Teens are the best at Twitter. No matter what I tweet, I know that they will always be so much better at it then I am. When I was a teen 100 years ago, I would do the cool things teens do now (hilariously vent frustrations or make defining statements) on my AIM away messages. This was, of course, just the first place I put my quotes and song lyrics and whoever else's wise words I felt somehow spoke to my life — copy and pasting these things (likely uncredited!) to share with my small universe.
But Twitter makes that whole primal oversharing urge even easier. These things can be tweeted and then quickly forgotten. Though we've come a long way from the emo thoughts and song lyrics, "teen jokes" have become a franchise, irresistibly re-tweetable in their meticulously crafted relatability. Think about it: Why would you tweet something for yourself when you could tweet it for yourself and get faves and shares?
There are, for the most part, four different kinds of teen jokes:
- "Me IRL," which is when a funny picture is attached to the phrase "me IRL" or something else that identifies the tweeter that is just so them (and in this case, you too!)
But the Twitter accounts spreading the best teen gospel? Well, they all seem to be mysteriously connected — hinted at by repeating each other's jokes or their ominously similar Twitter handles: @tbhnotfunny, @tbhjust, @tbhprobably, @tbhnoonecares, @tbhfuckoffpls. (TBH, of course, means "To Be Honest.") These are just some of the crew's Queen Bs, who (alongside accounts like @chanelpuke, @apoptart, @girlposts, @SincerelyTumblr, and teenage persona knockoffs @tinatbh, @dariatbh, and @RelatableQuote — whose identity is Pitch Perfect's "Fat Amy") each boasts hundreds of thousands of followers. And this isn't even the tip of the digital iceberg: There are hundreds of accounts tweeting this particular brand of joke and an even larger entire contingent of kids on Tumblr doing a similar thing:
Not only do these accounts spread their inside jokes like wildfire, they make money while they do it. When I interviewed 17-year-old @FreddyAmazin, the creator of #TeamFollowBack, for a New York piece on Internet Famous Teens, I asked him about the dolphins. Why, I wanted to know, do so many teens use them as their avatars or Twitter backgrounds? They're everywhere. He didn't know anything specific about the joke, but said a friend of his, @girlposts (or "Common White Girl"—also an actual teen), told him he should get into the Teen Jokes game — and the moneymaking one, too.
Freddy learned that @girlposts was making extra allowance by retweeting advertisements constructed to look like the ones he and his friends tweet, essentially aping their style. Freddy and his 3 million followers—garnered from his stint creating #TeamFollowBack, but that's a whole other story— made him the perfect candidate to join @girlposts. Freddy was shy about sharing his financial specifics with me ("I don't think I'm able to make that public info ☹," he told me in an email), but it's clear the gig supplies him with enough cash to keep his friends "constantly asking" him to teach them his ways.
But not every Twitter account making homework jokes and racking up retweets is run by an actual teen: Motherboard wrote about a cluster of similar handles run by college-aged kids, all connected by a network called Trend Junky, which pays novelty Twitter accounts for the traffic sent to the site. Other handles with massive followings get money with affiliate links to ChaCha, a Yahoo! Answers-type site that, according to Shelby Laufersky, a 19-year-old who runs @Heart_LessGirl, can earn a tweeter somewhere "between $25 and $60 per day at a rate of about two cents per click." Shelby has just over 175,000 followers. ChaCha, specifically, seems to crave these types of Twitter accounts. They claim that this type of shared content is "more relevant" than other types of marketing: "We see higher click-through rates because ChaCha content is entertaining. Think about it: You share fun stuff, not ads, and get paid for it!" And hell, $60 a day isn't bad for tweeting.
If money's involved, there's a chance—a good chance—that some of my beloved teens are actually bots. However, not all bot-like Twitter accounts (meaning those that monetize, those that plagiarize, and those that don't speak proper English) are actually bots. Take @horse_ebooks, the serendipitous account assumed to be a bot, which turned out to actually be a Human-run art project. Or how about the slew of living, breathing humans who make a Twitter career out of copy-and-pasting each others' jokes? Bot-like behaviors, though suspicious, do not necessarily mean you're dealing with an actual bot. Honestly, there's little way to know if we're dealing with Real Life teenagers here. But don't teens take liberties with the English language? Don't teens copy the whims of their cooler friends?
So, for the sake of the experiment, let's say that at least a few of these accounts—as evidenced by Freddy and @girlposts—are actual, real-life, homework-hating teenagers. Why couldn't I join in? What's so hard about tweeting like a teen? Didn't I once hate homework? Haven't I seen the entirety of Rugrats? Don't I normally get annoyed with my parents? I thought, by tweeting as a teen, I could digitally camouflage myself into the digital version of The Plastics' popular table with their retweets and follows as my ultimate goal.
I first picked @tbhcanilive for my handle ("Can I Live?" is a Jay Z song, but also a very sassy and cool phrase that I had seen teens using on my timeline), I designed my Twitter page to resemble that of all my teenaged role models (pink dolphins! A photo I took of a can of Pringles next to a prayer candle!), made my name "lol hi" and bio "very relatable," and started tweeting. I told a few friends what I was trying to do and they laughed with me (at me?) but were not always on #TeamFollowBack. That's fine, I told myself, I don't need these old people pity follows! The teens will come. I followed all of my targets: from @apoptart to @ughposts and all the thbs in between. I hit all the cardinal topics: unpopularity ("i worry my soulmate is a dorito that i already ate"), wordplay ("more like NO thanks giving"), and even what I considered to be the ultimate in relatability ("hell is forgetting your bff's netflix password"). I even made a joke mixing the dread of having to do your homework and the very popular movie Titanic:
Who could resist Titanic? I thought I was pretty funny; I thought I could, no problem, fool the masses—mostly the tbh's—into letting me into their club, or, even better, into thinking I was a Real Teen. (Again, this is assuming that these accounts are run by actual teens. But at this point I didn't care either way.)
So how did I do? The proof is in the really pathetic, low-fat, off-brand pudding. 25 followers: 16 adults (all of whom I knew), nine adults whom I didn't know, one that appeared to be tweeting as a pizza, one that appeared to be tweeting as an ant emoji, and two (!) that just might be teens. Bottom line: zero tbh's. I had failed. This after retweeting @tbhcanilive's jokes from my own moderately followed Twitter while doing all I could do to get the tbh crew's attention. And it didn't take long for the teen lurking inside me to give up completely. Turns out homework really does suck, especially when you're an adult. And while people say it's hard to be a teen, pretending to be a teen might just be more difficult. My experience was like the entirety of Never Been Kissed, but I ended up without the popularity, and ultimately, without a Michael Vartan. And while the tbh mystery remains—who are these tweeting teens? Are they actually teenagers? And if so, where are their parents? I've learned at least one thing: Growing up is totally not viral.