Back in the ’90s, Sonic the Hedgehog was cool.
That’s the version of the character that Sega social media manager and lifelong Sonic devotee Aaron Webber grew up with, but even he knows that "cool" is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Sonic the Hedgehog in 2016. Instead, longtime and former fans may point to Sonic’s critically reviled recent games, or his increasingly annoying set of friends.
Sometime around the advent of 3D games, snarky speedster Sonic slowed down, developing concerns beyond outrunning Dr. Eggman and collecting rings. In maligned games like Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric and 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog, he’s a far cry from the image that he cultivated as Mario’s Genesis-bound nemesis. Those who grew up with Sonic couldn’t quite recognize him.
Making fun of Sonic and loving him didn’t have to be mutually exclusive
But some, like Webber, saw another side of Sonic emerge outside of his increasingly polarizing games. It was a Sonic who was more than just a character: He was an icon, ripe for lampooning. Making fun of Sonic and loving him didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, either. In fact, the grown-up die-hards were the ones most able to crack jokes about the transformations the hedgehog has undergone over the years.
That includes Webber — and he’s had the unique chance to bring lapsed fans back into the fray. Webber’s name isn’t just known to his fellow Sonic faithful: Under his care as a social media manager at Sega, the hedgehog’s online presence has become one of the strangest, funniest and best in the industry.
It’s all thanks to Webber’s management of the character’s Twitter account. As the brand’s social media manager, he’s developed the account into a mix of weird in-jokes, pop culture references and memes galore. Taking over the Hedgehog’s handle in the summer of 2015, Webber crafted an updated persona for Sonic. It’s now par for the course to see Sonic mocking other brands and his own history, or reveling in absurdity on social media.
@InaneCuttlefish Look at that blue verified icon. Now back to me. Now back to the blue verified icon. Now back to me. pic.twitter.com/qhs4gaBjWL
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) June 10, 2015
On any given day, you can find the man behind the @sonic_hedgehog Twitter handle teasing Nintendo of America, replying to a fan’s snarky comment with an appropriate, Sonic-fied meme or reaction, demonstrating a cultural savvy that Sonic hasn’t shown in his games since the Genesis days. But this isn’t a return to that phase as the hippest character in gaming. Instead, in just one year, Webber has transformed Sonic into a parody of himself — and a funny, bizarre, self-aware one at that.
Webber’s professional career at Sega began nearly a decade ago, back in 2008.
"I was a young boy of 19, and I had always dreamed of working at Sega," Webber, now 27, told Polygon earlier this year. We spoke ahead of Sonic’s 25th anniversary in June, hoping to make sense of how Webber devised Sonic’s quarter-life character change — and how he continues to get away with some of the more vicious gags.
The Missourian English major grew up playing Sonic the Hedgehog games, naturally. By the time Webber was old enough to play Sonic’s games, the hedgehog had become an icon, a character so big that he earned his own float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. After his first game went huge in 1991 — when Webber was still in diapers — Sonic became the star not just of several wildly successful side-scrollers, but an entire media franchise, with cartoons and comic books along with the games.
Although Webber’s favorites include more modern hits like Sonic Adventure 2, it was Sonic’s last Genesis outing that won him over.
"The first Sonic game I played was Sonic the Hedgehog 3, which my dad brought home once when he rented a Sega Genesis for my younger brother and I to try," he told us. "We got to Carnival Night Zone and got utterly [roadblocked] by the infamous Barrel of Doom. That experience led to a SEGA Genesis request for Christmas, and the rest is history."
He fell hard for the look, sound and feel of playing a Sonic game. The character, too, struck a chord. Kids like the young Webber loved Sonic because he was colorful and funny and snarky, but despite the success, Sonic still maintained a rebellious image.
Webber’s lifelong love of Sonic played a part into wanting a job with Sega, but he got his start with another game: Phantasy Star Online. Years of "pro bono" work helping out the community of that game caught the company’s eye, he said, and in 2008, the personable midwestern teen was plucked by California-based Sega of America for its community management department.
Although he was primarily interacting with fans through specific game forums, Webber sat in on executive meetings about how to approach social media, which had grown exponentially during his first year at the company.
"They’d say these really awkward lines about social media and we would all cringe," he recounted. But no one had given him the keys to any of the accounts quite yet. Instead, he moved his way up from a game master on Phantasy Star Online to assistant community manager, working with games as diverse as Valkyria Chronicles and MadWorld, and finally to the marketing side.
"I didn’t want all of my life’s work to be just for [profit]"
But the dream job, like any dream job, wasn’t everything he had hoped for. Working in marketing was a learning experience, to be sure, and a meaningful one. After six years with the company, the 25-year-old was beginning to feel burned out.
