Given that your technology-challenged uncle managed to finally figure out Twitter last year, the long delay before the abrupt arrival of mad genius/anti-totalitarian savior/ enigma Edward Snowden on the social media platform on Tuesday is a bit of a head scratcher. And given what Snowden managed to do the last time around, a lot of us are wondering, What’s he doing here, now, suddenly? And, most acutely, What does this guy have in mind this time?
Describing himself in his profile as “I used to work for the government. Now I work for the public,” Snowden announced himself with an inaugural “Can you hear me now?” (It’s a reference, as some picked up, to an old Verizon commercial.)
So far, Snowden has only followed the National Security Agency, a group he’s been acquainted with in the past and whose Twitter following he quickly outstripped. (Snowden also made a joke about “a thousand people at Fort Meade just opened Twitter.”) Jesse Ventura, the show “Mr. Robot,” the ACLU, and TED guru Chris Anderson have all welcomed him.
As for the question of why now, some speculate that the science geek in Snowden was jolted by the news of water on Mars and wants to follow it better. “One of the tipping points appears to be a recent interview that Snowden conducted with celebrity astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson,” Matt Pearce writes in the Los Angeles Times. Pearce quotes from the radio interview:
"I tried to find you on Twitter, and I couldn't find your handle ... you kind of need a Twitter handle, so like, @Snowden, maybe, is this something you might do?" Tyson asked Snowden.
"That sounds good, I think we gotta make it happen," Snowden replied, laughing. "You and I will be Twitter buds ... your followers will be the Internet, me and the NSA, it'll be great."
Snowden tweeted to Tyson when the Mars news broke:
But, on second thought, they could have probably just exchanged emails or something.
The more important question is what Snowden is up to. Maybe he just got lonely in Russia and wanted to send out photos of what he eats at restaurants. (He made a joking reference to cat photos.)
For a guy who once set the world on fire, Snowden has kept a pretty low profile lately. He’s talked about not wanting to be one of the many whistleblowers destroyed by the system they try to take down. Despite the intense focus and risk and egoism that his work required, he has not been relentless or ubiquitous since his 2013 revelations about widespread NSA spying on civilians.
“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” he told the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, near the end of 2013. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”
He’s not a hero to everyone: Some, and not just patriotic wack-jobs, consider him a traitor or a reckless egomaniac. The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin described him as willfully naïve about what the NSA, which once employed him, does for a living, calling Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.”
What’s the role for Snowden these days? We no longer need to be woken up to the fact that the United States security apparatus has become scary and invasive, and journalists on the left, right, and center have begun to pay attention.
But maybe we can take him at his word: That as the director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a group co-founded by Daniel Ellsberg, he'd dedicated to “support and defend public interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption and law-breaking in government.” Government surveillance is likely no better than it was when Snowden’s famous leaks broke.
At the very least, Snowden can keep a steady supply of Stupid Government Tricks coming. With Jon Stewart (and David Letterman) offstage now, maybe Edward Snowden is the guy who can keep us simultaneously amused and terrified?