At a recent city council meeting, observers noticed a row of intense men and women sitting side by side in an upper tier of the public gallery, pecking away furiously at their laptops, smart phones and tablets.
This was city hall’s geek squad, a little troupe of self-described obsessives that cover city hall debates with a nerdy zeal usually reserved for Game of Thrones or Star Trek. Since Mayor Rob Ford came into office a year and a half ago, they have been following the strange events unfolding at city hall in minute detail, chronicling, analyzing, tabulating and making fun of every delicious moment.
Half journalist, half activist, they spend hours monitoring meetings of city council and its committees. Their main vehicle is Twitter, the social-media tool that is changing journalism and politics with its 140-character-or-less bursts of commentary, argument and wit. They even live-tweet the Ford brothers' weekly radio show, or #FoBroShow, with minute-by-minute, play-by-play commentary. No mayoral gaffe or mis-statement goes unchecked.
No wonder they joke about calling themselves the Scoobies, a playful reference to the cult television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Scooby Gang, or Scoobies (named for the ghost-hunting teenagers on Scooby-Doo) help Buffy battle the supernatural forces of evil.
Though it’s easy to write them off as nothing more than amusing amateurs – even the most popular has only 5,000 or so Twitter followers in a city of 2.5 million – their influence is growing. Many councillors, political aides, lobbyists and journalists follow them avidly. At the very least, their spirited coverage is giving voters an interesting new window on city politics and government.
Consider Matt Elliott. Known by his Twitter handle @GraphicMatt, he stood out in the gallery line-up that day for his mane of dark, shoulder-length hair. Aged 28 and an IT manager by trade, he made a name for himself by drawing up detailed online charts of city-council voting patterns. With devastating clarity, they have documented the collapse of Mr. Ford’s support on council. The charts have made such a splash that the commuter newspaper Metro recently recruited him to blog.
During one of the big transit debates at council this winter, he put together an online Bingo card containing Mr. Ford's usual slogans on the issue, from “people want subways” to “St. Clair disaster” to “war on cars.” If Mr. Ford and his allies used a combination of those stock arguments that lined up on the card, you had a winner. They did not disappoint. Councillor Gord Perks was the first to call out “bingo” from the council floor.
In a more serious vein, Mr. Elliott produced a chart that showed the amount that Mr. Ford was planning to cut from the city budget only slightly exceeded the amount he had given up by killing the car-registration tax and freezing property taxes. Councillor Joe Mihevc flashed the chart on the city council video screen, arguing that the cuts would not have been necessary if the mayor himself had not robbed the city of needed revenue.
It is this mix of mockery and wonkery that makes the Scoobies worth following. “What they've been good at is applying critical analysis, debunking things, finding contradictory quotes and uncovering hypocrisy,” says Jonathan Goldsbie, at 27 the éminence grise of the Twitter crew.
Mr. Goldsbie came to city politics first as an activist. Annoyed by the city's attempt to stop public postering, he went to city hall to watch a debate on the issue and came away exhilarated – not the response most people have to city council proceedings.
He started tweeting and soon developed a following for his well-informed, often acerbic observations on city hall follies. “It's this serial drama with a cast of larger-than-life characters,” he says. With Mr. Ford in charge, “There is this continual tension: What's he going to do next?”
Some city hall denizens consider Mr. Goldsbie nothing more than a pest. Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, a Ford ally, once labelled him “Comrade Twitter.” Still, Mr. Goldsbie became so popular that his Internet admirers started a fundraising campaign to replace the antiquated flip phone he was using to post his tweets. The Twitter hashtag was #goldsbiephone and the drive quickly raised $2,000.
The mainstream media is not always so sympathetic. Words have been exchanged when bloggers take committee-room seats reserved for the media. Some established journalists regard them as interlopers who feed off the work of the working press.
David Simon, a former newspaper reporter who created the gritty television series The Wire, spoke for many when in 2009 he told a U.S. Senate hearing that “bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth.” He said that in his city, Baltimore, you do not “run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at city hall.”
Toronto is clearly not Baltimore. Inspired by Mr. Goldsbie's success, and galvanized by the Ford mayoralty, more and more tweeters and bloggers have joined the Scoobies.
One of the few prominent women is Alicia Pang, a slight 26-year-old with a shock of close-cropped hair who writes under the avatar Neville Park. She joined in when it looked as if Ford budget cuts would affect her struggling Parkdale neighbourhood.
She went to the famous all-night budget meeting at city hall last summer and “it was such an entertaining train wreck that I had to go back.” She works part-time managing a website for English as a Second Language training, so she can fit in visits to city hall and drinks with the other Scoobies at haunts like the Duke of Kent at Yonge and Eglinton.
“It sounds cheesy, but I kind of fell in love with Toronto. I wanted to get involved, but it didn't really work out, so instead I tweet.” She also fell for a fellow Scoobie, David Hains, a boyish former business analyst who recently compared chapters in the Ford mayoralty to episodes of The Simpsons, complete with video clips. (The Scoobies, she concedes, are an “incestuous” lot.)
Like many of the others, she sometimes wonders whether she is making any real difference. “Adam Vaughan [a downtown councillor]says people like me are creating a culture of dissent. I’m not sure how right he is about that. How much influence do we have outside this very small sphere of privileged, middle-class Torontonians who are on the Internet a lot?”
Mark Towhey, the mayor’s policy adviser who sometimes jousts with the Scoobies online in a good-natured way, is skeptical too. “I don't know if you change anyone’s mind on Twitter. It makes the whole world into those two grumpy old men in the Muppets. We all get to be those guys making snide remarks.”
Ford-friendly councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong complains that the Scoobies “all have the same political philosophy.” There’s no doubt about that. They tend to lean heavily to the left, and against Mr. Ford. Where are the right-wing bloggers?
But even if they aren't impartial – and they don't claim to be – there has to be some value in having extra eyes on the civic scene in the age of Mayor Ford, especially eyes as sharp as these. “You have to be a pretty good nerd to breathlessly follow a procedural vote to waive referral on the composition of a city commission,” says John Michael McGrath, who blogs for the Open File website.
When the bloggers joke around about being the Scoobies, the big question is “Who gets to be Xander?” Xander Harris, says Wikipedia, is often the geekiest and wittiest of Buffy’s characters. In Season Eight, he graduates to the role of Buffy’s unofficial Watcher. “As such, his character is noted for being the one who observes and sees everything rightly.” To observe and see through the nonsense: That is just what Toronto’s Scoobies aim to do in Rob Ford's city hall.