintained faith in astrology; I am interested in how Kepler juggled his confidences. “He believed that astrology wasn’t working, that it demonstrably wasn’t very predictive. But he believed that it was because they were doing it wrong, not because the field itself was misguided,” Tracy says. “He had that scientific attitude: I need good data to build my models on. But his motivation was mystical.”

I finally tell Tracy that what I really want is a succinct debunking of the entire enterprise: I want to know, definitively, that it can’t work, that it doesn’t make sense. He is gentle in his reply. “Newton’s theory of gravity says that everything in the universe gravitates toward everything else. So that means there is a force exerted upon you by the other planets, by the sun, and so forth,” he says. “Now if you ask, ‘Well, the person who is sitting next to me in the room also exerts gravitational influence on me. How close do they have to be to exert the same gravitational influence as Jupiter?’ I’d say depending on where the doctor stood in the room next to you when you were born, [he] exerted the same gravitational influence [as Jupiter]. So gravity isn’t gonna get you astrology. The argument is that there’s something else going on. And that’s where you get outside the realm of science.”

In the beginning — my beginning, your beginning — gravity was everywhere, and the planets were just planets.

When I ask him why he thought people continued to believe in astrology — to cling to a myth — he likens it to our ongoing interest in science fiction of all stripes. “We don’t want to think of the planets as being empty, that there aren’t stories out there. Just like here,” he answers. “We want to fill the world with stories.”

I have plans to meet my friend Michael in the West Village on a particularly frigid Friday night. Over email, I convince him we should go see an astrologer or clairvoyant of some sort — you know, just dip into one of those tapestried storefronts on Bleecker Street, slip some cash to a woman in a low-cut top. I anticipate resistance, so I tell him we can get a drink first. We meet at a quasi-dive called The Four-Faced Liar, and have 300 beers. I want to see for myself whether astrology — even when practiced in the most pedestrian, mercenary way — can distinguish itself from all your basic soothsaying rackets.

Sufficiently over-served, Michael and I stumble around the neighborhood. (It doesn’t even seem that cold out anymore!) (It is 11 degrees.) Walk-in astrologers in major cities tend to keep bar hours — they are often open until midnight or 1 a.m., at least in New York — and I suspect a decent chunk of their business is derived from rambunctious tavern patrons on the move and in search of one last thrill.

Street psychics obviously command a different clientele than high-end private astrologers (comprehensive natal readings tend to cost between $150 and $200, whereas most people can only stomach shelling out 10 or 20 bucks on a late-night whim), but the questions are often the same; all of our questions are always the same. Speaking on the telephone one afternoon, Miller tells me that people come to her for many kinds of personal advice: love, sex, marriage, friendship, health concerns, career counseling. “This is the most educated generation in history, and they’re reading me because they can’t get a job,” she says. “But they don’t read me just for solving problems. They read me to get a perspective on their life. That’s another misconception,” she sighs. “There is nothing but misconceptions.”

The promise of “perspective” is an interesting way to think about the basic appeal of astrology. It allows us to step back — way back — and get a broad-view portrait of our lives, to have someone say: “This is who you are.” A person could spend her entire life trying to figure that out (which is to say nothing of the subsequent quest — in the unlikely event of a successful self-definition — to have that identity validated). I wonder if part of astrology’s attractiveness doesn’t have to do with its rote assignment of signifiers. All the clues to how a person should be: rational, reliable, resilient, calm, competitive, trustworthy, determined, cautious, disciplined. It feels like a road map, in a way.

Of course, what people really want to know is the future. It’s supremely annoying, not knowing what’s going to happen to you.

Michael and I procure dollar slices on Sixth Avenue and wander over to Houston Street. We find a storefront with a neon PSYCHIC sign. The establishment is called Predictions, and is operated by a tiny Egyptian woman named Nicole, who immediately beckons us inside. Her card says “Horoscopes,” and I inquire about an astrological reading. She is dismissive of the idea. “They read your sign,” she says. “I tell your future.”

The best part of my 10-minute session with Nicole is when she asks Michael to leave, commands me to squeeze a clear quartz crystal in my left hand, and then announces, in succession, that my sex chakras are blocked, that someone bothered my mother while she was pregnant with me, that things other people find difficult I find easy, that I am destined to be with someone whose name begins with “J,” and that I am slightly psychic myself.

