On Weird Twitter
by Claire L. Evans

@TriciaLockwood: I'm A Heterosexual Man And I Am Opening The Door Of This Airplane Because I Want To Touch Some Cloud Tits

Twitter was an experiment from the beginning. What happens when you give people a platform that's both instantaneous, with a potential audience in the millions, and constrained, with a character limit of 140? Even before the service developed its high-profile variations–as ground zero for citizen journalism, or as a romper room for self-indulgent celebrities–its founders must have realized that Twitter's conditional embrace would prove irresistible, and would generate countless linguistic hacks, idioms, and strategies for extending the platform's inherent (but seductive) limitations.

On Twitter, we traffic in colloquial abbreviations, in agreed-upon systems for communicating larger abstractions than could fit in our precise feeds. There are acronyms, and emoji, as there have always been on the web, this time placed into the discourse not out of laziness but necessity. Some shortening of words has become consensus-appropriate: in tech circles, a conference is now a "conf." Hardcore Twitterati are so steeped in these idioms that they have developed an aversion to length; even when they point outwards, sharing content with their peers, they feel the need to preface. Hashtag, they warn, longreads. That Twitter would spawn such a meticulously insider vernacular could not have come as a surprise to its founders. They must have anticipated, or at least dreamt of, such things. What should throw them, however, is Twitter's underground poetics. That is, if they even know about the amorphous culture which, for better or for worse, has found itself saddled with the reductive sobriquet of "Weird Twitter."

@leducviolet: Scientists have identified the dog particle. It is a good particle. Such a good particle yes it is. Does it want a treaty weatsy yes it doe

Unlike the rest of Twitter's quantifiable, marketable demographics, Weird Twitter is woozy and limbic, its undefined boundaries ebbing outwards from the accounts of its most gifted practitioners and becoming, in a sense, a way of reading. Its origins may never be fully studied–it's possible that its history has already vanished with the ephemerality of its foundational spaces–but the DNA of Weird Twitter is equal parts forum, video game, web comic, Kaufmanesque performance art, and, as was recently pointed out by Kathleen Rooney in the New York Times, some fraction Jack Handey, whose "Deep Thoughts" were proto-Tweets if there ever were any. I recognize the calculated insouciance of the language–how it employs nesting asterisks for emphasis, the hanging sentences untethered by punctuation, the lower-case surrealism, the general energy-drink punkiness and propensity to troll–from my adolescent message-board days. It's an approach to writing on the web born from convenience and maintained by studied affection. It's specifically generational, although it appears to be practiced best by those who, despite being card-bearing netizens, are adults concerned, on some level, with the literary.

@dril: just realized that skeletons are basically just rocks hitching a free ride inside of our bodies. sad and pissed off

Weird Twitter's distinguishing qualities are hard to pin down. Emerging as it does from a couple decades of inane web chatter, and semantic gestures culled from the surface of the screeching, troll-addled Internet, it's something better felt than explained. It delights initiates while baffling those unaccustomed to poems gleamed from comment spam, or the accidental beauty of digital jargon. It poses sentences so unstructured that the very effort to express them, even in the mind's internal voice, can be confounding. That, of course, is a large part of what makes Weird Twitter so engaging, and so wedded to its medium: a built-in impossibility to be expressed verbally. Its omnipresent dare: "can you read me?"

@UtilityLimb: a dog's nose is his doorbell, don't push it *DINGWOOF* dude what did i JUST SAY [hatch opens on top of dog. a smaller dog pops his head out]

Whether or not it emerged from video game culture, its adherents seemed to have come of age within it. The visual atmosphere that Weird Twitter conjures is often rich with the denizens of 8-bit underworlds: trolls, dragons, winding caves cut with twisting passages, goblets, and gems. Some of my favorite accounts (@J_Chastain, @aliendovecote) are, I think, manned by conceptual video game artists who traffic in impossible landscapes and the sabotage of normative gender roles. Others (@fart) seem to have found their way in through the peripheries of comedy culture; still more seem to have been born into the vernacular. In any case, it's almost defined by mystery, a pronounced inwardness; few Weird Twitterers operate under their real names, and so I know them, these gleefully disjointed voices that fill my daily experience, as pixelated avatars with ludicrous, unpronounceable usernames. In a social media landscape that is increasingly, tyrannically insistent on one-to-one symmetry between digital and offline life, this convoluted anonymity is incredible.

@dril: another day volunteering at the betsy ross museum. everyone keeps asking me if they can fuck the flag. buddy, they wont even let me fuck it

There are some fragments of history: a lot of its key voices fomented on a subforum called "Fuck You and Die," or FYAD. There, in a mostly exclusive forum, the movement gestated, rolling up fragments of the idiomatic web like a Katamari ball, until its medium emerged proper. Even then, the blossoming of Weird Twitter, its eventual accretion of additional heads, the flexing of its boundaries and tentative accumulation of appreciation, took several years.