"I wanted to do a lot with charity at that point," Webber said. "I felt like I was working really, really long hours. What was all of this leading to? It was very tough for me to answer that question in a meaningful way beyond ‘profit, profit, profit,’ and I didn’t want all of my life’s work to be just for that."
And so he left the dream job, just like that. His first tenure at Sega of America ended in June 2014 after establishing a deep connection with members of various games’ communities — like Sonic’s.
His departure was announced on Sega’s blog and tweeted out by the company’s account. In six years, Webber had developed a following and gotten to know fans personally. For those who had come to know and appreciate his dedication to the community, his exit was a big deal.
Today our own Aaron Webber departs SEGA of America for a brand new adventure. http://t.co/v8LdYg73j9 pic.twitter.com/U9txi6cG6B
— SEGA (@SEGA) June 27, 2014
"I still can’t believe how surreal it has been," he said in a goodbye post on Sega’s blog, to which he contributed over the years and was sometimes seen in photos from various events. "To go from being a fan to representing the fans, to representing SEGA — and now, with my final day on the horizon, I find myself filled with a desire to write one more journal in this series. A snapshot of my life at this exact moment, and a message of encouragement to all of you out there who seek to live for your dreams, too."
He went on to thank fans and fellow staff, echoing much of what he told us now, two years later, of this first tenure at Sega: It had been a dream job, but now was the time to move on.
"Thank you Aaron," one member commented. "Thank you for your hard work, thank you for the stress you undertook to promote fan-fueled games, and thank you for always working hard at events like E3 and conventions alike. It might not be in person, but I’ll consider this comment my personal handshake with you."
"He’s done so much to inspire both fans as well as company employees with this passion for gaming, his knowledge of SEGA, and his can-do attitude," wrote Julian Mehlfeld, a former community manager at Sega who plucked Webber from the forums for a bigger gig years prior.
During his time away from Sega, Webber worked on charitable initiatives with other companies. That entailed fundraising with friends for Child’s Play and Extra Life, big-name charities in the gaming community. But the departure proved to be more of a hiatus.
"When Sega announced they were leaving [San Francisco] and moving to L.A., [they asked], ‘Would you want to come back? Could you come back and do the PR and social media for Sonic?’" Webber said. This was in the spring of 2015, just shy of a year after he had left the company.
To a fan of the character, that gig sounds like a big deal. Being put in charge of Sonic’s public image is a huge responsibility, even considering how that public image had changed since Webber first met the hedgehog as a 4- or 5-year-old, wasting away the hours with Sonic 3, or since later favorites like Sonic Adventure 2.
@Tales499 Thanks! But yes, I am returning to SEGA. :) The @irl_encounters guys do a great job!
— Aaron Webber (@RubyEclipse) June 5, 2015
By 2015, 24 years after Sonic’s debut, his legacy had been marred by several ill-received games. It’s hard to pinpoint where things went wrong, exactly — it could be the move into 3D, the increasingly hacky jokes, the tendency to run his mouth instead of maintaining a holier-than-thou silence. When Webber got to him, though, Sonic just wasn’t fun anymore, he told us. Plain and simple.
"Within a couple weeks, it was boring," he said of his new job at Sega, running Sonic’s social media pages. "As a gamer, it felt very bland, very corporate. It felt very within the lines."
"If it goes poorly, at least it was a good one week back at Sega"
But, he realized, it didn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Sonic’s online presence had amassed a following over the years, but what it needed now was a heavy dose of personality. That’s what the hedgehog was about, after all.
"I started thinking, worst case, if it goes poorly, at least it was a good one week back at Sega," Webber said with a laugh.
The change from corporate to comedy was perhaps jarring for those who had been following Sonic on Facebook and Twitter for years prior to June 1, 2015, when Webber assumed the social media role. The transition was not immediate, however — it wasn’t until June 9 that sassy Sonic returned to the public eye.
Journalist and YouTube content creator Jim Sterling tweeted about Sonic, not directly at the hedgehog’s account. The most recent game in the Sonic franchise was the poorly received Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, based on the TV show of the same name. Critics, like Sterling, panned it, so when Sega announced a follow-up, he weighed in.
Sonic — err, Webber — was having none of that, though. And he went ahead and told Sterling as much.
@JimSterling The TV show is doing really well. P.S. - We have a giant Sonic Colors poster here... you interested? #neverforget
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) June 9, 2015
Sonic’s followers flipped out as they watched their once-beloved mascot go in on one of the gaming media’s toughest, best-known figures. Webber not only clapped back, but threw in a reference to a story from almost five years earlier, when Sega made a goof after Sterling's negative Colors review by sending him a giant poster of the game’s cover art.
"When Sonic Colors came out, everyone loved that game except Jim Sterling," Webber told us. "He gave it a 4.5 [out of 10], which, incidentally, is about the same Metacritic [average rating] that Sonic ’06 had, which is pretty low."
