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Subtweeting: The secret, subtle art of Twitter gossip

twitter fight

Twitter is not exactly immune to arguments. People can really get into it considering they only have 140 characters to craft insults and concoct contemptuous zingers. But not all Twitter users want to engage in tweet-to-tweet combat with their enemies. Some prefer to call their nemeses out behind their back – which is kind of hard to do considering your tweets are usually public and your rivals may or may not follow you. And there’s a term for this underhanded insult-slinging: It’s called subtweeting.

A subtweet is a tweet about someone else on Twitter that doesn’t directly mention them. Instead of being confrontational, subtweets are sneakier – they’re not the locker room brawls of Twitter, they’re the cruel locker-side whispers. Twitter itself can describe subtweets better than I can: 

And there are more then enough examples of subtweeting. Here is an example of famous adult human male Chris Brown displaying his trademark stunning maturity while he subtweets a woman he got in a car accident with (Chris Brown subtweets a lot):

He doesn’t give an @ mention and directly address who he is talking about, but he’s clearly angry at a specific person. That, my friends, is a classic subtweet.

Now, Chris Brown is a 24-year-old man, so his subtweeting behavior is pretty bizarre. Subtweeting is a more common phenomena among high school students and young Twitter users, especially those who started Twitter accounts at a relatively young age and use it as a conversation tool with their friends. If Mean Girls came out in 2013, you can bet the burn book would just be a novelty Twitter account full of subtweets.

Ironically, a lot of people who pull this passive-aggressive digital side-eye move tend to hashtag their disses with #subtweet, a strange call to attention; if you’re going to trash talk someone indirectly, why use a hashtag that announces “I’m trash-talking indirectly!” to all your followers? Then again, going on Twitter to publicly complain about someone instead of directly communicating with them isn’t exactly the sign of a rational thought process.

But although some users use the hashtag #subtweet to mark them, in many ways a subtweet is at the opposite end of the spectrum to a tweet that is purposely overhashtagged for maximum exposure. Hashtags are a discovery tool, while subtweets are a category of tweets that often purposely evade easy discovery, since the users choose not to use an @ mention to flame their opponent.

Looking at Google Trends, interest in subtweeting picked up in 2010, which is also when the definition entered Urban Dictionary (and our hearts).

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But people started searching “define subtweet” more in 2012, and searches looking to figure out what the term means have remained popular until now, indicating that many Twitter users are still trying to figure out what the term means:

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Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 10.16.58 AMSubtweets are a Twitter original, of course, but they’re spreading to other social networks as well. Even though Facebook’s hashtags are in their infancy, people are already using the hashtag #subtweet to show that they’re trying to diss somebody without tagging them.

And Instagram users also adopted the lingo, with thousands of pictures tagged #subtweet and various permutations. I’m not actually sure how you subtweet someone with an image, but I’m sure it’s a sparkling display of maturity. Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 10.10.59 AMAlso, it’s nice to know that somewhere out there, 30 people are trying to make #subtweetsunday happen.

So what do subtweets say about social media? One of the biggest things they indicate is how young people are using Twitter. While many brands, comedians, journalists, and other professionals will occasionally dip into acrimonious waters on Twitter, the conversation is generally about current events and our reactions – for instance, the recent Supreme Court decisions yesterday morning certainly sparked a lot of heated debate (and some subtweets), but it wasn’t an interpersonal, intimate conflict.

Since many young people have migrated from Facebook to Twitter as their preferred social network for quick communication, the way they use Twitter – as a conversational tool more akin to public instant messages than stand-alone micro-blog posts – lends itself to subtweets. Most high school students on Twitter aren’t trying to get re-tweeted by Rob Delaney. They’re using the service to chat with their friends, and that includes gossiping, trash-talking, and addressing perceived slights. As Mark Zuckerberg adopts some of Twitter’s features to try to make Facebook more of a “personalized newspaper” instead of a place primarily for interactions between people who know each other in real life, some Twitter users are taking an opposite approach, using Twitter primarily as a communication tool for talking just to their friends – and that includes saying mean things about them.

Subtweets are distinctly not what Twitter set out to encourage, but they’re here and they’re happening. It once again shows how social networks are always more controlled by their users than by their infrastructures. Sure, Snapchat’s creators are emphasizing the fact that they set it up as a fun way to send innocent messages, but that doesn’t change the fact that a ton of people are using it for sexts and others are exploiting the fact that you can screenshot pictures to embarrass people. And Tumblr didn’t intend to become one of the biggest venues for porn, but its users … thought otherwise. Whenever you give people a platform for freedom of expression, you’re allowing the possibility that users will take the intended use and run in the opposite direction. 

 Subtweets are immature, pointless, hurtful, and probably the most passive-aggressive thing you can do on Twitter. They’re also not going anywhere anytime soon, as long as young people continue to use Twitter as a chatting service. And even though subtweeting is a ridiculous thing to do, they’re kind of fun to read (as long as they’re not about you).