Back on the street, I find Michael deep in conversation with two young, dark-haired women who are both contemplating a consultation with Nicole. They say they are going to buy a scratch-off lottery ticket first, and that if they win, they’ll go in to see her. They do not win. I tell Michael how I am supposed to be with Jeorge Clooney.

We turn onto MacDougal and walk past a building with the zodiac painted on the window. The door is locked, but eventually an old woman — toothless, and wearing a pink bathrobe — appears and unlocks it. Despite the iconography decorating her building, she also denies us an astrological reading. “It’s too complicated,” she sighs. “You have to know what you’re doing.” Instead, she reads Michael’s tarot cards while I sit on a chair with a ripped cushion. The television remains on the entire time. “I don’t look at the past,” she says while he shuffles the cards. “That’s for you to deal with.” She proceeds to tell Michael a few things about his future — two to three kids! — but I’m not listening because I’m thinking really hard about nachos. Before we leave, he asks her if she has any ideas for a cool nickname. We discussed this question ahead of time, back at the bar. “Something with a T,” she says. “And an L.” He decides on “Talon” after a brief dalliance with “Toil.” The next morning, I text him the word “TOILET” repeatedly.

If there is a way to ascertain usable info about the future, I am not sure this is it.

The question of why astrology has endured — why, of all the outlier theosophies and esoteric theories, astrology is the one that’s remained in the public consciousness for thousands of years, the one with a presence in nearly every daily newspaper in America, the one that’s flourishing online — might just be attributable to the endless romance of the night sky. Find a field out in the country, wait until dark, look up: It is a fast and easy way to find yourself cowed. There is something seductive about the stars, about their beauty and their strangeness, about what they imply regarding the smallness of our existence here on Earth. In his book The Fourth Dimension, the mathematician Rudy Rucker wrote: “What entity, short of God, could be nobler or worthier of [our] attention than the cosmos itself?”

Eugene Tracy suggests something similar during our conversation. “I think for most of human history, the sky has been very important to people,” he says. “And now we live our lives without it. We’re surrounded by artificial light.”

Astrology is, in the end, a kind of mass apophenia: the seeing of patterns or connections in random data. Although it resembles a pantheism and sometimes gets slotted as such, astrology has never struck me as a useful stand-in for organized religion — it doesn’t proffer absolution or any promise of an afterlife, nor is it a practicable ethos — and many astrologers (including Susan Miller, who is a devout Catholic) nurture active spiritual lives that have nothing to do with the zodiac. Astrology, unlike religion, is a deeply personalized, nearly solipsistic practice.

When I ask Dr. Janet Bernstein, a psychiatrist who’s worked in all kinds of contexts (privately, in prisons, in hospitals, in New York, in Alaska), if she has a sense of why so many different types of people turn to astrology, she points out that it often only takes one win — one “right” horoscope — to convert a skeptic. “Humans seem to like certainty and predictability in many, but not all, situations,” she says. “Astrology is just one of many systems that promises some certainty and predictability. Medical research is another. Stock market analysis is yet another. What often happens when one prediction in a system is born out is that the entire system [is] accepted.”

Back at the Quest Bookshop, when I ask Lidofsky if his belief in astrology requires at least a temporary suspension of cynicism — a “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”-type of open-mindedness toward wildly unquantifiable truths — he only shrugs. “I don’t see any logical reason why it works,” he replies. “It just does. Aspirin was the most prescribed drug in the world, and no one knew how it worked until the ‘70s.”

Ultimately, I understand astrology’s utility as a (faulty) predictive tool, even if most astrologers prefer that it not be used that way. I also understand its attractiveness as something to believe in: Here is an ancient art — rooted in the cosmos, the default home for everything divine and miraculous — that promises not only clarity regarding the future, but also a summation of the past. Humans have always been drawn to succinct markers of identity, to anything that tells us who we are.

There is also the assurance of change in astrology: The planets keep moving. The chart always shifts. The forecast refreshes on the first of the month.