Sonic Colors was undeserving of the score, Webber thought; to him, it was one of the better Sonic games of late. Thus the friendly rivalry between Sonic’s public persona and Sterling was born, continuing throughout the summer, and Webber cited a later tweet among his all-time favorites. The Sonic account had tweeted an innocuous picture of Sonic and Tails, with the copy referring to them as "the flyest team around."
Sterling jokingly called out Webber in response. "You told ME I was the flyest," he wrote. "I feel betrayed."
Somehow Webber, under the guise of Sonic, had developed a flirtatious rapport with one of gaming’s most vocal journalists. This wasn’t intimidating, nor did it seem to strike Webber as odd. It was all just a bit, but one that Webber was committed to.
"Jim Sterling sent some tweet out. I’m in a conference room in a meeting. ... I see Jim Sterling’s tweet and I’m thinking, ‘What can I say back to him?’ The 4.5 thing crosses my mind and I think, ‘Oh, I know exactly what I’m gonna say.’"
@JimSterling Now you know how we felt when you reviewed Sonic Colors. pic.twitter.com/rF6vDjitSq
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) July 30, 2015
As he continued to tell this story to us, Webber’s pride in his own work — and his enjoyment of it — shone through. But it also exemplified the contrast between boyish social media manager and the corporate environment he continued to chafe against.
"It hits me, [and] I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ And this big smile goes across my face," he said. "I’m typing it up, I get a screencap, I hit the tweet button.
"It’s about this time I realize the entire meeting room around me has been talking about a really serious matter, and one of the executives [looks] at me like, ‘This is a really serious matter and we all need to take this seriously.’ It’s a really awkward moment of me grinning and, meanwhile, this entirely serious meeting is going on around me."
Between laughs, he admits, "That was a good moment."
Whatever that serious matter was, Webber’s insistence on doing his job, and doing it as silly as possible, protected him from any retribution. That’s because Webber’s irreverent tone had a demonstrable effect on Sonic’s social media presence. Follower counts and page likes jumped; where before only the most dedicated Sonic fan had reason to pay attention to his social media channels, now anyone — and everyone — had to look, to be part of the loop.
"There’s a massive benefit from getting away from the really boring corporate mentality and moving into something that is fun and much more modern with internet culture," Webber said. "When I came back, Sonic was at 134,000 Twitter followers. In about the year that has followed that, we have more than doubled that, to 307,000 followers." (The account now has more than half a million followers.)
"We wanted to create things that entertain people"
Sites began to report the changes, namely the increased silliness. There was bewilderment, but that was drowned out by praise for the gags, which reintroduced an element of fun and savviness that seemed to have been long gone. Some hailed the Twitter account as the best thing that Sonic the Hedgehog had been attached to since the Genesis days. And Webber was behind it all.
In the beginning, he alone masterminded the @sonic_hedgehog tweets, like ones referencing the infamous, fan-made Sonichu character, poking fun at the reviled Sonic ’06 and helping to defend Sonic’s reputation by recommending games to other fans. Later on, though, Webber was joined by a social media team, which helps him run and create graphics for the accounts today.
With a team in place, Webber is more nimble, better able to scour the internet and craft Sonic jokes based on internet memes while they’re still fresh.
@TrevorBurgan Nope. Never happened. Nope nope nope.
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) June 11, 2015
A typical day’s work revolves around a scheduled calendar of posts, which constantly gets updated as the team finds new, more pressing things to respond to. There’s a short window that the @sonic_hedgehog crew has to mine a meme or respond to comments before the window of relevance is up. These kinds of things take hours — the full workday, in fact. What extra time is left is spent working with other teams at Sega to plan what lies further ahead for the Sonic brand.
"We wanted to create things that entertain people," Webber said of the social media team’s mission. "We wanted people to go to the Sonic Twitter or Facebook and know that, when they go there, they’ll see something that makes them smile and makes them laugh."
He pointed to a video posted to the Sonic the Hedgehog YouTube channel that "revealed" Shia LaBeouf downloadable content for Sonic Generations. It was out of left field, but it was right in Webber’s wheelhouse: culturally relevant, funny and ... dare we say, cool?
"At the time, I had a lot of free time, free space to really jump in and do whatever I wanted with it," Webber told us of those early days. "I tried to use my moral compass not to go too far, because it’s a fine line between posting fun stuff and memes and having fun with Jim Sterling or GameTrailers ... and also posting a really nice zinger and not going too far.
"It’s very easy to go over that line, and if you do, it can cause major issues."
Rarely has Sega’s legal team warned the Sonic the Hedgehog social media staff about a gag. At least, that’s how Webber tells it. There have been some jokes that the legal department put the kibosh on, including a Star Wars parody that will never see the light of day, much to Webber’s chagrin. Having to reel in a top-notch joke is among his least favorite things, he said.
