Weird Twitter: The Symbolic Construction of Community through Iterative Reification
by Sebastian Benthall
Is there such a thing as Weird Twitter?
Earlier I wrote a blog post based on my (non-participant) observations of a Twitter subculture. Recently, there’s been some activity around it in the tweetosphere itself, which sheds light on how reification affects community development in social media.
This guy has almost 10,000 followers. Conversation analysis techniques indicate that he is upset at the reification of ‘weird twitter’ by an Other, ‘nerds’.
I have not yet been able to trace the reaction to these observations fully within Twitter itself. But preliminary results indicate discomfort within the alleged ‘weird twitter’ community as negotiates with its own boundaries in digital space.
Most of the reaction to the original post was dismissive (though I notice due to a sharp uptake in blog traffic that several people were intrigued enough to google for the post). But it just takes one stoned kid freaking out to escalate an irresponsible exaggeration of the truth into a reality.
This guy then began tweeting indignantly, apparently offended that I would refer to ‘weird twitter’ without being part of his social circle.
Twitter user @hell_homer (whose avatar depicts the popular Simpsons character, Homer, in hell) appears to not appreciate the irony that by reaching out to the people who might be concerned about the ‘weird twitter’ label, he is symbolically constructing the weird twitter community within the digital social space. @hell_homer autoreifies ‘weird twitter’ through his very acts of resistance.
He’s been going on like this now for like four hours.
Psychoanalytically, we might infer that @hell_homer’s suffers severe cognitive dissonance over his identification with “weird twitter”. Perhaps he identifies so strongly with weird twitter that he is offended by having the term appropriated by an outsider. Or perhaps he is concerned about his centrality with said ‘weird twitter’ community, and so seeks to embed himself further in it by taking responsibility for negotiation of its boundaries.
He persists in denial, weaving himself a cocoon of spite.
Other members of this community are willing to volunteer contact information about its central figures.
This suggests that ‘weird twitter’, rather than being a distributed social network, is rather more like a cult of personality, or personalities. Given the heavy-tail distribution of followers within Twitter and the immediacy of communication (no distance perceived by audience from “speaker”, even when the speaker has thousands of followers), this seems likely prima facie.
Others within ‘weird twitter’ react more violently to the application of the label:
Others became depressed:
…but also recognized, at least subliminally, the “threat” of having ones publicly facing community whose members have tens of thousands of followers “discovered” by internet media:
Is it the threat of exposure that is threatening? Or is it reifying gaze that comes with it? And how is that gaze constructed within the community as it is observed?
Here we see a single act of observation abstracted into “people” who want to categorize “every” community on the internet. The initially dismissed ‘hogwash’ has become, through the symbolic construction of ‘weird twitter’ itself, a surveilling conspiracy, placed firmly in opposition.
This user then proceeded to tweet a piece of microfiction prophesying the future of his community.
Speculation: as an earlier and more persistent mode of internet discourse, blogs are viewed by digital natives who primarily use Twitter as a social networking platform as a matured, out-of-touch, and marginally more socially powerful force. Moreover, academic language’s distinction from the vernacular echos the power dynamics of meatspace into the digitally dual virtual world. These power dynamics problematize organic community growth.
ahahaha everything is fucking stupid about this (mainly on the part of “joke twitter” idiots who think the same weed boner 666 funny number tweets over and over is always funny forever)
this is the worst thing i have ever read in my entire life bar none
i want to drown u in piss u idiot
Come and say that to my face idot asshole retard. bitch
the jokemen are really caremad about this whole thing. keep up the good work
this guy is the biggest faggot
are you sure that quoting a couple people who are annoyed about you trying to deconstruct their hobby (which is just telling jokes on the internet) that you claim are members of a group numbering tens of thousands is really credible, or, for that matter, interesting? idgaf about these accounts, i don’t even follow more than one or two of them, but i guess your post just annoys me. you should realize, also, that really somebody “getting really mad about this” on twitter is tantamount to a teenager rolling his eyes at his fat, out of touch math teacher who tried to make a “relevant” joke and fucked it up. you obviously have a good vocabulary, so maybe you should try writing about something worthwhile? dumbass.
