The wonderfully weird world of ʻWeird Twitter’
The internet is, and always has been, a weird place.
I’ll elaborate: The internet has developed into an uninhibited digital space where anyone, no matter how weird or strange one’s taste, can express oneself in any way one wants. Users can feel as if they are part of a community without actually physically interacting with it. Given this autonomy, the most avid of users can explore the World Wide Web and end up traveling through an infinite amount of virtual rabbit holes. Some get lost in watching YouTube conspiracies for hours on end, while others delve deep into Reddit forums and the never-ending abyss that is Wikipedia.
But what is most intriguing about the internet is how its online communities have developed into individualized subcultures. Weird Twitter, in particular, is one such subculture, in which a loosely connected group of Twitter users create a series of statuses that can be absurdist, bizarre, meta and straight-up nonsensical. Somehow, Weird Twitter has managed to attract a wide underground audience. If you’re an avid Twitter user, like I am, you’re likely following a Weird Twitter account without even realizing it.
To describe Weird Twitter in this way, however, is oversimplifying the concept as a whole. It’s not just a collection of snarky users mocking modern society through odd posts on Twitter. Rather, it’s a postmodern, underground, cyber-cultural movement that is almost impossible to categorize through just one definition. The Awl’s Ken Layne called it “(an) intentionally wrong style of idiotic comedy.” The Daily Dot’s Fernando Alfonso III deemed it “a burgeoning comedy subculture.” Sebastian Benthall of the blog Digifesto claimed it was “aleatoric poetry.” The New York Times described it as “inane” and posited that early adopters of Weird Twitter used “inside humor to subtly mock the site’s corporate and mainstream users.”
Perhaps Slacktory.com’s definition is the closest representation of Weird Twitter, particularly in its description of Weird Twitter’s distinctive aesthetic appeal: “Sloppy punctuation/spelling/capitalization, poetic experimentation with sentence format, first-person throwaway characters, and other techniques little known to the vast majority of ‘serious’ Twitter users.”
While Weird Twitter has grown more popular in the past few years, the origins of its school of thought, so to speak, date back even before the site's existence. In 2002, the website SomethingAwful.com created an exclusive subforum titled FYAD (short for Fuck You and Die, of course), which was arguably a precursor to Weird Twitter. Like Weird Twitter, FYAD was known for incorporating brevity, surrealism, lack of context and ironic humor into the content produced by its users. The subforum no longer lives — though there’s a best-of collection that exists) — but FYAD certainly prompted users of Something Awful to utilize their voices on other free-form platforms like the controversial forum site 4chan. Eventually, however, Twitter would become the more mainstream site that hosted and popularized this kind of small, niche community.
One of the earliest examples of Weird Twitter as a concept came from a guy named Jon Hendren, who created his Twitter account @fart (119k followers) in 2008. He garnered online attention when he posted this status in May 2012: “i saw an ad on craigslist once that said ‘free firewood, u collect it’ so i wrote the guy and said ‘bud you just wrote an ad for the woods.’ ” It’s this kind of random, deadpan and guffaw-inducing post that represents one of the many facets of a vaguely inexplicable concept like Weird Twitter.
After that status blew up, Weird Twitter gradually proliferated into the baffling marvel that it is today. Accounts like @Seinfeld2000 (137k followers), @Horse_ebooks (177k followers), @dril (470k followers) and @NYTMinusContext (147k followers) have become popular among consumers of the subculture. Each of these accounts are idiosyncratic in their own way, yet they share a similar self-awareness in making intentionally stupid or eccentric tweets. Even stand-up comedian Brandon Wardell (74.8k followers), hip-hop artist Lil B (1.35m followers) and actor/writer Rob Delaney (1.33m followers) could be considered part of Weird Twitter. Wardell integrates his abbreviated, text-message-like vernacular with hilarious, thought-provoking quips about pop culture, while Lil B puts his signature on almost every one of his bizarre tweets, suggesting that he is, in fact, Lil B and not some online bot. Alernatively, Delaney was an early user of Weird Twitter, but due to the success of his Amazon show “Catastrophe,” he has merged into the mainstream part of Twitter and become more outspoken on hot-button political issues.
Weird Twitter is as entertaining and bewildering as it is amoebic and ineffable. Critics may just pass it off as unimportant jargon or a pretentious display of how millennials communicate online. On the contrary, Weird Twitter offers a creative, comedic space for some of the internet’s most sarcastic, anti-intellectual and angsty voices. As Buzzfeed’s John Herrman and Katie Notopoulos noted in their comprehensive 2013 oral history of Weird Twitter, it is “where the language of Twitter gets created, where its funniest jokes come from, and where its worst tendencies are isolated, rebroadcast, and sometimes destroyed.” Weird Twitter is uniquely insular not only in how it transcends the normal barriers of the internet with its unusual, offbeat discourse, but also in how it critiques other users.
Since 2014, a committee of several Weird Twitter-like accounts led by The Tourney Organizer, a member of the group, engage in a March Madness style online tournament called the Shit Account Tourney. The objective of the SAT is simple: choose the worst, shittiest Twitter account of the year. According to an article from New York Magazine, the top picks from 2015’s SAT included the overtly patriotic Cloyd Rivers, conservative actor James Woods, Trayvon Martin killer George Zimmerman and The Tweet of God, an account that imagines what God’s Twitter account would look like. The foursome, as reported by New York Magazine, were deemed the “Fuccboi Four.”