"I’ve been a little grumpy about [taking down jokes]," he said, "but we inevitably do it because it must be done."
There are some tweets and posts that went out without a word from legal, only to cause a firestorm with a wider audience. These include the infamous "helicopter tweet" from this past February, in which the Sonic account appropriated an older meme originated by a Team Fortress 2 player that itself mocked self-identification language commonly used online.
@Jiggypig_ We actually identify as an attack helicopter. Check your privilege.
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) February 17, 2016
Social activists like developer Brianna Wu called out the tweet, and Sega, for making light of the terminology, and the joke also attracted criticism from others unfamiliar with its source. Soon, the tweet became part of a broader debate, one less about Sonic and more about what constitutes a joke online.
Webber’s response to it all was not to apologize or remove the tweet, however. Instead, the Sonic Twitter account backed off, moving on to the next joke du jour.
"Generally when those moments happen it’s because people interpret it in a way that wasn’t intended, or they decide to use it for their own agenda," he explained. "In those cases, I try to stay well and far away."
That hands-off approach seems counter to the direct engagement that the @sonic_hedgehog account has become known for. But Sonic’s fanbase is passionate, and that energy can often be negative. That’s not surprising — a Sonic fan might even argue that the poor reception the franchise has received over the years warrants their anger. To the people who have loved him since childhood, it’s their beloved Sonic the Hedgehog that’s being desecrated with bad game after bad game.
Of course, the kind of vitriol that the most vehement, enraged fan — of any series — spews is never welcome. But haters comprise just a percentage of the people who pay attention to Sonic or his social media, Webber told us.
"You have this minority that does the crazy things and everyone — like, ‘oh my gosh look at that crazy fanbase,’" he said. "Every fanbase has that tiny minority of people. Look at Star Wars or Star Trek or Harry Potter. ... With the Sonic franchise, that tiny group has been spotlighted by people who want to say, ‘Oh, Sonic is crazy.’ I want to bring that discussion back to ‘Sonic fans are pretty normal people, for the most part.’"
But Webber recognizes that every Sonic fan, mild-mannered and otherwise, is united by a common goal: to play a genuinely good Sonic game.
There’s still all of that love for Sonic that existed before his social media accounts became their own entrancing events. With the equal parts cool and oddball Twitter, Facebook and YouTube pages, more and more newcomers are being drawn into the institution of Sonic. Yet the hedgehog still hasn’t starred in a truly good game since before Webber took the public reins.
Webber’s social media guidance has had an important effect on the franchise, cultivating a new persona for the character, one that has created a renewed sense of hope, even if not every joke lands and the shelf life of a meme is short. The point of all of this is to keep fans invested in the series — but there needs to be a payoff. Preferably in the form of a game that’s a hit with players and Sega alike.
"At the end of the day, [a really good Sonic game] is what it has to lead to"
"With social media, you can bring the conversation back home, make it fun, engaging, unexpected," he told us. "With Sonic, because he’s a video game icon, this all has to accumulate toward a really good Sonic game. At the end of the day, that’s what it has to lead to."
That could be on the horizon. Considering the goodwill he’s built up even from behind the scenes, though, it wasn’t surprising to see Webber take the stage at Sonic’s recent 25th anniversary party, held in July during San Diego Comic-Con. As master of ceremonies, he introduced the next big Sonic the Hedgehog game: Sonic Mania, a throwback to the blue speedster’s Genesis years.
With a compelling crew leading its development, Sonic Mania looks and sounds like the console-based, speedy, 16-bit side-scroller that fans have clamored for since the mid-’90s. (The less we talk about Sonic the Hedgehog 4, the better.) There’s a second big Sonic project in the works as well, appropriately titled Project Sonic. Less is known about that game, although it appears to be a successor to the well-received — well, by everyone but GameTrailers, with whom Webber once picked a fight over it — Sonic Generations, an earlier anniversary title.
We spoke to Webber before the new game announcements, but he sounded confident about what was to come — because, well, of course he did. In some sense, he is Sonic, after all.
Webber wouldn’t detail his influence over the retro-skewing Sonic Mania, but he called it a "combined dream of many different people at Sega," a collaborative project that draws on what everyone at Sega liked best about the character.
"We’re going to do all the best with entertainment and social media to make it fun and engaging, make people laugh," he said. "Hopefully, we’re going to set things up for the team making the next game to come in and hit a home run so people look at Sonic and say, ‘Sonic is better than he’s been in the last 15 or even 20 years.’"
Congrats on the launch, @MightyNo9!
It’s better than nothing. pic.twitter.com/WsXHWtAlaX
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) June 21, 2016
We’ll have to wait until 2017 to see if he’s right about that. For now, though, there’s always Twitter.