Last week, writer Ann Friedman lit up the internet with a pretty standard “New York City isn’t that great” piece called “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York at Age 24.” It elicited a Jezebel thinkpiece and countless tweets complaining about her message, her age, and New York. All par for the course. One tweet, a subtweet actually, from writer and Emily Books founder Emily Gould went as follows:
blog post to avoid: “a new book, which I haven’t read, reminded me of my opinions that might be related to what I presume the book’s about”
As Gould’s missive passed through my timeline, I expected to see someone call her out for making fun of Friedman — or at least jump on the passive-aggressive bandwagon. But there was silence. Though this is, perhaps, to be expected. The subtweet is out of fashion among the media elite who live on Twitter — and soon it’ll pass out of style for everyone else. The new rule: If you want anyone to pay attention to your beef, name names.
(My working definition of subtweeting is talking behind someone’s back for the delight of your followers with the added benefit of not being explicitly rude because you don’t mention them by name.)
If you’re looking for further proof that the complicated social behavior Twitter’s power users obsess over has lost its trendiness, just take a look at Drake. During a recent public discussion at New York University, an attendee asked the rapper how he feels about his lyrics being used for subtweets against exes. Drake’s face twisted up and he announced to the audience, “Twitter isn’t real,” adding: “There’s no gauge in real life on it.”
“Indulge in it,” Drake says. “But don’t live your life by it.”
Music writer David Drake (no relation to Drizzy Drake) tweeted a few weeks ago, “twitter destroyed music writing more than free mp3s ever could.” The complaint was nothing out of the ordinary for Wednesday morning Music Twitter and he was met with mostly tepid responses of agreement from other music writers. But a few hours later, the writer was barraged with tweets from his former colleague Ernest Baker, who said (now deleted) things like, “you’re pathetic. you will die sad, lonely, and mad about rap music,” “you talk shit about my writing but haven’t written a successful article in [sic] a year,” and added accusations of a physical fight and a dispute about money, as well as saying that Drake is “fat, broke, irrelevant, and jealous.”
Baker’s rant started with a simple manifesto: “don’t subtweet.”
Right before Baker’s tweetstorm, Complex senior editor Foster Kamer — a longtime Twitter rabble-rouser — predicted the trend, tweeting, “Let 2013 hereby be known as the year of say it to my face (on twitter) motherfuker. No more bitchassedness on Twitter.”
No more bitchassedness, indeed. When it comes to Twitter interactions, direct mentions are equivalent to a shot in the gut. Subtweets are more like spitballs flying from the back of the class.
Music-journo Twitter isn’t the only sector where this is happening. Politico’s Dylan Byers attempted to take Circa’s Anthony De Rosa to task for a piece De Rosa wrote on Medium about how to be a better reporter. He properly @replied him to make sure DeRosa saw it.
.@AntDeRosa, whom I otherwise respect, joins long line of nonreporters trying to tell reporters how to do their jobs https://t.co/WTKsjsdUPT
This led to an hour-long debate over whether or not De Rosa was an actual “reporter.” Byers could have just tweeted the link with a casual “lol” or just left De Rosa’s name out of it entirely but he made the conscious choice to draw him into the conversation. Byers is on trend.
“I think Twitter functions best as an open conversation among journalists and their readers,” Byers told BuzzFeed. “And in that regard it’s best to direct thoughts, observations, etc. directly at the folks you’re speaking to… Though I’m sure I’ve been guilty of a subtweet or two in the past.”
Although he tries to stay out of Twitter fights, Salon’s Dan D’Addario claims that they can be fun “in the sense that your adrenaline starts flowing and you hear the siren noise Uma Thurman hears in Kill Bill when she sees one of Bill’s assassins.”
“Everything goes red — how fun to live on the edge!” he said. “But I mean, obviously unless you’re as close to empirically ‘right’ as a human can get, it’s probably only going to make you look like a crank.”
The large audience doesn’t help calm the waters. Take the case of Anil Dash coming after former Business Insider employee Pax Dickinson. After the Twitter media hive mind discovered racist and sexist tweets on Dickinson’s feed, a shitstorm led to his firing.
Wow, didn’t realize @businessinsider had hired such an asshole in @paxdickinson. Getting memcache to build made him an expert on misogyny!
Notice how Dash appropriately tagged both the publication and the writer himself. Although Dash is being the aggressor here, he still comes off looking like the bigger man. Dickinson didn’t defend himself against any of Dash’s accusations, but instead tried to call Dash’s bluff on being so brazen on Twitter:
@anildash really, dude? You know we work in the same building right? Would you like to come call me an asshole to my face tomorrow?
This charge led to them eventually meeting and somewhat hashing it out, although it’s pretty clear that their Twitter vitrol didn’t exactly fade.
Twitter got into the fighting mood back in August when Tina Brown took former Daily Beast columnist Howard Kurtz to task for this subtweet:
Tina tried hard to save Newsweek, which was probably impossible, but this captures the chaos, waste and dysfunction http://t.co/26A0HUhqAR
Hey @HowardKurtz am I forgetting something or didn’t I fire you for serial inaccuracy? Shurely shome mishtake as British hacks like to say..
Media Twitter erupted in a cloud of “oh shits!” and cheers at Kurtz’s lambasting. Although Kurtz’s tweet is well planted and is a technically good insult and claim, Brown blows him out of the water with the direct attack. Brown’s mid-August woes were temporarily swept away by a fit of Twitter style previously unseen.
“Subtweeting reflects poorly on the subtweeter, so the rudeness isn’t really a factor. I write ‘FUCK THIS ASSHOLE’ instead of ‘FUCK THIS @ASSHOLE,’ the message is the same, I’m just being a coward,” says Valleywag’s Sam Biddle.
Biddle is firmly in the no-subtweeting camp. “Sometimes it’s easier to just let loose your zinger and not be afraid of retribution,” he said.
While many people will surely continue to sneak-diss their enemies because of cowardice, it’s increasingly becoming a faux pas. Subtweets are like Crocs, really — although they’re more comfortable than a pair of stilettos and they get the job done, you wouldn’t want to wear them in any social setting. It’s just a bad look.
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