One particular story has stuck with me: In July 1609, Galileo discovered that Dutch eyeglass makers had developed a simple telescope, and weeks later, he’d designed and forged his own (improved) version, which allowed him to define the Milky Way as a galaxy of clustered stars, to see that Jupiter had four large orbiting moons, and to reaffirm Copernicus’ heliocentric understanding of the universe. Still, several prominent philosophers, including Cesare Cremonini and Giulio Libri, refused to look through the telescope. Maybe they just didn’t want to see what he saw — didn’t want to challenge one worldview with another. In 1610, in a letter to Kepler, Galileo opined what he called “the extraordinary stupidity of the multitude,” but it’s impossible to say precisely what kept the philosophers away.

I like to think they chose to uphold a private sense of heaven. One that told them exactly what they needed to know.

Read more:

‘It’s OVER’! Piers Morgan, ‘full of sound and fury,’ is putting his foot down

Piers Morgan means business. No more messing around:

Got that, you guys? It’s OVER. OVER!

We’re over, too. Over here, that is. Trying to pick up the shattered pieces of our broken hearts.

But of course!

Read more:

This Is What It’s Like To Go To Prison For Trolling

In January 2014, two people were found guilty of sending death and rape threats to the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez in the most high-profile online abuse case Britain has yet seen. They told BuzzFeed News why they did it — and what happened next.

Isabella Sorley in Newcastle, February 2015. Ceri Oakes / SWNS for BuzzFeed

At 2.29pm on 29 July 2013, Isabella Sorley, a then-23-year-old advertising graduate from Newcastle, said on Twitter: “Me doing something when tired only leads to one thing, me loosing [sic] my temper, but I’m sure sleep and wine will sort me out later.”

Twelve hours later, between 2.25am and 2.55am, she sent six tweets to two people: feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez, who was campaigning for a woman to be featured on the £10 note, and Labour MP Stella Creasy, who supported the campaign.

The tweets said: “Fuck off and die…you should have jumped in front of horses, go die; I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do… kill yourself before I do; rape is the last of your worries; I’ve just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried; seriously go kill yourself! I will get less time for that; rape?! I’d do a lot worse things than rape you.”

The press, whose interest in online abuse cases reached a peak in the summer of 2013, invariably describes internet trolls as “vile”, but in person, when BuzzFeed News meets her in Newcastle, Sorley, now 24, is confident and polite, and at times witty and self-deprecating. It’s hard to imagine her getting a kick out of telling someone to “kill yourself before I do”.

So how did she end up sending someone death threats at 2am?

“Alcohol,” she says without pausing to think. “I’m a horrid drunk and it’s just stuff I say when I’m drunk. I’ve read police statements of what I’ve said when I’m drunk and I’ve heard it read out in court and it’s all alcohol. It makes me really mean and nasty.

“It’s just something inside me … and I guess Twitter just became an outlet for that.”

Three days before Sorley sent the offending tweets, 25-year-old John Nimmo in nearby South Shields sent abusive tweets to the same two women via five pseudonymous accounts. His 20 tweets between 27 July and 29 July included these statements:

“Ya not that gd looking to rape u be fine; I will find you; come to geordieland bitch; just think it could be somebody that knows you personally; the police will do nothing; rape her nice ass; could I help with that lol; the things I cud do to u; dumb blond bitch.”

Nimmo and Sorley live just 12 miles apart, but don’t know each other (BuzzFeed News met them separately). They were both sentenced on the same day for the exact same crime.

On 24 January 2014, at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, Sorley was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison and Nimmo to eight for sending malicious messages, under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

They served half their sentences in London jails and were each ordered to pay £400 to their victims – although the judge allowed them to take up to three years to do so because of their lack of funds.

In the aftermath of the tweets, both Criado-Perez and Creasy spoke of the lasting effect of abusive messages like these, and Creasy later admitted to having installed a panic button in her home. Criado-Perez said she struggled to eat, sleep, and work at the height of the abuse. She declined to comment for this article; Creasy has not yet responded to our requests.

More and more people are being arrested and convicted for internet trolling. According to figures from Big Brother Watch, 6,329 people across the UK were charged or cautioned for malicious communications-related offences between November 2010 and November 2013.

Of these, at least 4,259 were charged and 2,070 were cautioned, and 355 cases involved social media.