The 16 contenders of this past year’s SAT were divided into regions that were named based on each account’s level of “shittiness.” With the intense politics of 2016, pro-Trump conservatives on Twitter, like online commentator Mike Cernovich, dominated the “cuck” region, while vocal Hillary Clinton supporters, like “Jeopardy!” winner Arthur Chu, commanded the “headass” region. For those confused by the terms “cuck” and “headass,” both are pejorative terms that are often used on Twitter. The former denotes someone perceived as emasculated and the latter is defined by Urban Dictionary as a bothersome person who uses “constant social faux pas, obnoxious mannerisms, unrealistic expectations and general ineptitude” in their tweets.
Given these accounts are based around political opinions, it’s easy to assume the SAT committee is biased when it comes to judging accounts. But according to an SAT Committee Member (who declined to provide his name or handle, but whom we will refer to as Kevin), the tournament is judged relatively fairly and the judges do their best to critique an account more on its quality than on its political views.
“We’re all good buds, but have political opinions all over the spectrum, which helps to make a fair tourney,” Kevin wrote in a direct message interview on Twitter. “The only thing that truly matters is how bad your account is, not whether you support free trade or some political bullshit.”
In addition to the “cuck” and “headass” regions, there’s the “Patreon” region, consisting of “woke” feminists (actor Matt McGorry, writer Sady Doyle), and the “spirit cooking” region, which is made up of athletes and celebrities who tweet too much (“Dilbert” creator Scott Adams, actresses Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer). By making a democratic process, the SAT committee allows Twitter users to vote via Twitter polls and determine who has the shittiest account. And with a tight race between Cernovich, Chu, former Hillary Clinton adviser Peter Daou and New York Times best-selling author Kurt Eichenwald, Eichenwald was crowned the winner, the victor of the championshit of the 2016 Shit Account Tourney.
In regards to what actually makes a shit account “shit,” another committee member, who wished to be named Paul, mentioned that it depends on “how thin-skinned they are, proportional to the size of their platform or their actual offline power.”
Weird Twitter accounts and tournament organizers, like writer Sam Grady (@TheSamGrady), believe the SAT “offers a form of entertaining self-policing to a community that for too long has gotten away with parading around awful content that plebes eat up.”
Similarly, the Tourney organizer believes that the SAT is a fun experience, saying “the humor of the Tourney itself is to illuminate that online opinions are mostly shitty.” The Tourney’s purpose, according to the Tourney trganizer, is to mock these people but “allow the general population to decide who is the shittiest.”
Though most might classify these accounts as Weird Twitter, Paul and The Tourney Organizer don’t consider themselves as such.
“I don’t think the committee is really ‘weird-twitter,’” Paul wrote. “Most of us don’t have tons of followers or put a lot of time or thought into our jokes. We just riff on dumb shit.”
He also suggested, even, that the tourney is “not there for Weird Twitter, or any other specific faction. It’s basically for the people who spend a decent amount of time on here.”
Despite these contradictory statements, Weird Twitter can play a pivotal role in shaping the SAT for some, especially with Grady. As a struggling writer who joined the Weird Twitter community in 2011, Grady believes the movement and the SAT are much more relevant than we give them credit for. He believes Weird Twitter and the SAT “allow us to get above the BS of feigned manners and fake sincerity and really critically examine some of the accounts on here who genuinely add nothing to the larger conversation aside from ego stroking and creating a mass hug-box.”
This internal conflict of Weird Twitter’s identity brings up an interesting existential question. If certain accounts that would be considered part of the Weird Twitter community don’t identify as such, then what exactly is Weird Twitter? And if the SAT is not a product of Weird Twitter, then how and where does it fit in within the larger paradigm of the Twitter community? Considering that Weird Twitter cannot be classified as just one thing, it remains an enigma. As a genre of online humor, Weird Twitter seems concerned with provoking the most bewildered reactions from people. But as a postmodern online subculture, Weird Twitter lacks an inherent unity and thus remains divided, with some believing it doesn’t exist anymore and others saying the opposite. It’s quite a paradox.
What will become of Weird Twitter in the following years, where our president-elect reigns supreme as one of the most excessively active and aggressive Twitter users? According to Grady, Weird Twitter seems to be headed in a somewhat more political direction.
“The future of this subculture is one in which mainstream, left-wing, political thought and online discourse begin to more and more look like the Chapo (Trap House) crew,” Grady wrote.
Chapo Trap House, an irreverent leftist podcast created by three Weird Twitter users (@ByYourLogic, @cushbomb and @willmenaker) during the election season, is one such example for how Weird Twitter can play a significant part within the larger realm of the internet. The podcast has garnered both ire and praise from the online community for its pointedly humorous and scathing attacks on both liberals and conservatives. It represents one of the many products of Weird Twitter that highlight the movement’s potential political utility.
“We already see it in the alt-right,” Grady continued, “a kind of ironic detachment from sincere belief that will replace genuine ideology. A kind of hysterical-realist ubiquitous media nightmare where all cultural iconography is reduced to complete meaninglessness. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
The fate of Weird Twitter, and the greater online community at large, is still uncertain. But it’s hard not to recognize how something that was once deemed just a crude, exclusive form of online humor has become a social phenomenon today. It’s also terrifying to think of how something like Weird Twitter can cause such a blunt impact on online culture. But eventually, as Kevin pointed out, everyone is going to have to log off.
“Twitter is a great website, but you can only be on it for so long before your brain melts, for good.”