This episode was written & produced by Jim McNulty.
A mysterious Tweet from one of the most famous people on Earth: A single phone number, zero context. What does it mean? Why was it posted? Would you call it to find out? For commercial director Duncan Wolfe, this hypothetical became a very real social experiment when his cell phone number was accidentally posted on a very public Twitter account—Former First Lady Michelle Obama!
MUSIC IN THIS EPISODE
Been There - Steven Gutheinz
This Place - Steven Gutheinz
Last Waltz - Tolo
A Long Way Out - Tony Anderson
Months Without Outlet November 2016 - Dexter Britain
Fragmentation - Tony Anderson
Power of Love - Tony Anderson
Country Trouble - Dexter Britain
Silver - Eric Kinny
Unboxed - Steven Gutheinz
Luna - Steven Gutheinz
All of our music is from our friends at Musicbed. Check out our playlist at music.20k.org.
Defacto Sound is a sound team dedicated to making the world sound better.
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View Transcript ▶︎
[PAT VOICEMAIL] Dunc, this is Pat. I’m sure you’re not answering your phone right now. I read online that Michelle Obama goofed and gave out your phone number inadvertently. I’m so sorry to hear that. I can’t imagine what kind of a mess it’s going to make for you, but I wanted to offer you my sympathy and wish there was something I could do to help, but obviously there’s not. I don’t even know what you’re doing now that you’re out of the White House, but I’ll try to talk to your mom and dad and they’ll fill me in, but I just wish you my condolences and I hope this thing passes over and doesn’t create a big fiasco for you. Love you Dunc, talk to you later.
[Duncan interview clip]
You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz, I’m Dallas Taylor. This is the story of what the internet sounds like when it comes to life.
[Duncan interview continues: “I’m in the booth and we are recording so...”]
That’s my friend, Duncan. He’s a commercial film director. He and I randomly met through a mutual friend in the industry. Side note, this might be a good time to mention that I’m a sound designer, but you might’ve already picked that up on that. Anyway, Duncan took a year and a half off from directing to work at the White House.
Duncan: That building has something special. With things like Veep and House of Cards and even just watching the news all day you see images of this place almost every day, right? To be there in person, it’s kind of uncanny.
Duncan was tasked with documenting the last year and a half of the Obama Administration through film. In a nutshell, he followed around the President and Vice President with a camera.
Duncan: I had been working as a freelancer and then all of a sudden I’m wearing a wool suit and a tie, black polished shoes, and I have a desk. And so there was sort of the formalities of having a government desk job even though mine was probably the least desk-y of all the jobs you could have at the White House.
You’re walking down the west colonnade in the West Wing. These are images from history. You know, JFK walking down the west colonnade. You see world leaders walking down these hallways in photos in the Oval Office or in the West Wing... I’m here now. How did this happen?
So how does a commercial director end up in the White House? Well, Duncan originally got involved in politics by volunteering for the Iowa Caucus back in 2008. This later led him into an internship with the photography department under Pete Souza, who was the Chief White House Photographer for both Reagan and Obama. After the internship, he went back to commercial directing, but the thought of public service kept nagging at him, so he eventually found himself back on staff under the video department. While it’s easy to imagine being in awe of the history and importance of the White House, it’s harder to imagine actually working there.
Duncan: The name of the game when you’re working in a place like the White House, everybody knows that it’s an incredibly interesting and special experience, especially since it is one that’s finite. Everybody knows it’s gonna end at some point.
You’re soaking it in but at the same time there is so much important work to do that you can’t really get caught up in thinking about “Oh my god I’m here right now.” And so that starts to fade in the name of just doing your job.
The beginning of me working at the White House, there was this duality of boring bureaucracy onboarding process, but the second week of work I was flying on Air Force Two across the Atlantic to Ukraine with the Vice President. My boss, I think he knew it was going to be like sink or swim, “let’s throw you in real fast and see how you do.”
Working at the White House can be an amazing opportunity and experience. Duncan was working around some of the most influential people in the world on a daily basis, but it was only temporary.
Duncan: There’s this adrenaline high that you have when you’re there, and all of a sudden it’s done and gone.
