Culture //

Twitter is weird

Naaman Zhou spent way too long trying to write 140 characters

The logic of a pressure cooker is that heat and closed space, left in each other’s company, let you do a lot in very little time. This basic fact is the key to incubation, the trick behind the greenhouse, the pathologist’s favourite equation. It is the lifeblood of those who accelerate things for a living, and thus the best way to understand how language works on Twitter.

The heat: everyone’s competitively jabbering messages. The enclosed space: a one-two punch of character limit and the platform’s in-built bubble where what you see is what you follow. The limited nature of Twitter makes it a place where linguistic change plays at double speed.

If you look closely enough at Twitter, it’s like interrogating a fractal. It’s a landscape of small linguistic bubbles and sub-regionalities. Young Australian Twitter is distinctly its own beast, marked by unique on-purpose misspellings and faux-Australiana. America is responsible for one of Twitter’s most culturally distortive movements: a comedy format known as ‘Weird Twitter’. Described by Time Magazine in mid-2013 as “people saying incorrect things”, it’s essentially a free approach to punctuation and spelling, a grammatical herd of cats, noticeable yet ungoverned.

Of course, every clique has its slang and every internet subculture, its meme. This is a universal fact. What makes Twitter incredible is how it spins these trends out of the most minor, even linguistically bookish, of tweaks – capitalisations and adverbial suffixes – that look to the naked eye indistinguishable from mistake.

The root maybe, is an account called @Horse_ebooks. The brainchild of an incognito BuzzFeed staffer, @Horse_ebooks ran for years under the premise that it was part bot, part randomiser – cutting out erratic snippets from published e-books and posting the non-sequitur results. Examples: “Are you tired of feeling unappreciated for all the hard work you” and “Who Else Wants To Become A Golf Ball”.

@Horse_ebooks become wildly popular and something of a cult influence. The humour of it, essentially, was that it was normal syntactical speech, truncated into forms that we instinctively found funny; a sort of knee-jerk reaction of the lower cerebral speech centre. What was @Horse_ebooks but proof that punctuational mistake or linguistic weirdness, on its own, is funny enough to make people want to adopt it?

It’s in this continued spirit that, @dril, one of the platform’s most popular accounts, has made an art of misspelling. With calibrated errors and strokes of capitalisation, the tweet “turning my headlights off when driving at night,.. so that my Rivals cannot see me” amassed 3000 retweets.

In this strange hothouse, the habit of micro-errors and offbeat phrasing becomes an established ‘voice’ in the pretentious literary sense. A mode of talking that’s echoed and imitated because it demonstrates that everyone reading it is in on the joke.

If evolution is basically the replication of mistakes, then Twitter’s weird lingo is Darwinism in action. With smaller messages made more frequently, there are more typos in an average Twitter post than most other platforms. Meanwhile the retweet button is a built-in multi-generational photocopier. Mistake, both genuine or intentional, and change, both crafted or organic, are kicked on as mutation for a huge public audience.

So while a parallel can be drawn to the now exhausted linguistic havoc that texting and instant messaging wrought, Twitter is still playing by a different rulebook. Texting’s relative two-way privacy meant that while broader trends did happen, they did so at the same speed as speech (i.e. gradually and only once on TV). Twitter’s twists still spin quickest and head down stranger corridors.