Introducing the Supertweet

This is what realpolitik looks like on the Internet.

If you use Twitter, you’ve probably encountered the “subtweet,” a technique we defined last year in The Atlantic as “the practice of talking about someone without referencing them explicitly.” Alexis Madrigal exemplified subtweeting like this:

So, “@alexismadrigal is a jerk” is one thing, but “Alexis Madrigal is a jerk” is a subtweet.

It was a lesson distilled from the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s research on “social media algorithm avoidance”—techniques like screengrabbing text rather than quoting it to obscure it, or “hate-linking” to a tweet in order to hide a reference to it. Like these other avoidance methods, subtweeting makes it harder for the people or groups referenced to see a tweet, since the absence their handle means that the tweet won’t show up in Twitter’s automatically collected mentions view. The result: speech visible to specific groups but hidden from others.

But all modes of invisibility are not the same, and the “subtweet” concept might not fully capture its many different modes.

For example: The supposed subtweet “Ian Bogost is a jerk” is hidden from one mode of discovery, the Twitter mentions list, but it is easily discoverable via others. Full-text search, of course, but also the fact that it’s a public message that others can see, share, link, embed, and comment upon. It’s invisible in some contexts but not others.

Compare “Ian Bogost is a jerk” to another hypothetical subtweet, perhaps something like “I see it’s jerk day at The Atlantic.” The former explicitly mentions the target of the insult, while the latter leaves it ambiguous. Without context, it’s not clear what “I see it’s jerk day at The Atlantic” really means. But within a specific community who had been sharing and discussing a particular matter, say, a specific Atlantic story, the reference would be clear. “I see it’s jerk day at The Atlantic” is a subtweet deserving of the name, a speech act that sits beneath the surface of its subject and its reference. It does not reveal its purpose or its meaning, but relies on the surrounding context of a particular community of close-knit followers to produce its critique.

A true subtweet eludes response, because it is so ambiguous as to make response impossible. Only a neurotic or a narcissist or a paranoiac would ask after “I see it’s jerk day at The Atlantic,” wondering “if I’m the jerk you’re referring to?” or “I'm not sure if you’re talking about my article but if so feedback is appreciated!” Admittedly, there are plenty of those sorts online, but the subtweet acts as cover against any such responses.

There’s another kind of tweet that sits not below but above its target. “Ian Bogost is a jerk” is an example of this type, but so is any tweet whose content alone is sufficient to deliver its message, especially when its message is critical or derogatory. This sort of tweet wears its heart on its sleeve, even if it also doesn’t address its target by their handle. And most often, it contains a message addressing and condemning a real or perceived position of power in a way that the subtweet’s whisper cannot muster.

This kind of speech act is an example of apophasis, a rhetorical technique for talking about something without directly mentioning it. In ordinary speech, apophasis can prevaricate, like a subtweet does (“You-know-who is doing you-know-what!”), but most often it is used to distance a speaker from a derogatory or ad hominem statement while nevertheless making it (“I do not know if my opponent in this race is a crook, you will have to make that determination yourself.”).

Given that both the equivocal, indirect tweet (“I see it’s jerk day at The Atlantic”) and the direct kind (“Ian Bogost is a jerk”) are both apophatic in their own way, we need a way to distinguish them. If the first is a subtweet, a speech act that subordinates itself to the original, then perhaps the latter is best named a “supertweet.”

The subtweet is apophatic in the beat-around-the-bush manner. It’s a private whisper shrouded in “I didn’t say anything” innocence. But the supertweet is direct in its apophasis, like the politician’s insult. The subtweet doesn’t want you to know what it’s talking about unless you do already; the supertweet wants its meaning to be clear to everyone, but to feign concealment from its target.

Like vaguebooking—posting Facebook updates so indeterminate that they produce curious attention rather than meaning—subtweets are primarily inwardly-directed, back toward the speaker. They invite reply: “What are you talking about?” or “I know what you’re talking about :)” or faves or retweets that offer more implicit affirmation.

Supertweets, by contrast, turn attention outward, toward the target, who is usually being vilified. Despite its prevalence online, vilification is indelicate and difficult to pull off effectively. The supertweet offers a brilliant rhetorical approach to censure, one that becomes particularly effective in situations where the speaker is, feels, or wants to present themselves as under-powered or powerless in relation to the target of their ire. A supertweet allows the speaker to explicitly mention or “call out” a perceived infractor, in public, for all to see, but safely, without risk of redress. Unlike the subtweet, it does not hide its purpose or its target or its meaning, but makes them obvious, sharp, and direct.

