Every month that’s passed since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic has felt incredibly confusing.
It’s already September, but it also feels like it’s been years since we were asked to try to stay indoors if we could. The number of cases and deaths continues to grow, and these increasing numbers feel scary, hard to control, and unavoidable in distressing ways. We’ve grown scared of statistics, of math itself. But there’s only one place I’ve dependably found comfort in numbers, and it’s been missing for too long. Where has @CountVonCount gone?
The Count, the beloved, Bela Lugosi-inspired vampire of Sesame Street, like many characters from the show, has a Twitter account, but unlike other characters — whose accounts offer a mixture of interaction, insight, promotion, and storytelling — Count Von Count’s Twitter account has only one purpose: counting. The account’s every tweet counts a number one digit greater than the previous tweet’s. With 2,687 tweets, @CountVonCount’s last update was “Two thousand six hundred eighty seven!” That was six months ago.
“Two thousand six hundred eighty seven!”
The Count has disappeared before. His last long break stretched from November 2019 to February of this year (89 days), with a shorter break before that in 2017 (45 days). These tweets come sporadically, at different times of the day. Sometimes they’re once in a while and sometimes they’re three times a day. Since the tweet “One hundred seventy six! Ah ah ah!,” The Count’s tweets have had the source label “Count Von Count Counts” (before that, tweets were from Twitter Web Client and Percolate, a content marketing platform), though it’s been shown that Twitter users can make it seem like they’re tweeting from a device of a different name. All this to say that it’s likely a person, not an automation, behind the Twitter account (the Sesame Workshop team was not available for comment on this story).
I wonder what they thought when engagement spiked on their numbers. The most popular tweets (you might’ve guessed) are “Sixty nine!” (28K likes, 23K retweets, at the time of writing) and “Four hundred twenty!” (15K likes, 14K retweets, at the time of writing), but after that, there are few discernible outliers. What makes “Six hundred forty five!” (58 likes, 22 retweets, at the time of writing) more popular than “Four hundred fifty one! Ah ah ah!” (49 likes, 31 retweets, at the time of writing) or less popular than “Five hundred seventy three!” (100 likes, 56 retweets, at the time of writing)? Was there any thought process behind the 343 numbers that were followed by “Ah ah ah!” or the 2,344 that weren’t?
For the most part, these tweets create pure, context-free content. While The Count threw in occasional commentary early on (what’s special about 27, 61, and 161 that makes them the only three “Lightning round!” tweets? Why did 7, 35, and 60 make him look back on all the wonderful counting?), most numbers are just numbers, occasionally accompanied by gleeful laughter. It’s up to the fans to choose what to do with them.
“Five hundred seventy three!”
Some fans of The Count see the numbers as an opportunity to compete to see who can respond first. Some followers bring personal meaning to the individual numbers and or cheer The Count on for reaching certain number milestones. Some use them as opportunities to calculate some numbers of their own, like Ryan Veeder, a game designer, who estimates he’s been responding to the account since around tweet number 243 (five years ago), trying to factor prime numbers into each number The Count tweets.
For Veeder, factoring numbers is a way to relax: “when I’m thinking about this math problem, I can’t think of anything else,” he told me. “It kind of clears my mind, I guess.” At times, there were others who would compete with Veeder to be the first to respond to The Count with a correct factor, but, he says, “That was not fun for very long. I don’t want to be in competition with anyone. I don’t want anyone, really, to notice me doing this.” It’s a personal, private sort of connection. “I remember being on road trips and being out of cellular service for a while and writing down the numbers that he had recently tweeted so I could figure those out, you know, have those factorizations ready, so that when I got back to having mobile data, I could respond to him.”
Numbers beget numbers. The Count inspires a deeper reading into something the character clearly feels very, very passionate about. That’s how, for example, you end up with two different riddles from FiveThirtyEight, calculating how many numbers The Count could tweet before running out of characters (apparently, it’s 101,373,373,373,373,373,373,372). But The Count has disappeared. “It’s kind of like if you had a friend who, once in a while, not with any prompting, comes up behind you and gives you a back rub,” says Veeder, “and it's like, 'Oh, that’s nice.' And then that friend goes away for six months.”
What can we do while we wait for The Count to suddenly appear and count 2,688? Scrolling back through old numbers doesn’t do it; the excitement comes from the newness of the numbers and the active feeling of communication. Film director David Lynch has been creating some contextless number content on his YouTube channel during quarantine. “Ten balls,” Lynch says to the camera daily, holding a jar of lottery balls. “Each ball has a number. Numbers one through ten. Swirl the numbers. Pick a number.” Then he announces the number of the day, with no interpretation or explanation of what it may mean.
Jared Gilman, an actor and film student, is a regular fan of the series, making predictions about which numbers will be chosen and which definitely couldn’t be chosen. He started predicting which numbers Lynch would pick, as a joke, and then started getting his predictions right: “I had a streak of about five or six days. It was pretty great, honestly.” Recently, one of his predictions went badly when he said Lynch might pick 1, 3, or 7, out of the jar, but definitely not 10. Lynch’s pick was the nightmare scenario. They’re just numbers, but it doesn’t stop Gilman from finding meaning in the guesses. “I’m trying to bring back a bit — that maybe I kind of lost from when I was in college — an appreciation for dumb, little things,” Gilman said.
It’s been six long months since The Count tweeted. “I could count forever, count until I drop,” The Count once sang. I hope we didn’t reach the limit. After all, “Once I’ve started counting, it’s very hard to stop.” And some friendly numbers would be pretty nice right now.