Why is twitter dot com, the hell website, so funny?

Note: This is not meant to be a terribly serious post. It is a post about a website that I both love and hate, Twitter dot com. As you probably know, Twitter does have some very real and serious challenges it has to face around abuse and harassment, the purpose of its platform, and its future as a business. This post is about none of those things. Instead, it’s trying to answer a simpler question that I think is actually a genuinely important part of what makes Twitter special: what makes Twitter so funny? It’s actually hard to explain. For someone who doesn’t spend horrifying amounts of time on this website, it can be quite tricky to convey why it is about Twitter is so entertaining, and what makes us come back day after day. But someone has to try, so here’s my shot at it. 


Twitter is a chat room

Ice T honestly said it best: Twitter is a chat room. And as anyone who’s familiar with the internet knows: chat rooms are objectively funny. 

From the minute you first set up your Twitter account, you become the moderator of your own chat room. You get to choose who you follow, and who you don’t follow. One of Twitter’s biggest challenges has always been getting started: when you first open the app, Twitter’s just an empty chat room and it’s not really obvious what you should do. With Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, it’s very clear what to do: go add your friends. On Twitter, you shouldn’t do that. You have a challenge which is that in order to optimally create your chat room, you need to know how Twitter works, and who’s on it, and why they’re fun. So there’s a chicken and egg problem that can honestly take a long time to work through. Some people find their way into Twitter through things like sports: they start by following teams and other official accounts (which are usually pretty boring), and then they follow sportswriters, who are somewhat more interesting. But they’re the real way in: by following reporters you’ll see who they are retweeting and interacting with, and they’re the real community you ought to have been following all along. They’re the people you want in your chat room. It takes a while to get there though. 

Once you’re in, and you’ve built your chat room, you can start to get a feel for what’s funny on Twitter. On the one hand, Twitter humour is unmistakably part of a broader category of internet culture: it’s related to forums, message boards, reddit, Tumblr, and other places that are one or two degrees of separation away. Lots of good shareable Twitter content starts out on reddit or Tumblr, and there is a familiar kind of “internet absurdity” to Twitter jokes that you’ll see elsewhere online as well. But what’s really funny and unique to Twitter isn’t so much the content as it is the interaction between the participants. And I’d argue that main thing we do on this website is make fun of each other.

The people whose tweets you’ll read are going to be a big mixed up bunch: lots of regular people, some official Very Serious people like politicians and journalists who’re using it as a communications channel (another genuine function of Twitter we won’t really talk about here, other than the fact that it’s quite weird to scroll through your timeline and see very serious news next to abject toilet humour), and a good number of celebrities. Lots of celebrities have followers simply because they were already famous, but there are a solid number of celebrities whose personalities turned out to be perfect for Twitter jokes. Chrissy Teigen is probably the best example: she’s now arguably more famous as a Twitter celebrity than she ever was in her own career or as John Legend’s partner. One of the consistent joys of Twitter is seeing people like Chrissy use Twitter like her own public chat room, mostly to roast John:

One perennially odd aspect of Twitter is that a lot of brands maintain a Twitter presence, and there’s a real temptation for them to try to be cool online with those twitter accounts. If you can pull it off, brands being funny or snarky online can work. But you’d better make sure you’re actually funny. There’s nothing worse than a bunch of brands getting into a conversation with one another, trying to be funny, and only looking dumb. That being said, there’s an opportunity for humour here: brand accounts simultaneously would like to be funny and authentic yet have a corporate responsibility to not be gross or offensive. When you combine this with a certain type of twitter character like Rob Delaney (who is now a genuine TV star but just a few years ago was mostly known for his Twitter stream of hilarious, extremely inappropriate and downright bizarre posting), it opens the door to, well:

In the Twitter Chat Room, there are a few more ways to chat in addition to tweeting and replying to tweets. The most basic way is to see a tweet that you enjoy, think “I enjoyed this tweet”, and then fave it. (Fave is short for “favourite”, and it’s akin to the like button on other social networks. Anyone who tells you that they’re called Likes on Twitter now is lying. Never happened.) Another is to retweet something, or now a newer form which is to “quote tweet” (we’ll see several of these later on), which alternately serves to provide context and/or the setup to a joke, or equally likely, to set up someone to be dunked on by you or others. You can often tell a lot about a tweet by its number of faves, retweets and replies, both in an absolute sense but also in relation to one another. 

One common Twitter motif, which often means that something funny or horrible has happened, is called “getting ratioed”. It’s when a tweet prompts a very high number of replies, and a much smaller number of faves and retweets. This can really only mean one thing: you said something very wrong, and now the Internet is going to tell you how wrong you were. 

