It was spring, and the weather was beautiful. Last Saturday, we were sitting under a tree on Old Campus, admiring the newly warm weather and the bustle of outdoor activity it brought: fresh Nantucket red shorts framing pasty thighs, men’s rugby practice, a clump of Herald editors with their bicycles. It was a Beautiful Day To Talk About The Internet.
An earnest student approached us, shattering the peace of this admissions-brochure-worthy tableau, and shouted at Marissa: “Oh my God, I’m such a huge fan!” (The first of many times this will happen in her lifetime.) He wasn’t talking about Marissa’s fame as a renowned political scientist/belly dancer. He was talking about her Twitter.
Charlie Bardey ’17 had followed both of us on Twitter for several months, but we had never interacted in person before that Saturday. “Yale Twitter” — a nebulous subculture of Yale affiliates on the popular microblogging platform — had facilitated this blossoming friendship.
What is Yale Twitter? Yale Twitter is not the official Yale University Twitter account, nor is it simply a collection of tweets about Yale. It’s not something you can easily put into words.
By way of analogy: Yale Twitter is like a great dinner party where you don’t know anyone but feel like you should and all end up best friends by the dessert course. Yale Twitter is like a great dinner party except everyone is SHOUTING AT EACH OTHER LIKE THIS BECAUSE THIS IS HOW WE TYPE ONLINE. Yale Twitter is like a great dinner party except everyone is e n u n c i a t i n g e a c h w o r d l i k e t h i s b e c a u s e w e a l s o t y p e l i k e t h i s. Yale Twitter is like a great dinner party except everyone is CACKLING, SCREECHING, or SOBBING (because we like those words, too).
And, yes, this dinner party is LAVISH. If Joe Biden had a Twitter account, and also had gone to Yale, he would have been a member of Yale Twitter.
Marissa joined Twitter in October 2009. Aaron joined Twitter in October 2011. Before we teamed up to write this article, the number of times we’d interacted over social media was exponentially greater than the number of times we’d interacted in person. And we were okay with that:
Aaroncé @abermz 1 Feb 2014
Not sure if I want to meet @mdnsk in person because then my platonic conception of her based on her twitter presence will be ruined
But eventually the stars aligned, and our paths crossed in the most momentous of ways.
marissa @mdnsk 1 Apr 2014
Tomorrow is the first time I’m going to be in the same room as @abermz get ready Yale.
marissa @mdnsk 3 Apr 2014
Just met @abermz — his head is a circle.
(In Marissa’s defense, Aaron’s head is pretty circular.)
Meeting a Yalie in person after you’ve followed them on Twitter is a unique and humbling experience. Unlike meeting your freshman-year suitemates for the first time after a summer of hesitant/overly enthusiastic emailing, meeting someone from Yale Twitter isn’t about making a good first impression. After months of sustained digital contact, Twitter followers already know your most intimate thoughts and deepest anxieties.
Instead, meeting a member of Yale Twitter IRL puts their so-called “personal brand” to the test. On Yale Twitter, self-promoters, aspiring political elites and would-be comedians all come together to shape their personas into digestible, 140-character packages. We tweet, we delete, we revise, we curate. Getting to know someone outside of the virtual world — like Marissa met Aaron and we met Charlie — puts that personal brand to the test. Does the man behind the curtain really TALK LIKE THIS?
Though Bardey sometimes tweets in all caps, we learned he doesn’t speak like that. A member of campus comedy groups, he hopes to one day become “Twitter famous for the clever jokes and sassy asides he posts online from his handle, @chunkbardey. (A recent example, from April 18: “describing the case of Benjamin Button as curious is a huge understatement imo.”)
For Bardey, Twitter can be an outlet to talk about anxiety and general frustration with the Yale experience. At the same time, he said he strives to strike a balance between Yale-specific humor and jokes that outsiders can understand. He said he’s influenced by a subset of the Twitterverse known as “Weird Twitter”: a subculture of users fond of anti-humor and general absurdity. Much of Weird Twitter involves emulating a certain style — unusual sentence constructions, purposely wonky grammar AND YES, ALL CAPS — and recycling certain memes or templates with updated content. Examples include “Starter Packs,” tweets that feature four photos centered on a particular theme, and “Iggy, Freestyle for Us,” text posts in which rapper Iggy Azalea stumbles over a freestyle verse and blurts out a non-sequitur or a famous phrase.