Creasy and Criado-Perez received torrents of abuse from scores of Twitter users over the summer of 2013 from as many as 147 Twitter accounts, so what made Nimmo and Sorley so special? Twelve months on from their release from prison, what do two of the country’s most notorious internet trolls think about the case now? Were they especially wicked compared to all the other Twitter trolls on the bandwagon? And was it right for them to be punished with imprisonment?

What is not in doubt is that Sorley for several years had a serious alcohol problem.

Ceri Oakes / SWNS for BuzzFeed

When she was arrested for the abusive tweets in October 2013, she had 25 offences to her name, all of them alcohol-related, including assaults and counts of being drunk and disorderly. That’s why she got a harsher sentence than Nimmo, despite having sent fewer truly offensive tweets.

While on bail for the trolling offence, Sorley was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer. She had recently pleaded guilty to another assault, on New Year’s Eve.

While she doesn’t absolve herself of responsibility for her abusive tweets, she does emphasise that she was very drunk when they were sent.

Sorley has woken up on the streets more than once, and is still subject to a public order banning her from Leeds city centre. One magistrate called her a “one-woman crimewave”.

She joined Twitter in 2011, the second year of her degree in creative advertising at Leeds College of Art (she got a 2:1), and she has studied social networking’s effects on marketing and commerce. She speaks convincingly about how social media “can engage customers in a way you can’t with TV adverts”.

Both Nimmo and Sorley say they offended for the same reason: because they enjoyed the attention and endorphin-generating effects of becoming briefly famous, or notorious, on Twitter. Without any planning or forethought, they joined a bandwagon that was already rolling. It was a game and they enjoyed it.

“I guess it was just for a laugh really,” says Sorley. “I spent a lot of time wondering why I did it. One journalist said, ‘Was it just because you were getting a kick out of it, was it just for a laugh?’ and yeah, that’s pretty much it.

“I saw [Criado-Perez] was trending a few days earlier, I just sent out a tweet going, ‘Why is this woman trending?’ And I got in a conversation with these randomers and they were going, ‘Yeah she’s getting abuse,’ and then people were saying ‘why are you being a victim-blamer?’ and I said ‘I’m not, but if she’s getting abuse she’s bound to have done something.’”

Sorley says she got carried away, encouraged by the retweets and favourites she was getting. Then, three months later, seven police officers turned up at her parents’ house with a warrant for her arrest.

Ceri Oakes / SWNS for BuzzFeed / Via SWNS for BuzzFeed

“My mam rang me about 7.30 or 8 in the morning and said, ‘I’ve got these police here,’ and I thought it was a joke. I said ‘Mam, are you being serious?’”

Sorley had an idea what was coming. She’d read in the news that Criado-Perez’s lawyers were threatening to complain to the police about Twitter abuse. “I was worried,” she says, “but because it had got to October I thought I’d got away with it.”

She entered a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity and was told by her solicitor that she wouldn’t go to jail. She only booked one day off from her job at Asda, thinking she’d be back in soon.

The trip to London for her sentencing was her first time in the capital. And despite the publicity the case had generated, on the morning of the hearing Sorley decided to take in some sightseeing. To her solicitor’s alarm, she posted a selfie outside Buckingham Palace.

“I didn’t see anything [wrong] in it, like,” says Sorley. “I’d never been to London before. I was staying at a mate’s house and he had to go to work – we were up really early. He said ‘Stay in my flat until the court case’ but I said ‘Nah, I don’t want to’, so we went on a sightseeing trip.”

In court, the shame of what she’d done began to hit home:

“Obviously when they read it all out, I just hanged my head in shame, trying to, like, imagine myself not there. It was all about getting through it really.”

The court hearing was made worse by the presence of her sister in the public gallery. Sorley’s family supported her, but hadn’t known the full extent of what she’d said.

“Obviously they called me an idiot for doing it,” she said. “But they’ll always stand by me – they’re just pleased now I’ve got a hold of my drink problem.”

Eventually, having read the papers, the managers at Asda realised she wouldn’t be turning up for work any time soon.

“They actually wrote to me in prison saying I’d be called to a disciplinary hearing,” she says. “I said that I doubt Holloway are going to give me a day release to go to Asda.”

Sorley found herself behind bars yet again six months later, in August 2014. “I guess I was celebrating getting out, but not in the best way. … I punched someone and got convicted for battery.” Sorley says she’s been sober since that prison stint.