Another kind of ratio that isn’t good news for you is when you post something, and then someone replies to your post in a way that criticizes or rips on you, and their tweet gets significantly more faves than your original one. This can be truly devastating, especially if the reply isn’t making any kind of sophisticated point but rather is the equivalent of “hey check out this idiot.” Hard to come back from one of these. For example, in one of the more devastating real-life instances of  “You buy a hat like this, I bet you get a free soup” I’ve ever seen:

We’ll get back to ‘people getting owned online’ later on, seeing as it’s a very important part of the Twitter experience. 

Twitter is karaoke

If we go a little bit further into Twitter humour structure, one thing you’ll notice really quickly is that a lot of the jokes are built around a “theme and variations” setup in one way or another. An obvious example of this is memes. Memes aren’t at all specific to Twitter; Reddit is often where they originate, and Instagram is where they go globally viral – at least for visual, single-panel memes. Twitter’s specific take on the theme-and-variation format is often less visual, and more around particular narratives or phrases, like the *record scratch* *freeze frame* joke:

When one of these goes around, and it’s funny, other people try their hand at it too. Sometimes they’ll be even better; sometimes they’ll totally flop; but often there’s a general appreciation for people who throw their hat in the ring and say, “Hey I’ve got one too!” It’s fun to participate, but it’s not required. The structure of the Twitter feed and the way that good content gets retweeted and amplified faster than bad content means that you won’t need to sift through a whole bunch of garbage in order to find the two or three funny ones; the good stuff will naturally find its way into your feed. The signal to noise ratio on good content, and especially good remixed content, will be high if you’re following people whose sense of humour is similar to yours. In general, the karaoke analogy for theme-and-variations content effectively means: if everybody already knows the basic format of the joke and everybody already knows the words, it’s easier to throw in your own contribution. And hey, who knows, some of them are actually pretty good. It’s fun seeing multiple people in a row nail the same joke successfully. 

Beyond memes, another example of “theme and variation” Twitter content is “someone proposes a topic or theme, and then other people run with it.” Remember last year’s “describe yourself like a male author would” challenge?

A third kind of Theme and Variation Twitter joke format is referencing back to old classic tweets when something new happens. Anyone who spends too much time on Twitter will tell you that this means, first and foremost: dril tweets. @dril is an anonymous twitter poster who has been tweeting absurd, crazy things for many years that for some inexplicable reason are just deeply, hysterically funny. The classic dril tweets are basically Twitter canon at this point, and many of them have inspired their own theme-and-variation joke formats, like this one:

Where these callbacks really shine is when someone out in the world – often a celebrity, and especially celebrities that are notorious or disliked – tweets something that for whatever reason evokes a classic bit, like a dril tweet. Consider this example of Ann Coulter complaining to some airline over the inadequacy of a refund, which immediately got hijacked into a familiar format:

Another classic theme and variations twitter format is musical or literary remixing. One bizarre but recurring literary joke that you’ll encounter on Twitter is the “This is just to say: I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox” poem by William Carlos Williams, which you might know if you read it in high school or were an English major (or are generally well-read), but might also know primarily as this strange recurring Twitter bit. The humour is half in the cleverness: it does take some amount of thoughtfulness to rewrite the plums in the icebox poem as the For Sale Baby Shoes Never Worn story, for example, or alternately as Smash Mouth or Papa Roach lyrics. But there’s also humour in the obscurity and the absurdity of the throwback. It’s like a private joke that everyone’s in on. 

The enduring humour to the joke format lies in the fact that everyone already knows the words. This is why it’s like karaoke: it’s harder to have fun at karaoke when you pick a song that no one knows. Of course, if you overdo it, then themes lose their freshness: it’s like singing Don’t Stop Believing or Living On a Prayer one too many times; enough already. The key is in getting the combination of jokes that are one the one hand fresh and current, and on the other hand timeless. When everyone knows the words, it’s way more fun. 

Twitter is a massive multiplayer game

Remember that blog post: “Fortnite isn’t a game you play, it’s a place you go?” Well, that’s kind of like Twitter, in that Twitter is very clearly both a game and a place: it’s the place everyone goes to play the game of Getting Mad Online. 

Twitter is very much like a video game in that there are clear heroes and villains, and clear gameplay: the game of twitter is to be mad online, and the gameplay is watching people get owned. (If you don’t know what “getting owned” means, it basically means getting brutally dunked on / getting made a fool of by somebody else / getting shut down in a very public fashion, often by a complete stranger over the internet. It originated, of course, in gaming.) The heroes are you and the people you follow; the villains are whoever it is we’re mad at today, or alternately whoever did something so stupid and funny that it’s going to be the daily topic (e.g. Fyre Fest.)