Well, based on the reaction I’ve gotten, I’d say that I’ve touched a nerve.
What’s interesting to me is how a giant collective eye rolling at the application of a label does or does not reinforce the social reality of the thing being labeled.
Think of it like this: if the phenomenon I’m talking about weren’t one that a lot of people identify with, why would you, of all people, have seen it? The odds are astronomically small, because I am not a blogger that anyone really gives a shit about. But this post alone has gotten 1000 hits, and more hate spam than I’ve ever seen in my life.
So, yes, it’s interesting. There is a phenomenon here. dumbass.
i don’t know, to me it just looks like some sad sack trying to intellectualize something puddle deep with clunky prose and academic jargonese. What nerve did you touch here, exactly? Proving that these people are… what? Potheads? That they fall under your useless umbrella terms?
I think a more likely reason for your 1000 hits is a collective disgust at this shoddy sort of internet anthropology–i.e. your superficial condescension, which, being an insult, demands attention. It’s attention whoring at its least refined, brother.
It totally is clunky prose and academic jargonese. Some people seem physically incapable of getting jokes.
But what it did prove is that “these people” are homogeneous enough to react in disgust to shoddy, condescending labeling. I think that’s cool because it shows a way to operationalize community detection in an otherwise amorphous social network.
“haha I was trolling, owned” -you
If you dislike something addressing it only makes it more popular, I hope you know that
Yep. I really love weird twitter. That is the point.
first you were doing this: http://www.theonion.com/articles/grad-student-deconstructs-takeout-menu,85/
but now you just come off as really smug and contrived. take a break, i guess?
Why not tell twitter you’re going to present this as a paper at a conference? Then there will be an actual var of piss, and you will become Internet Famous
No way it would get past the IRB.
are you physically incapable of getting jokes? i don’t want to speak ill of you if you have a disability. there are already too many sins on my fetid, weary soul.
“Is it the threat of exposure that is threatening? Or is it reifying gaze that comes with it? And how is that gaze constructed within the community as it is observed?”
Read the statement and the “microfiction” again. He is dreading “the Gawker expose and the Huffington Post image gallery”; he doesn’t want to be part of a mass-produced, money-making Twitter trend like @Voldemort7 or @Queen_UK or @ShitMyDadSays. It isn’t the threat of mere exposure, it’s the threat of having their personal expressions commodified and exploited in the service of profit.
That’s a great point.
Do you think weird twitter may be so weird because it’s trying to outsmart attempts at commodification of it?
I know that’s why I’m weird on twitter.
Once you talk about weird twitter you’re no longer allowed to be part of weird twitter OH SHIT SHIT SHIT
I have no idea why you deemed it that necessary to try and define a vague community, I say vague because there is actually no concrete foundation, really just a similar sense of humour and the idea of, I guess, in-jokes. I find it absolutely facile that you thought you’d take it to the next pissdeath and apply pseudo psychology on Tweeters based on their tweets, really very empty and actually quite ridiculous.
I have a mischievous nature.
There’s a difference between “mischevious nature” and “poor academic skills.” Your entire non-participation in the ways and mores of this supposed subculture undermines your entire thesis. The purpose of Dumb Twitter Jokes are that they’re ephemeral and not to be taken seriously, ever. This entire exercise is the complete opposite of that.
Good Job. Thanks For Making The Rest of Us Look Bad.
The Ivory Tower
this article is fucking garbage hahahahaha
weird twitter does not exist, OK? and writing this article is only going to make people upset. people are jokes and leave it alone.
I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of these fascist cyberbullies for years. I’ll give you one name: Neil Rauhauser. Do some research. Follow the disability checks.
BEEP BOOP WHAT IS THIS THING YOU HUMANS CALL HUMOR? I AM A ROBOT DESIGNED TO QUANTIFY AND ANALYZE EVERYTHING I SEE!