Isabella Sorley with the restraining order banning her from even mentioning her victims’ names publicly. Ceri Oakes / SWNS for BuzzFeed

When she was charged, Sorley tweeted a string of indignant messages arguing, in essence, that Criado-Perez should just put up with the abuse. With the benefit of 12 months’ hindsight, does she think the trolling sentence was fair?

“I don’t think that long a sentence [was fair],” she says. “It was obvious I had a drinking problem. I’d just been given a community order by Newcastle magistrates, but because I got prison I couldn’t even keep my probation meetings in Newcastle. And I needed help with my addiction more than anything.

“I think education is really important. I think it’s obvious that the judge wanted to send a message that this wouldn’t be tolerated.”

She and Nimmo were not exercising free speech but abusing it, she admits now:

“Threats are wrong. There’s a difference between free speech and threats. Free speech, if you’re just going to moan about something, if you said ‘people deserve cancer’, that’s free speech.

“But as soon as you talk at someone and say ‘you deserve cancer’, that’s different. Threats and free speech are completely different. I know a few people say this is a free speech issue but it’s not – threats have always been wrong, no matter if it’s on social media or it’s face to face.

“If you’re putting someone’s life in danger or making them feel scared, that’s different to free speech.

“I don’t want sympathy – I don’t deserve it, I did something wrong. But I’d like to think [that people say] ‘good on her for sorting out her drink problems and finally admitting them’.”

John Nimmo in Newcastle, February 2015. Ceri Oakes / SWNS for BuzzFeed

John Nimmo is a shy man. In court, his own lawyer described him as a “somewhat sad individual” who was “effectively a social recluse”.

Having made the trip from South Shields to Newcastle, he tells BuzzFeed News about his experience in a halting, nervous manner, while occasionally sipping a Coke. When asked to describe himself he uses just one word: “Shy.”

After a pause: “I don’t go out much.”

What does Nimmo think of his tweets now? “Terrible,” he says. “It’s not who I am. It’s not me.”

Like Sorley, Nimmo, now 26, looks younger than his age. He has what he calls “moderate learning difficulties”, although his lawyer didn’t press this point during mitigation.

During his sentencing, the judge said he had more than than enough mental capacity to understand his actions and was guilty of a “sophisticated” level of trolling involving multiple accounts. “I knew what I was doing,” he says now.

“I’m trying to use the experience, with the National Bullying Helpline, to get it out there that if you do it you might get locked up,” he says.

Nimmo mentions this a lot. He’s been helping the National Bullying Helpline with its campaigning for some months.

In a blog post, which he admits was written “with help” from a writer who works for the helpline, he says:

“The irony of it all is that I wasn’t even passionate about the subject or the people I was bullying. I was simply bored, saw what was trending, and leaped on to the bandwagon.”

Nimmo has been on Twitter for years – he was an early adopter, signing up not long after it launched. He can’t recall exactly when he started creating anonymous or pseudonymous accounts – it was “a few years back”, maybe “a couple of years” before he was convicted.

He doesn’t deny that he said nasty things online before, but “it wasn’t that bad, not as bad as what I did [in July 2013], you know, it was just normal things like disagreements”. He was a compulsive if not particularly unusual Twitter user who would often tweet about computer games.

Ceri Oakes / SWNS for BuzzFeed / Via SWNS for BuzzFeed

So how did he get from there to sending rape threats to people he’d never heard of, including “I will find you”? His answer is strikingly similar to Sorley’s.

“It was trending,” he says. “I saw it was trending, so I looked into what it was about and, stupid me, I decided to join in. And I was getting, like, retweets, I was getting favourites and all that – and even the person I was sending tweets to, the person I was tweeting at, was retweeting it and answering back.”

And as with Sorley, Nimmo had – at best – only a vague idea who his victims were. Only after sending his abusive tweets did he see a TV news item about the £10 note campaign.

The common advice given to people dealing with online abuse is “Don’t feed the trolls”: Don’t respond or react to the abusers and hopefully they will go away. Block them and move on.