In online games like Fortnite, one thing that happens from time to time is the map changes: the players have to learn the new terrain, figure out where things are, understand the layout of the place, and then go play. Twitter is pretty similar, except instead of a map changing, it’s “every day there’s a new set of topics we’re going to talk about, and a new person we’re going to be mad at.” What Twitter does more effectively than any other forum in history is create new people to roast on a daily basis. This obviously has some bad consequences in real life for things like abuse, bad discourse, and other actual problems; but we’re not going to talk about that right now because this isn’t a Serious Blog Post about Real Serious Issues; it’s a blog about why twitter is funny. 

It’s really worth reemphasizing one more time that part of what makes Twitter so addictive is that there’s a lot of work involved with staying up to date; to put it in Eugene Wei’s terms from his great post on social networks from the other day, simply being able to keep up with the group on Twitter is in and of itself a kind of proof of work. It’s a bit of a masochistic effort: in order to maximally enjoy this website, you must surrender at least one hour of your precious day to reading everyone’s dumb posts just to remain in the know. Every morning when you log on to Twitter you spend several minutes scrolling through your feed trying to figure out: “ok, what is it we’re talking about today?” It’s just like getting dropped into a video game and spending the first couple minutes stumbling around while you learn the map and get oriented. 

For example, you might log on and see a tweet like this:

So, on its own this just looks like a gross picture of a bunch of butts after a rainstorm; there isn’t anything particularly funny about it. But the tweet has a lot of faves and retweets, so clearly there’s a joke here that you have to go figure out. What’s apparent is that this is the punchline to the joke, and the setup to the joke is out there in the map somewhere. You have to go find it. (In this case, it was a Fox News host who had earnestly posted a picture of some horrifying looking cheese dip they’d made for the Super Bowl, with the caption “I made queso.”) As Eugene similarly pointed out, there’s something both economical and also threatening about this format, where the tweets themselves are only punchlines and the joke is out there in the context. First, it means that scrolling through your feed is just punchline after punchline, and you can achieve an astonishingly high amount of funny in a very short amount of space, over and over. Second, it’s like a trap that forces you to commit to keep paying attention and keep playing the game; otherwise you won’t get the jokes. 

As you can imagine, Twitter can get pretty adversarial, and the history behind those rivalries and conflicts can often be important context behind a certain joke, or the pretext behind why we’re mad at somebody today. There’s a fantastic podcast called “Blocked Party” where on each episode the hosts, all well-known Twitter denizens, tell the story about how one of them got blocked by someone famous. It’s great content. In fact, being blocked by somebody in and of itself is actually a great piece of content because it implies that some sort of confrontation took place in the past that made Person 1 mad enough to block Person 2. Person 2 then gets to triumphantly share the screenshot showing “You can’t view this person’s tweets” like a trophy, and it’ll go down as a part of Twitter history that forms an important part of the context and terroir of future jokes. 

Twitter confrontations are not at all unlike fights in a video game where one person (or possibly a group) comes out the winner, another person comes out the loser, and a huge audience of people all watched as witnesses and commentators. If you’ve been made the enemy or if you’ve gotten owned really badly, the sensible thing to do is simply to take your lumps and walk away. But sometimes people refuse to acknowledge that they’ve been bested, and just get madder and madder in increasingly public and fruitless ways. In twitter parlance, this is called getting “corncobbed”, named once again after a dril tweet that just keeps getting called back over and over again.

From time to time, some of the Extremely Online content from Twitter will actually break the fourth wall and enter real life. One person who just absolutely loves doing stuff like this is Laura Loomer, the right wing political activist and internet character who created a brand for herself by doing in-person stunts that she’d broadcast online through her social media channels. Late last year after getting suspended from Twitter, Loomer handcuffed herself to what she believed to be Twitter’s headquarters in downtown NYC (it was actually the Vine office), broadcasting her suspension for allegedly political reasons to her youtube channel and to anyone who would listen. Hilariously and also quite shrewdly, Twitter declined to call the police, effectively essentially saying, “Yep, cool. Hang out as long as you want. When you decide you want to leave, call the police yourself and ask them to cut your handcuffs.” As you can imagine, this was a pretty funny day to be on Twitter.

It also had a degree of meta-ness to it, given that one of the characters in the story was Twitter itself. Twitter actually features quite prominently in the daily gameplay of its own website, with arguably the most popular recurring joke on twitter being the notion that Twitter itself should be shut down for all of our own good. Many people affectionately call Twitter “the hell website”, and a lot of Twitter’s power users do genuinely question whether Twitter is destroying our lives and making us all insane. Would we all be better off if Jack just deleted twitter dot com? We may never know, but that certainly won’t stop some people from asking:

That’s it, folks. I hope Twitter makes more sense to you now, and if it still doesn’t, then that’s fine: make every Twitter user jealous of you by not joining, never Tweeting, and remaining blissfully off the hell website.

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