There is no weird twitter…only bats and dingers
Wow, this post really got slathered in vitriol. Gotta admit, I’ve been curious about this too. These accounts really are hysterical.
I don’t know that you needed to dig as deep as you did, but I don’t hate you for it.
this is stupid
i know some of these words
i felt more a part of twetkrewe than I do of wyrd twitter. I have not cast the stones hanging from ygg and will always feels like a fraud.
This is horseshit
>tfw no weird twitter gf
You’ve insisted on trying to treat an interrelated set of interests as a homogenous blog and when somebody smarter than you gave you a better method of analysis you dismissed it. What a turd.
[…] a funny little sense of humor — I got a huge kick out of my buddy Seb Benthall’s subtle parody of academic analysis (which he explains more in an aftermath post because so many people didn’t get it). […]
Look, it is very obvious why people are upset about this label “weird twitter”: it puts a very heterogeneous assortment of individuals under a homogeneous umbrella, artificially implicating them in a community they do not identify with, and leaves them vulnerable for stereotyping and as was mentioned by others already, commercial exploitation by pathetic media outlets desperately trying to capitalize on the newest Thing. In a way, despite the nonaffiliation of your blog, I think this is precisely what you are doing – trying to pounce on a new Thing before everyone else does and exploiting it for attention. This is why so many people are upset with you. Your transparent attempt to legitimate this ploy for attention by dressing it up in first year critical theory rhetoric (did you learn any other buzzwords besides “reify” and “symbolic construction” – vary it up a little maybe?) makes your post even more likely to create a negative stir among people whose very identities are contingent upon nonparticipation in the self-serving and hypocritical domain of academia, so congratulations, you’ve successfully orchestrated a small controversy on the internet. Your post oozes with self-satisfaction because you apparently think you’ve unveiled some clever irony by getting a rise out of these people. However, the fact that people are upset by the label does not prove their membership in the artificially imposed group nor does it further entrench them in said group – more simply put, anger over a term that is perceived as pejorative term is not equivalent to identification with that term. An analogous (and much more serious) scenario is how many Muslims do not appreciate having their community divided into “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims” by the media and are legitimately upset by this externally imposed ethnocentric schema which perpetuates stereotypes and robs them of individuality and agency. I don’t think anyone would argue that by criticizing this crude system of classification they are thereby strengthening it and revealing a secret complicity in the labeling. Yet by your bogus logic, because you are so desperate to prove a point, criticism of an artificially constructed community somehow necessarily implies participation in that community. This thesis is, scholarly jargon notwithstanding, completely intellectually bankrupt.
On a more personal note, when I was using Twitter I resented being implicated in this “weird twitter” thing because while I admire the wit and humor of many of the accounts you’ve cited, many of us have been pigeonholed by that label when what we are doing is not a novel form of off-kilter internet humor but a wide range of other things, ranging from manifestations of authentic mental illness, to sincere experimentation with alternative use of language, to interest in mysticism and the occult, or to simply being who we are without any underlying motive or project. I found it inherently problematic (problematic, certainly not insulting) for my twitter presence to be grouped with accounts like @rare_basement, to take the first name that comes to mind. We might follow eachother and appreciate eachother and even retweet eachother on occasion but at the end of the day we think differently, use the medium for different reasons, and are simply doing different things. “Weird” is an adjective that people stick on things they do not understand and that they may find intriguing. It therefore lends itself to misuse, as it comes from an outside source who lacks comprehension of the phenomenon in question. You’ve tried very hard to make this about some elite clique of jokers attempting in vain to not be an elite clique, and you seem incredibly pleased with yourself for making this very formulaic analysis (a facile variant of the “if a hipster gets mad at you for calling them a hipster, this proves they are a hipster” cliche). What it’s really about is a nonunified assemblage of individuals who have a (very justified) aversion to being homogenized by an ignorant external voice.
My advice to you is that you put a little more thought into your posts from now on if you would like to avoid coming across as a total ass and being called out on it.
Thank you for this very insightful and revealing response.
Though I don’t agree with everything you’ve said (since I think you misunderstand my motivations, which is understandable, because they were concealed), this is a very intelligent analysis.