To reach the widest possible audience, Bardey tries to divorce his content as far as possible from University mainstays, like the names of libraries, dining hall dishes or weekend haunts. Other members of Yale Twitter — like both of us, for example, frequently pepper our tweets with references to senior essays, society tap and Toad’s. Though we all draw inspiration from the Weird Twitter subculture, the difference in execution points to the diversity of the Yale Twitter community.
When Yalies discuss Twitter, “Don’t you want to get a job?” is a frequent refrain. Often, students feel pressure to tone down their online image to appear more respectable or presentable. Perhaps one of the clearest manifestations of this phenomenon is what several students we interviewed called “YDN Twitter.” Unlike members of Yale Twitter, who traffic in jokes and memes, members of YDN Twitter — who need not be (but frequently are) YDN staffers — share noteworthy news articles with the occasional personal remark.
Students with professional Twitter accounts see them as a way to market themselves in the working world. “I created a professional Twitter because there were many articles and thoughts and ideas I wanted to share with others,” said Jessica Leão ’16, who tweets about international affairs, technology and economics as @JMaguilnik.
Austin Bryniarski ’16, who frequently tweets about food policy from @ambryniarski, agrees. “Professional Twitter accounts exist to present oneself as interested in something specific,” he said. Bryniarski actually has two Twitters: one a polished, professional account, the other more uninhibited.
If the history of Facebook is a jackrabbit teleology from dorm room start-up to global media empire, then Twitter, more realistically, is a shaky fawn: optimistic about the future, best in small doses, with legs folded under its torso. While nearly three-fourths of all adults on the Internet use Facebook, less than a quarter are active on Twitter. Because of this, the folks at the Pew Research Center — who developed those aforementioned statistics — write that Twitter “is not a reliable proxy for public opinion,” even though, to us, the website feels ubiquitous.
Pew’s research showed that Twitter users tend to be more educated and more political than average Internet users. The Yale Twitter community is, in some sense, a testament to this. The University’s official @Yale handles has over 195,000 followers. Academic departments like History and Physics have accounts. So do student publications, a cappella groups and athletic teams. The Classics Library. The Institute of Sacred Music. Fossil Free Yale.
And professors. Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom, who has nearly 20,000 followers, told us via email that “Twitter is a quick/easy way to keep up with what’s new in science, philosophy, professional gossip, etc. #BoringAnswer #Sorry.”
American Studies Professor Birgit Rasmussen uses Twitter in the classroom. Students in her “Race and Gender in American Literature” course can receive extra credit if they post certain homework assignments — short thesis statements about the readings — on Facebook or Twitter. “It’s a really useful assignment for this class,” she said. While some of her students are American Studies majors, others primarily study economics and science — the introduction of social media can make them feel more comfortable.
Twitter and Facebook “have made the skill of expressing yourself well in a succinct way newly relevant,” Rasmussen said. “I thought I would bring this option into the class to help the students recognize that no matter what their major is, even if they will never write another literary analysis in their life, these writing skills are useful life-skills as well as important academic and professional skills.”
While researching and interviewing students for this article, we encountered a few surprises. We were surprised to learn that Twitter and its constituents occupy only a portion of the Internet. Even Pinterest is more popular. We were surprised (although not too surprised, since we aren’t conspiracy theorists) that the Admissions Office does not cull the tweets of applicants for evaluative purposes. Mainly, though, we were surprised that we struggled so much with defining Yale Twitter — with more than 12,000 posts (and counting) between us, how could describing something we engage with daily prove so difficult?
Other students empathized with our struggle. “I feel like social media as a whole is a questionable social experiment that none of us truly understand,” Leão said.
The challenges we’ve contemplated speak to the diversity of Yale’s Twitter community, which encompasses Weird Twitter aficionados, over-eager future politicians, over-eager future journalists, professors, publications and libraries. Although Twitter has been a community for us, we acknowledge that isn’t true for everyone. And yet we tweet on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.