[Clip of Trump’s inauguration clip]
After inauguration, we all left the government and I moved to Los Angeles. I was back working in my commercial directing career space. It was May and it had been a couple months since I had left government, and I got this opportunity to fly to New York and help Michelle Obama and her team out for an event for College Signing Day.
But it’s while Duncan was working on that project for the former First Lady that something strange started to happen.
Duncan: My phone’s buzzing and I look up at it and it’s some unknown phone number from Nebraska or something and I’m having a conversation with somebody, unknown phone number, it’s like “press decline.” And as soon as I press decline there was another phone call, then it’s like as soon as you press decline another call’s there. Florida, decline. Montana, decline. Illinois, California, Nevada, Maine, South Dakota, Ohio, Florida again, Russia, Iran, the UK, Jamaica, Croatia.
As a preoccupied Duncan struggled to to figure out why his phone was blowing up, one of his colleagues tries to get his attention.
Duncan: “Hey dude, uhhh, we’re talking!” cause I was staring at my phone baffled and I’m just like tapping like “tap tap tap tap.” Immediately I just try to get my phone on airplane mode because it is like every second there’s twelve calls coming in [phone buzzing and texting SFX]. Your voice mailbox immediately fills up. All of a sudden you look at your text messages and it’s all of these people sending messages that sometimes don’t even make sense.
Duncan had no clue what was happening. Did his phone get hacked? Why is he getting calls from all over the world? All he knows is it’s probably not good.
Duncan: I’m trying to be calm and I’m also there to do a job, but this is probably really serious.
Duncan: So at some point somebody says “oh god,” Duncan’s number just got tweeted out on Michelle’s account with 7.6 million followers. And then everything clicked... I didn’t get hacked, I don’t have a virus. Just one of the most visible public figures in the world tweeted my phone number with zero context. I better brace myself.
So just how did Duncan’s number get tweeted out on Michelle Obama’s account?
Duncan: Sometimes the First Lady and President Obama do write their own tweets and Facebook messages and usually when they do that they sign off “M.O.” or “B.O.” In this case, running the Twitter was just a part of the general staff operation. We were all there to support the First Lady in what she was doing that day and we’re exchanging photos and Snapchats and boomerangs and phone numbers and in that process my phone number ended up accidentally tweeted on Michelle Obama’s account. She didn’t do it, it was just sort of a part of this process and so she was unaware in the moment that all of this happened.
With a single tweet, Duncan’s cell phone number was shared with MILLIONS of users throughout the Twitterverse. Imagine your phone number appearing on the social media account of one of the most public figures in the world, even for just a few minutes. What would that be like?
Duncan: people are curious. They want to know what that is. People make goofs on the internet all day, especially people that are high profile. Things happen. It’s like Sean Spicer tweeting out what was maybe his Twitter password. Or Covfefe that’s a whole other thing.
All of a sudden you look, and there’s just a phone number. That’s it. Is it a code to something, what is this? What are people gonna do? They’re gonna call it. If you looked at Twitter on that day, there was so many crazy thoughts and ideas and conspiracies about what this was.
The internet LOVES a good mystery. And without any context surrounding the number, curious first lady fans and Trolls alike could hardly resist. Of course, Twitter trolls are usually constrained to a set number of characters on a single platform. But this was Duncan’s real cell phone number—providing a portal beyond Twitter and the Internet. As you can probably imagine, the texts and voicemails Duncan received were overwhelming. There were of course prank callers, as well as curious and nasty messages, and nonsensical texts, but Duncan also received legitimate inquiries from national news organizations.
Duncan: When you have news stories being written about you and there’s New York Times reporters calling you and texting you, it’s a crazy thing because I’m not a person that’s in the public eye really ever. To all of a sudden have your entire life thrust upon this global, internet stage… it’s a complete loss of control.
Reading a news article about yourself on the New York Times on a day when you did not expect anything even remotely like that ever happening. It’s a jarring experience.
New York Times headline, May 5th, “Michelle Obama tweets phone number of former White House staff member. Any White House employee would likely appreciate a public shout out from the former First Lady, but this probably wasn’t what Duncan Wolfe had in mind.” Yeah, that’s for sure.