A question: you say you’ve been pigeonholed by the label “weird twitter” before I wrote that blog post. Who was doing that pigeonholing, and why do you think they were doing it?
While I’ve made it pretty clear that I don’t consider “weird twitter” to be a legitimate entity, and thus any reference to an “insider/outsider” dichotomy with respect to this entity is obviously problematic (this dichotomy itself is central to my criticism – see below), the pigeonholing I referred to came primarily from “insiders”, i.e. people who were self-identifying with the label and implicating others in it without their consent. I assume they were doing this because people have a strong psychological tendency toward constructing groups and cliques, as this satisfies an emotional need that accompanies our existence as social animals. People want to feel like they are a part of something that transcends their individual identity and thus they are tempted to artificially construct boundaries around themselves and others. This is understandable but has negative consequences. I pointed this out to some people I saw using the weird label and made it clear that I did not want to be implicated in it. It’s frustrating to me that despite making my reasoning very clear and explicit, this type of complaint is still likely to be read as some elitist social maneuver to protect one’s individual “brand”, so to speak, rather than a genuine concern about the repercussions of in-group/out-group classification. My issue with it has to do with the implied dichotomy of “weird” vs. “normal” or “square”, which is just another way of segmenting the population and setting up artificial hierarchies based on status (since most of us involved have spent at least some portion of lives as social misfits, this is deeply hypocritical), and also as I mentioned in my previous comment the term “weird” is loaded and encourages the kind of abuses of “outsider” analysis from observers who will run wild with it and use it to strip individuality away from anyone they do not understand. I suggested as an alternative that everyone just continue doing what they were doing with the medium and resist the temptation to construct a crude group identity around it. It seems like this advice went unheeded to some degree, and it is true that many of the people reacting with hostility to your posts are indeed self-identifying with the label and thus further entrenching it as a constructed community. However, the fact that a few people are doing this should not be cited as evidence to continue casting a wide net and roping others into the label non-consensually. Assigning a social signifier to someone who does not identify with it or even vocally disavows it is an illegitimate practice unbefitting of a social scientist. While I am not equating this scenario to other abuses of social labeling that have been used historically to strip agency away from minority groups, it shares the same logic and it’s for this reason that I find the practice deeply troubling.
I sympathize a bit. I am a pretty weird person myself. Also, I’ve read and appreciated many of your tweets
I think you make a good point about how it’s important to distinguish between “weird twitter” as I’ve operationalized it and the group that self-identifies as “weird twitter”.
On the other hand, as a scientist (or pseudoscientist, or whatever the hell I am) I find it fascinating that a group as heterogenous as you have described has these kinds of internal identify formation issues. The need to identify oneself or not identify oneself as being otherwise unidentifiable (“weird”).
I’m sure that you’ve gotten the irony of this prank, which is that it was self-referentially referring to the symbolic construction (meaning: the way people use symbols, like the words “weird twitter”, to construct their social reality) as a way of instigating it. I’ve been told that there is now an ironic parody “weird twitter” out there that I guess will be about as indistinguishable from the rest of y’all as the jokers and madmen.
Maybe what’s so weird about weird twitter (I’m going to keep using the phrase just because) is that since it’s so easy to decontextualize the “weird” material, people are really free to reinterpret the information available and create new forms from it. (That seems to be an underlying theme of Kimmy’s work, and if I’m not mistaken your own handle is a reference to horse_ebooks, the decontextualized reinterpreted twitter par excellence). Naturally, that would make “symbolic construction of community” really difficult and complicated.
I’m not entirely sure to what extent this was, as you’re saying, a cleverly orchestrated prank and to what extent calling it one is simply a post-hoc rationalization and face-saving gesture employed for “damage control” purposes, but I’ll set that one aside. Whatever the motive behind it, it certainly was illustrative in that it shows how instrumental an “academic gaze” can be in consolidating a group identity, as well as provoking resistance to said identity. Because of the tone and positioning of your analysis, you’ve managed to trigger at least some people to defensively entrench their identities more deeply within the group signifier, and I’ll concede that is interesting (disturbing, but interesting). However, there’s also something vaguely megalomaniacal about deriving personal satisfaction from attempting to pen people into a constructed identity and succeeding.
