Friday, May 30, 2008

Meet the Wisenheimers: Twitter's Comedy Underground, Part 1

When I first joined Twitter, I mostly followed other videobloggers (who generally would follow me back) and famous people (who generally would not). As a social network Twitter has a one-way affinity structure, meaning you can follow people without them having to follow you in kind.

(I linked to a video earlier about what Twitter is and why a normal person might be interested in it.)

This one-way architecture means you get to choose whose 140-character or shorter posts ("tweets", in the vernacular) show up in your Twitter feed. I often describe it as a custom CNN newscrawl, in which you have pre-selected the writers for the content you expect they will provide. Or alternately as a steady stream of office chatter by workmates that you have hand-picked for their conversational value.

It's therefore up to you how to tune your mix of breaking news, tech convention updates, meetup invites, party gossip, internet links, lunch reports, clarifying insights, wisecracks, and updates from people you actually know. This process happens over time, as you follow new people, or "unfollow" others (because they tweet too often, or because they irritate or bore you).

By the time I joined in fall of 2007, Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies) had already attracted thousands of followers for his snappy one-liner tweets—a hilarious mix of hype-deflating similes, wince-inducing self-deprecations, adolescent dick jokes, and inside nerdball. Most people know Mann from his productivity blog or the podcast MacBreak Weekly, but he had already spent years honing his minimalist writing skills on his site of ridiculous lists, 5ives. But on Twitter, Mann had something something apotheosis something something. (sic)

One of @hotdogsladies's social groups on Twitter was a cluster of wisecracking Mac software developers1 he already knew, the most "famous" of whom, John Gruber, author of the popular daringfireball.net2, had built up a Twitter following as large as Mann's. Where others might use the 140-character space for a quick, cheap aside, @gruber shot through it with the blunt force trauma of swiftly-delivered declamatory statements, made definitive (and often hilarious) with the masterful application of punctuation, capitalization, and well-placed expletives.

Thus another social cluster began to form that had no connection prior to Twitter, around a culture of using Twitter almost entirely for the purpose of cracking wise. These like-minded Twitterers found each other using two of the site's built-in features.

While the "follow" stream is one-way, the use of the "@" tag allows anyone to "reply" to people upstream from them. The person who doesn't currently follow you can choose to ignore your reply, or (if you are annoying) block you (meaning you can't follow or reply to them any more). But if s/he reads your reply, and likes it, s/he might click over to read some of your other tweets, and decide that you're worth following yourself.

The second feature, one that isn't used by the majority of Twitter users, is the "favorite". Next to each tweet (in the standard web page interface) is the graphic of a star. Click it, and that tweet is added to your list of "Favorites", publicly accessibly via your profile. So you can check out the Favorites list of someone you find funny to discover Twitterers that person finds funny.

So like bloggers who constantly check their stats for traffic volume and incoming links, these jokesters wanted a way to find out who was marking a tweet they wrote as a "favorite". One could click through to the individual Favorites page of every person who followed them, but that could get tiresome, even for those with serious self-esteem issues.

Along came the website Favotter, the side project of a solo Japanese developer, which scraped Twitter for the Favorites selections of about 1,000 Twitterers who used the feature the most often. At last the wisenheimers could track which of their tweets had "scored" with their peers (and with how many of them). Favotter could also be used to discover new "talent", by scanning which tweets were being recognized by one or more peers.

Favotter accelerated the speed of the Twitter ego feedback loop, turning this small corner of Twitter into a near-constant stream of witticisms, profanities, and absurdities. (Remember that there were hundreds of thousands of Twitter users who were using Twitter for entirely different purposes.) The Favotter one-upsmanship among the wisenheimers was generally offset by how generous everyone could be (and was) with the Favorites star. Unlike, say, the Onion writers' room, there was no numerical limit on the number of jokes that could get the thumbs up. More popular Twitterers would also call attention to those with fewer followers.

Another third party tool was the startlingly good search tool, Summize, which offers near-real-time scanning of tweets. Keeping Summize open in a tab allows one to check quickly to see if someone has already made the joke you're about to submit.

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This spring @hotdogsladies (with, at that point, more than 13,000 followers) started an audio podcast with two of his favorite Twitterers, @scottsimpson (Scott Simpson) and @lonelysandwich (Adam Lisagor). "You Look Nice Today: A Journal of Emotional Hygiene", brought the Twitter underground comedy scene into a much broader internet underground (readers of Boing Boing,, John Hodgman's blog). People in the internet community had known Simpson previously (from his podcast-related job), but Lisagor, a digital special-effects artist from LA, was new to everyone, having emerged as a minor Favotter star with his absurdist, often mindbending tweets. (@lonelysandwich responded to a series of running Mavis Beacon tweets with this brilliantly topical image.) The trio credit themselves in the show only by their Twitter handles, and have presented virtual carnations to wisenheimers whose tweets they respect (@Remiel, @Moltz, @EffingBoring).

