Subtweeting is something people generally consider to be mean and thus bad. For those unaware, subtweeting is tweeting about an individual without naming them. While this might sound bad on principle, subtweeting contains multitudes.
It’s not only things people consider to be mean, like for example tweeting, “WOW, one of my coworkers didn’t know what a spork was and had to google the definition to make sure we weren’t trolling him. What a dummy!” You can do nice subtweets. You can do profound subtweets. You can do beautiful, artful subtweets. You can do benign subtweets. Multitudes.
People frequently argue that subtweeting is bad by likening it to somewhat socially unacceptable IRL behaviours. In a blog post on Slate, a certain writer begins a diatribe against subtweeting with “Back in the olden times of the mid-to-late 20th century, children in schools and summer camps used to gather in a circle and play a game called telephone” (telephone is another name for Chinese Whispers) which she then compares to subtweeting, as proof that it’s supposed to be bad. The author also calls subtweeting “the virtual equivalent of talking behind someone’s back”. Except neither of those things are like subtweeting at all, because although people might interpret subtweets differently, everyone’s reading the same message.
The children’s game Chinese whispers is a fun metaphor to use to express how easily misinformation can be spread, but subtweets aren’t about spreading misinformation. The purpose of a subtweet is not to convey any sort of fact. Instead, subtweets — like most tweets — convey opinions and feelings. And unlike talking shit, subtweets are public and also don’t name names.
We have yet to establish solid etiquette for how to behave online. It’s not the same as face-to-face interaction because the stakes are different, the medium of communication is different, and the audience is different.
The Washington Post tried a different argument against subtweeting: science! Or rather, a yet-to-be released scientific study involving 349 undergrads who were asked to rate tweets with varying levels of directness. The researchers found that “sources of direct, face-giving posts were rated most favorably”. A single scientific study that surveys 349 undergraduate college students doesn’t prove anything, but moreover, the study itself misunderstands subtweeting, which these “scientists” define as “a [social networking site] post to talk about another user behind his or her back in a public forum.”
I get why people mistake subtweeting for talking about someone behind their back, I do, but online, there is no metaphorical “back”. For example, here I subtweet my mother. I’m not talking about her behind her back. I’m also not saying it to her face. Like with any other tweet, I am shouting it into the void.
smoked weed with mom now we're talking about how the new york times caused the iraq war
— vacation eve (@evepeyser) July 28, 2016
Ultimately, the subtweet is never for the person who it’s about. It’s for your audience. To gauge whether subtweeting is for you — because hey, plenty of good things exist in the world that aren’t your cup of tea — you have to consider what the purpose of having a Twitter account is. Some people use it as a way to aggregate news and jokes, others take the opportunity to recruit people for their terrorist organisation or harass prominent feminist bloggers for expressing their beliefs.
For me, Twitter is for work, but moreover, it’s a way to do comedy, express political beliefs, make memes, and express passing thoughts I deem valuable enough to share. (I have low standards for “shareability”.) Tweeting is also something I feel passionate about, meaning I have made inadvertent personal sacrifices for the sake of a tweet I believe in. Here’s how various forms of subtweeting help me and my peers accomplish our goals:
Subtweeting your ex: Tweeting about interpersonal shortcomings is central to the joke-making process.
When ur friends find out u still hook up with ur ex pic.twitter.com/yVI8opDKAl
— Vacation Sam (@myhairisblue) June 3, 2016
Q: What's it called when you go on spring break without your shitty ex boyfriend?
A: Cabo Sans Lucas
— Angela Vitello (@angie__pants) May 4, 2016
Subtweeting people you have a casual sexual relationship with: Like subtweeting your ex, casual sexual relationships are an amazing place to draw inspiration.
When a girl comments on your mans picture but he's not your man so you can't act bothered. pic.twitter.com/F3Ct3n61Nb
— Melanin Monroe (@Caitastrophic_) June 29, 2016
Subtweeting other journalists: This as a way to express your political beliefs and also a way to call out political ideologies you think are fucked. If you want to engage about politics (which is different), tag them. Not tagging is intentional.
It Happened to Me: I Confused an Anecdote with an Essay
— Brandy Jensen (@BrandyLJensen) June 16, 2016
Wait, wait. I found it. The Worst Take.™ pic.twitter.com/5LkZDsFjGF
— Bae Talese (@elongreen) August 11, 2016
bad news everyone, all of Buzzfeed Hamilton Slack was indicted for providing material support to al-Qaeda
— Liquid Playboy (@ByYourLogic) April 24, 2016
Subtweeting your family: Twitter is basically for the media elite and ISIS, so chances are your family members don’t have an account anyways.
My mother's only joy is waking me up to tell me she will wake me up later.
— Sophia Benoit (@1followernodad) August 6, 2016
when you're high and your mom makes a surprise visit pic.twitter.com/ugnEjiGKIY
— broad city LARPer (@rachelmillman) April 19, 2016
Subtweeting complete strangers: Why not harmlessly utilise someone you don’t know’s existence for your personal benefit?
Someone on fb changed their relationship status to In a Relationship 3 weeks ago and now they've broken up and wrote a whole post about it
— Safy-Hallan Farah (@SafyHallanFarah) August 8, 2016
Just watched a dude kiss his girlfriend goodbye on the subway platform and then she got on her train and he looked so lost and alone.
— corey kindberg (@coreykindberg) August 12, 2016
Subtweeting famous people: I mean seriously, celebrities are fair-game. They don’t even count in this conversation.
— Sophie Kleeman (@sophiekleeman) August 10, 2016
i absolutely will not be doing that pic.twitter.com/KbqHA7L713
— tanisha pina (@loltanisha) August 11, 2016
What makes subtweeting good as opposed to “not bad” is that it allows you to take full advantage of your social networking experience. We’re still uncertain what social media is for exactly — a medium of creative expression, a way to connect with friends, a way to get famous, the opiate of the masses, who knows! Subtweeting is a form of creative expression, and it’s about time we give it some respect.