Yes, I suppose that it is to reconstruct underlying motivations from text, even from large bodies of text, even when they are deeply contextualized, even when you’ve written the text yourself.
However, there’s also something vaguely megalomaniacal about deriving personal satisfaction from attempting to pen people into a constructed identity and succeeding.
Well, it would have been megalomania if I had delusions that it worked, but it didn’t. If, as you say, it succeeded, I’m pretty sure it’s just awesome.
Someone didn’t get ethics committee approval before researching on human subjects…
Fuck the blog
I think the most disheartening thing about this article is the complete lack of objectivity on the part of the writer. For somebody to (attempt) to analyze a community, only to spend half the article bashing those under the microscope is unprofessional at best. It really seems akin to a child kicking over an anthill and being pissed off that the ants are upset.
holy shit, the high school newspaper wrote a sick exposé on the drama club.
totally on point
man, you’re never sittin at their lunch table now. and good luck getting cast as even a tree in the spring musical.
It’s pretty cool that you’re deleting comments now. A little academic revisionism.
at some point all the people saying ‘bats’ get redundant.
Not on it voting 1.
I laughed a lot at “Moreover, academic language’s distinction from the vernacular echos the power dynamics of meatspace into the digitally dual virtual world. These power dynamics problematize organic community growth.”
I laughed more at all the hipsters who try to say this isn’t a thing, just similar senses of humor, but get insanely furious at the fact that you’re talking about it. The insecurity of these people is just astonishing.
FAKE!!!!!! THIS SIHT IS FAKE!!!!!!!!!!!!!
im at the airport, wonderin if theyll let me bring my webcame on the flight. i just think if u call these folks wierd that maybe what would you feel like if you were called wierd.
hello i am a bronie/girl gamer from 4chan how do i join Weird Twitter and when i join can u prank call this girl i dont like
What an idiotic waste of a blog. Let people tweet however they want, no need to label them.
This was already done, in the 1990s, when sociologists raped LambdaMOO.
SMELLY DUMB ACADEMIC SCUM
[…] ese artículo saltó una pregunta en Quora, de allí a dos anotaciones en el blog de Sebastian —uno y dos—, y tras mucha broma y cuentas parodiando la idea, se llegó al mapa ilustrativo de […]
THERE ARE 69 RESPONSES HOLY FUCK HOLY FUCK HOLY FUCK
Wow, I never seen so many people so upset at not being able to understand satire or parody. For fucks sake people, either learn to recognize your own brand or stfu. This series has been hilarious to watch unfold.
I am a huge fan of weird twitter and I love the way you approach it at an anthropological angle. No idea why so much hatred came out of this.
I was both thrilled and dismayed when I stumbled across this article because I had been considering trying to write an analysis of twitter-specific humor myself (as someone who, like yourself, loves that community we shall now forever know as “weird twitter”). Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that you got this degree of vitriol in response, but I was. I suppose that this is the sort of maelstrom that surrounds the labeling/naming of any nascent phenomenon, though..(I mean, people are STILL arguing about terms like “pansexual” and “alt lit”). I guess it’s a twisted compliment. Either way, in naming the beast you’ve clearly done something significant, and I personally think your analysis was interesting and appropriate. Keep it up.
Thanks for these kind words!
I encourage you to write about it anyway. One thing that’s very clear from all this is how multifaceted a phenomenon it is. I’d be very interested to read other perspectives on it, yours included.
you dont get the layers then…
hm this article has inspired me to write a 20,000 word thinkpiece on the solipsistic undertones of @dril’s greatest tweets and what they say about the Weird Twitter community….. good shit man……..
A fascinating and illuminating post.
[…] this designation. As Benthall’s post floated around the Twittersphere, the Weird Tweeters pushed back. “now im feeling depressed because there are people out there who want to box up and label […]