"You Look Nice Today" (@ylnt) is more of an improvisational highwire act than Jordan, Jesse, GO! (which grounds itself with personal anecdotes and listener calls, and is built upon years of comfortable banter both on- and off-air). For YLNT, Mann, Simpson, and Lisagor step onto a metaphorical empty stage and bluster their way through each segment with the manic energy and desperation of college freshmen--hence the May 12 episode, which spent an exorbitant number of minutes describing an imagined early 1980s television show ("The Barber & The Balls") featuring Richard Roundtree as a barber who travels from town to town, solving crimes, with the aid of his talking testicles, as voiced by Estelle Getty. But the sharp editing (by Lisagor) manages to keep the show from falling down, and helps frame the uncomfortable moments as entirely intentional.

(YLNT and JJGo are teaming up for a live show called "The Monsters of Podcasting". Tickets, promoted only through Twitter, sold out in hours. Not sure if I'm going to attempt to get rush tickets on site.)

Many of the bits from YLNT then spread through Twitter, including The Fishstick, a dance set to Archie Bell & The Drells' "Tighten Up" that involves standing in one place and looking from side to side (while, optionally, performing one's kegels). They encouraged listeners to create their own "Fishstick" videos (the video by @lonelysandwich, however, eclipsed them all).

Meanwhile Favotter was having sporadic outages, causing consternation among the wisecrack-addicted. New players3 were unable to participate in the Favotter system even when it did work, because the Twitterers whose votes counted were limited to the original 1000 chosen when Favotter was launched. And Favotter also didn't distinguish between tweets marked as favorites because of their cleverness or because of their utility or "wisdom" (as applied to life or, more often, web startups and "social media").

Enter developer Dean Allen (@textism), who built his own custom tool to scrape Twitter for favorites, called Favrd, that recognized only votes by people in the extended wisenheimer community4 (what Mann had taken to calling the "Fun Bunch"). Allen described this exclusivity as his "no-webcock algorithm":
If you see Twitter as a venue for public relations or marketing, or as an audience eager to hear news of a post on your ‘blog’, or a rich hot sticky vertical, or if you consider yourself a web strategist, or if you talk earnestly about social media, or if you can read Techcrunch or listen to the Gillmor gang with a straight face, it’s very unlikely the things you say on Twitter will show up here.
but in what I take as an acknowledgement that his own elitism could itself be labelled "webcockery", Allen made the main graphic for the site an enormous rooster.

Favrd is now the go-to site for the latest in what's funny or clever on Twitter. Two thumbs up by the eligible pool of voters places your tweet on the front page of the site, until it's pushed off by the next wave of favorite tweets. At its worst, like Favotter, Favrd preys on the insecurities of the wiseacre crowd. But at its best, it highlights the work of new and funny Twitterers who have few followers. One can subscribe to the RSS feed of the Favrd main page to keep a finger on the pulse of the Twitter comedy scene without even signing up at Twitter.

As to what's popular among the wisenheimers (who are, mind you, predominantly white and technophilic geeks)? The brevity of the form is well suited to puns and verbal jokes that tweak grammar and punctuation. Rapid digressions in the style of Steven Wright or Jack Handey also work well. But someone stepping in cold will mostly notice all the dick, poop, and fart jokes ("puerile", which I use in the strictest, non-pejorative sense of the word) The influx of vagina-themed raunch from a handful of women has made waves of late, but not enough to displace the boy-centric vibe. Memes burn through and out in a matter of hours these days, such that last week one morning was taken up by tweets responding to a reported meme shortage.

Twitter itself has been having a lot of infrastructural issues, with its database servers down almost as often as they were up over the past week or two. There is some talk in the internet community at large that Twitter is vulnerable to a competitor swooping in and taking its business. At this point I doubt the "Fun Bunch" will pick up and move, unless a new platform will play as well to both their strengths and their emotional need for validation.

Not that I would know anything about that.

Next up in Part 2, some of the Twitterers who make me laugh.

1 I'm not sure if there is a parallel community of funny, outsized Windows or Linux developers, but I'd assert that this particular clique was propped up by the iPhone, arguably the best mobile Twitter device available in the Fall of 2007.

2 I'll also note here that Gruber is unparalleled in his outsider analysis of Apple Inc. His blog posts, though at times ridiculously granular in their content, suggest he has a greater big-picture understanding of the company than many of the people I know who work there.

3 I'd include myself here, at this point a wisenheimer-wannabe.

4 I was surprised as anyone that I was included in this first pool of voters.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Beware the rush tickets for Monsters of Podcasting. The Dark Room in SF is a former bar that Erin Ohanneson (Joan's daughter) converted into a performing space. It supposedly has a capacity of 70 people. It would look full at 30, and be uncomfortable at 50. (I think it is literally only 40% as wide and half as deep as 12 Galaxies.