Instead, throughout this period, Criado-Perez stood up to her abusers with defiant replies, routinely retweeting them to offer a glimpse into the kind of vitriol she was receiving. She later said, in a speech in September 2014: “Not feeding the trolls doesn’t magically scrub out the image in your head of being told you’ll be gang-raped till you die.”

While he admits his actions were plainly wrong, Nimmo now says that her reaction more than anything else encouraged him to “get on the bandwagon” and join in:

“I thought to myself, you know, she wants us to carry on. Because when you answer back, that’s a conversation. I’m not blaming her, but if she didn’t answer back then I wouldn’t have [carried on].”

Nimmo uses almost the exact same phrase as Sorley to explain his abuse: “It was just all about a laugh.

“I thought in my head actually, that when someone sees something like that and they read it, they’re gonna complain … But you think, ‘This is Twitter’ – you don’t expect to be raided by nine police officers.”

It took a producer on Newsnight to reveal Nimmo’s real identity by befriending him on the PlayStation Network.

As with Sorley, the police turned up at his dad’s house first, and then at his own at 2.30pm on 1 August 2013. While Sorley confessed to her crime immediately, Nimmo said nothing during the police interview, on his lawyer’s instruction.

In another parallel, Nimmo’s trip to London for his sentencing was his first time in the capital, and he “made a weekend of it”, visiting the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street with his fiancée, Naomi.

He was already engaged to Naomi when he was arrested, and says he feared she might leave him.

Nimmo is apologetic, but still thinks he was made an example of. “But I don’t think it worked as a deterrent,” he says, pointing out that several online abuse cases have happened since, some where custodial sentences were handed down but suspended.

While in jail, his fellow prisoners were amused by the novelty of someone being sent down for sending tweets – some even congratulated him.

Ceri Oakes / SWNS for BuzzFeed

“I’m in prison, with muggers and murderers and all that, just for saying some words on social media. I just thought, ‘I’ve done a daft thing, [I’ve gone] down to prison.’”

Nimmo was criticised during sentencing for his lack of contrition and regret for his actions, and for appearing to blame his victims. A year on from his imprisonment, what does he think about them now?

After a long pause, he says he is concentrating on helping the National Bullying Helpline.

What would Nimmo say to his victims now? “I’d say ‘sorry’. I’ve been told that it was free speech, what I did, but that just was crossing the line.”

So you just crossed that line? “I went straight over it.”

One theory holds that that one of the main reasons people act differently online to the way they would in a face-to-face encounter is “dissociative imagination”, the idea that for some the internet represents a parallel world not populated by real people.

Sorley says she recognises this as a feature of her own behaviour: “It’s because people don’t engage their emotions. Yeah, there’s that thing of having that power to send horrible stuff because you don’t have the instant reaction you’d have while saying it face to face.”

Nimmo and Sorley both accept they did wrong, but both feel their sentences, served 280 miles from home, were harsh. They remain two of the UK’s most high-profile convicted internet trolls, despite an unknown number of similar offences happening every day.

Criado-Perez has shown in quite horrific detail the long list of messages she received at the time, many of which were similar to Nimmo’s and Sorley’s, yet the only other high-profile conviction from the long list of people who trolled Creasy and Criado-Perez is Peter Nunn, who was sentenced to 18 weeks in jail in September 2014 (Nunn is appealing).

Sorley was already well-known to the police, while Nimmo seemed to fit the classic profile of an internet troll and had just been outed by media reports.

The police would have had to put a real name and address to the other anonymous accounts before acting on them, and here was an opportunity to send out a real message that the police had got a grip on what had become a national scandal.

As for what the future holds, Nimmo says he has no immediate plans other than to get a job – although the problem is, “If you search my name, what comes up is all this” – and to get married.

Ceri Oakes / SWNS for BuzzFeed

As for Sorley, she is unemployed but has plans to launch a social enterprise business designed at helping young people with alcohol addiction. It’s just in the planning stage, but she says she’s serious about using her experience as a way to help others.

One curious aspect of this case is that both Sorley and Nimmo are still on Twitter – but both using their real names this time. A restraining order prevents them from mentioning or contacting Criado-Perez and Creasy, but Twitter’s rules don’t specifically say anything about convicted trolls keeping their accounts or starting new ones.

“I’ve also got another account,” says Nimmo. “But I don’t do trolling from it. I shouldn’t have said that, should I?”

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