Weird Twitter aggressively resists definition. It hates the term "Weird Twitter." There is hostility to the notion of serious examination, too; I'm talking about a genre of writing mastered by people with names like @dogboner and @fart. They insist that it's for jokes. The first blog that brought an academic lens to the subculture, Digifesto, was bombarded with criticism, and I fear this article may suffer a similar fate if anyone reads it. For what it's worth, I don't like the term "Weird Twitter" either, but it's a useful way of short-handing a nebulous group of funny people, or a certain category of otherwise undefinable tactics, that I've always enjoyed having on my radar.

@drugleaf: sir, what you did is so illegal that it loops around and now you're the cop and i'm under arrest. here's your badge welcome to the force

A palpable fear in the world of writing and publishing, so all-pervasive and hackneyed at this point that it's boring to discuss it here, is that the ubiquitous media of our age will somehow eviscerate the art of the word. And while it's certainly true that long-form text, both fiction and nonfiction, has a hard road ahead, the public hand-wringing on the subject tends to lie mostly on the publication end, on securing and maintaining a paying audience for the work. But the subtext, and the real anxiety, is the creeping horror that the media themselves will metamorphose how writing is done, or will alter the language itself. This fear wouldn't have been out of place among the old guard in any of the poetic revolutions: those not on board with modernists, vorticists, dadaists, futurists, or beats–or even romantics, for that matter. The fact is, though, that language has been blown apart and reconstructed countless times throughout history, and technology is often the catalyst. The collagist, fractured voice of Modernism arose from World War Two, the dawn of communications, and the sense of an increasingly disjointed reality. We are not exempt from these generational evolutions. Our language is more fluid than ever. Even our foundational tome, the Oxford English Dictionary, can barely keep up with the revisions and additions.

@fart: Wow a guy on the train just got up and said "Remember rugrats. Remember the 90s" and now we're all standing up clapping and cheering for him

What has the web done for, or to, writing? It's been a site for experiments, some more successful than others. Hypertext fiction, despite captivating academics on the early web, is largely a failed state. The text-based gaming of the early 1990s, variably called Interactive Storytelling or Interactive Fiction, still has a robust culture, and stickily evolves with our portable platforms, most recently with Twine, a graphic tool for creating interactive stories. Whatever you think of the "Blogging Revolution," too, desktop publishing introduced a candor and idiomatic directness to writing that has had lasting effect on either side of the paper-and-screen divide. But the digital age hasn't yet had its poetic revolution, its truly subversive, avant-garde tinkering of the lexis–not, I think, until Twitter.

@J_Chastain: I want RESULTS, not EXCUSES, not EXPLANATIONS for why REALITY does not immediately CONFORM to EXPECTATIONS shapes mainly by my FANTASIES

The limitations of Twitter turn out to be alchemical for poetry. Where blocks of avant-web writing might be unreadable, 140 characters is practically tailored-made for ideographic glyphs of weirdness. After all, brevity is its own poetic constraint. The haiku, of course, provides a precedent for the highly visual juxtapositions of a Tweet. Zen koans compress great philosophical breadth into a few sentences. Most of Ezra Pound's imagist poems are 140 characters or less; he would have been great on Twitter, although he might have not been able to resist it as a tool for self-promotion. There is a sophistication to Weird Twitter that is belied by its absurdity, because although it is easy to be "random" (isn't that every unhinged teenager's first foray into humor?) it's a delicate art to be truly surreal, to drape the unexpected onto a structure of linguistic oddity–often, it seems, a self-perpetuating or tautological weirdness–with the lasting effect of poetry. It's no coincidence that one of Weird Twitter's best accounts is authored by a poet, Tricia Lockwood.

@dogboner: If a cat makes biscuits for u on ur tummy dont be a rude ass. Eat the biscuits. I know they arent real. He knows they arent real. Just do it

Lockwood's description, in a 2012 interview with HTMLGiant, of the optimal response to a tweet seems to get at the essence of all this: "Laughing is not exactly what I do. More like, 'sit staring at it with a sort of appalled reverence, wondering what kind of person I am.'" Of course, every writer dreams of this sort of response from their peers. We want to dumbfound, we hope to make our readers question themselves, their desires, and what their synapses even do. Like any hard-won community, on the web or otherwise, Weird Twitter presumably imagines that a title, or any tribute, will calcify them, as it has the plundered subcultures from which it emerged. This is a shame. Every single one of these people should be getting paid to write comedy, or books of poetry, or whatever they want. Those who fuck with language must be studied, or at least kept an eye on, because despite the chasm between its working core and its bleeding lexicographical edges, the language belongs to all of us. If a weirding happens, we should be there to see it, to discuss it, and to learn to read it.

@TriciaLockwood: Took a bunch of drugs and now I feel like a dolphin finger -- slick, sexy, and five million years in the future