At first glance, this might just seem like a humorous accident, but for Duncan it became much more than that. It was an invasion of privacy and a shocking loss of control.
Duncan: That day I basically just threw my phone into airplane mode and do not disturb. That night I went out with my friends. I tried to have a drink and calm down but, I remember getting up into my hotel room and the door shutting and feeling isolated in a way that I had never felt before. The control that was just stolen from my life for a moment and in such an aggressive and big way. This is the kind of thing that nobody else in my life has experienced this and so there’s almost no touch point for anybody to say “Hey man, I get it. I’ve been there.”
A lot of my friends thought it was funny and I get why they thought it was funny because they just didn’t quite realize the impact that something like this could have on your psyche. And meanwhile, I realized that my mailbox is full. What if I leaned in a little bit and just listened to what some of these people had to say, read some of these text messages…
And we’re going to play some of those voicemails and text messages, in just a minute.
It’s hard to imagine that life outside the White House could be even more stressful than life inside. But for Duncan, the fallout from an inadvertent Tweet from Michelle Obama’s Twitter account was just beginning. The day after it happened, Duncan went to do the one thing everyone was telling him to do - change his phone number. So he called up his service provider.
Duncan: You want to explain yourself to them, but they don’t really care. They’re just like, “okay you want a new phone number? Okay.” You don’t get to pick your phone number. They offer you up three phone numbers, and then presented with a choice of a new phone number… It’s like that’s the only phone number I’ve ever had since when I got a cell phone in highschool when I got a car so that I could keep in touch with my parents. I never thought I’d have an attachment to my phone number, but presented with these options I sort of balked and I was like “oh man, I’m not sure I’m ready to do this.”
In a way, our cell phone numbers have become part of our identity, much like a social security number. So if Duncan decided to keep his cell number, he was going to have to come to terms with his newfound cellular celebrity.
Duncan: I was starting to come over the hump about realizing that it was maybe really interesting to have all these voicemails and text messages. This is such a weird thing that happened to me. What if I leaned in a little bit and just listened to what some of these people had to say, read some of these text messages, because it says something really interesting and unique about the time we’re living in and maybe I could make some interesting art project with all of this material or maybe I can talk about it on a podcast about sound.
Duncan tried to make the best of a bad situation by approaching it with a sense of curiosity. Who were these people calling him, what were they saying, and why did they want to contact a number randomly tweeted out on the internet?
Duncan: So many different kinds of people called me. Certainly I had folks that were not politically aligned with me.
[Play hateful voice messages]
But also weird stuff too, there’s one of the guy… it’s almost like he has a little soundboard of Obama reading the narration for one of his books but cut up in a way that makes the president sound stupid or weird or something.
[Play soundboard voice message]
Some people took it really seriously, some of them were funny.
[Play funny voice messages]
And then sometimes it’s some kids at what seems to be a slumber party and they’re prank calling me.
[Play prank call]
Duncan receives so many calls from unknown numbers that one literally came in while I was interviewing him… five months after the tweet.
Duncan: I don’t know if you can hear it, I’m getting a phone call from Hackensack, New Jersey. Alright, hold on, here I’ll call you right back, one second.
Uhh so, it was guy that was like, “hello, hello?” and then he just goes, “Arrr matey” like a pirate, and then hung up. Y’know what I mean, so like… Oh he’s calling back again right now. See this is the thing it’s like... You do want to engage with people but I don’t really want to be fueling a bunch of trolls by picking up and letting them know that like, I am available to be harassed. That’s what happens when you pick up the phone and you do engage.
Even after Duncan started listening to the voice messages, it still didn’t answer all of his questions. Why would someone be motivated to call a random number tweeted out by a celebrity? He dove in a bit deeper to find out.
Duncan: This is when I was starting to become interested in who these people are, why are they calling, what’s their motivation, like what is this really. And so this guy called me, and I didn’t pick up. Well, let’s call this guy back.
[Play some of this call]
He was playing as if he doesn’t know that I have thousands of calls coming in and it’s like it’s so obvious why he called me. Then I got to sort of interrogate him for a second in a casual way.
[Play interrogation part of clip.]