The most famous supertweet is probably this one:

In this tweet, the Harlem-bred American rapper Azealia Banks calls out Iggy Azalea, a white, Australian model who became a successful hip-hop artist. Banks (and the 30,000+ people who retweeted her) condemn Iggy Azalea for not supporting the African Americans whose musical traditions she appropriated into fame and wealth, particularly after the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. Banks restyles her foe as “Igloo Australia” to emphasize the latter’s status as a white infiltrator, but it’s obvious to whom she’s referring.

This supertweet works because both Banks and Iggy Azalea run in the same communities, broadly speaking, but at very different registers of power and success. Banks isn’t just rejoining Azalea, she’s also highlighting the differential of power that exists between the two, and suggesting that Iggy Azalea’s safe, white, conventional beauty is incompatible with the black culture she has built a career atop.

At their best, supertweets like Banks’s work like trump cards or mic drops. They prevent the indicted individual from being able to reply without compromising themselves, and in so doing they carve out new room for the supertweeter in a landscape purportedly overgrown with the supertweetee’s largess. Just like the political opponent can’t reply to the accusation, “I do not know if my opponent in this race is a crook” without repeating (and thereby affirming or at least directing attention to the fact that he or she might be a crook), so the supertweetee cannot address the accusation or indictment without proving that the power differential proposed really does exist, and that he or she is unwilling or unable to allow other voices to weigh in on the matter without attempting to re-take control of the conversation.

The partial invisibility Tufekci points out underwrites the supertweet in a way that the subtweet doesn’t really require. Consider the case of the more modest supertweet “Ian Bogost is a jerk.” If the accused (that’s me) responds, in so doing I would inadvertently acknowledge that I partake of the vainglorious act of “ego searching” in order to find the quasi-hidden critique in the first place, because the mention was hidden from Twitter’s ordinary discovery methods in the manner that Tufekci observes. “Watch out,” I once saw someone respond to a supertweet directed at me, “he name searches.”

A supertweet creates a bubble for safely inverting power roles. When it works, as in the case of Azealia Banks’s masterful specimen, it really works. But when it fails, its users often make appeals to the supertweet’s form rather than its content for protection. Pointing out the rhetorical act of sub- or supertweeting only worsens matters, by opening the door to critiques of the intolerance of critique itself on the part of the original speaker, a feat that is easily connected to his or her apparent or real privilege and its concomitant temptation for border-policing or gatekeeping. If the target of a supertweet does engage, he or she shouldn’t be surprised to be “called out” again for aggression or intimidation (citations of imbalances in follower counts is one common reproach against the unwanted invasion of a supertweet’s target). I wish I could show you what I mean. But, ironically, I can’t adequately exemplify the phenomenon of supertweeting without “exposing” its practitioners by embedding, citing, or linking their supertweets. Such an act would be seen as unfair aggression given my access to a platform like The Atlantic’s.

These are dangerous waters. As it becomes more common, the supertweet seems to assume that discourse, disagreement, and even error on the part of the really- or apparently-less-powerful are no longer possible, but simply the exhaust emitted by acts of power, privilege, and prestige. The comedian’s premise of “don't punch down,” that is, don’t mock or undermine those weaker than you, has exaggerated itself to the point that real disputes have no breathing room.

But if the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that power doesn’t take the form of simple linear hierarchies with agents above exerting their will on those below. Punches don’t aim up or down, but in all directions at different times for different people. To think otherwise is to become suffocated by the perception of power imbalance, real or imagined. In the long run, it’s hard to imagine the sub- and the supertweet benefitting the truly powerless, let alone championing the discourse that online platforms like Twitter supposedly proffer. Inevitably, they break down into the clamor of a million voices all bickering into the abyss.

This is what realpolitik looks like on the Internet. We don’t talk about it much, and you can see why: Even acknowledging these phenomena can easily be seen as a gesture of power over them and their practitioners. I’m not being derogatory or condescending when I call the supertweet a brilliant maneuver, although just in doing so performs enough implied derision or rhetorical pretense or intellectual contempt so as to invoke the sense that I am gatekeeping against it from a position of power and visibility. “There goes Bogost again, bogostsplaining Twitter in The Atlantic,” a hypothetical supertweet might read. I’m sure you can do better than that, though. I’ll look forward to finding them the next time I name search.