It takes like ten minutes, but then he caves and he reveals it all to me.
[Play admission part of clip]
The more and more we talked about it the more and more he started to realize that “oh me, Duncan, like I’m a human. This caused a lot of stress” and he started to feel bad and, at the end of it he was apologetic and he was even offering to buy me dinner.
[Play apology part of clip]
It was nice it was like we actually ended up having this real conversation.
In addition to the countless calls and voice messages Duncan received, he also got a huge amount of texts.
[text message SFX]
Duncan: Two days ago, just a text message from 980 area code. “Michelle, comma, baby, comma, is this you?” And a lot of them don’t make sense like, “hi”, next message, “hi”, next message, “you obama?”, next message “you obama?” 585 area code, “are you friends with michelle obama?”
206 area code, “Hi I hate your husband obama,” Obama spelled O-B-O-M-A.
571 area code, “You’re cool AF, exclamation point, I wish former First Lady gave my number away.”
“Can’t wait for prom see you there”, smiley face, “jk that was stupid, if so, sorry.”
“Will you please send me photos of the Obama’s, specifically Barrack”, from 408 area code.
Here’s the one from my local news station growing up, “Hey there I work at KACK channel 5 in St. Louis. We saw Michelle Obama tweeted just your phone number out a little bit ago. We want to see what your day has been like since then.”
Also delightful text messages like this one from 619 area code that says, “I’m taking a poop like you.” Uhh, okay.
Despite the curious content of some of these messages that people were sending to Duncan’s phone, the sheer volume makes it clear that lots of people were fascinated by the tweet. What is it about events like this that inspire people to reach out?
Duncan: It all depends on how people viewed the number and what they thought that number was and it almost has nothing to do with me, it has more to do with people wanting to feel like they’re a part of something. All of a sudden through this tweet and my phone number it allows people to feel like they have a connection to this celebrity figure, even though most of them probably do know that voicemail is not going to be listened to by the First Lady. It still lets them participate in this cultural internet process.
Duncan’s experience speaks to the awesome power and challenges that come from the internet age. One tweet, nothing more than a quick accident, was enough to set off thousands of calls and texts from strangers around the world. It also inspired news organizations to dig into every detail of Duncan’s life. Unfortunately, Duncan’s story also illustrates the darker sides that are revealed from the anonymous nature of the internet.
Duncan: I feel like I received the full force of 2017 internet shaming culture, but I didn’t do anything wrong or bad. I just was this phone number. It was received in ultimately a fairly benign way. This whole thing has been this really crazy and unrepeatable social experiment.
Despite being harrassed and loss of privacy, Duncan still remains fascinated by the whole experience, and while the amount of calls and texts he receives have slowed down pretty significantly, he still receives them every single day.
Duncan: My number’s like out there in this thing and you’d think five months later people would stop calling and stop texting and certainly they’ve slowed down. It’s maybe a call or two a day but sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less but it’s still happening. So it seems like this plateau that I’ve hit, it’s kind of just my new normal and I just need to get used to it.
And while Duncan had no control over his situation in the beginning, the decision on how long this social experiment continues is completely up to him.
Duncan: Something about this whole process has been immensely interesting for me. What happened to me hasn’t really happened to anybody else in this kind of way before and so I’m feeling like, as much as it really was terrible for me it’s also a privilege to be this vessel through which this weird experiment can happen and I’m yet unwilling to just stop it. So as soon as it becomes unbearable, it’s as easy as changing my phone number.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at defacto sound dot com.
This episode was written and produced by Jim McNulty...and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Colin DeVarney.
Huge thanks to Duncan Wolfe for sharing his story… and thanks to his phone number for making it all possible. Also, Duncan is an incredible commercial director and you should definitely take a moment to check out his work. You can find that at Duncan Wolfe (that Wolf with an e) dot com. Also, after hearing this story, if you decide to call or text Duncan - at least make it entertaining. Oh, and be nice.
The incredible music in this episode is from our friends at Musicbed. They represent more than 650 great artists, ranging from indie rock and hip-hop to classical and electronic. You can also head over to music.20k.org to hear our exclusive playlist.
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Thanks for listening.