Bots and Li’l B: Twitter as Pastiche

Posted on April 16, 2013

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by Madeleine Wattenbarger

The Twitter feed holds novel potential as a found-language pastiche, comprising a medley of netspeak, pop culture and punchlines. Tumblr already works to a similar end, and notoriously so: its aggregation—or, as users call it, curation—of images from all over the web builds ever-shifting bodies of collaged content. But because Twitter uses text, the project of curation takes on a new form. The boundary between original utterance and repetition blurs. All speech takes on a valence of quotation, and attribution grows muddled.

Some of the most striking instances of citation come from bots like the notorious @horse_ebooks, which seem to grab fragments of text from all over the internet. On a simpler level, though, the retweet feature provides endless possibilities for citation and recontextualization. Just as meaning changes with quotation, it changes with the retweet.

Within an individual feed, to retweet is to reframe. That dynamic often works in complex, hilarious ways, sometimes serving political ends, sometimes commercial. Take, for example, the feed “DUBSTEP XXX” (@DubNDusted). It’s one of many bot-driven accounts that retweet anything containing a particular keyword—in this case, “dubstep.” Unified only by the mention of “dubstep,” the tweets run the gamut in sentiment, source and language of origin. The feed is delightfully banal.

Slightly more sophisticated are accounts like @YesYoureRacist, which retweets posts that include the phrase “I’m not racist, but …,” with the addendum, “yes, you are.” And a popular Twitter meme involves searching for a certain keyword, then retweeting an amalgam of the most absurd results. If well-executed, it results in hilarious juxtapositions; its interplays produce subtle but light-hearted jabs.

One can’t explain the politics of retweeting without mentioning Li’l B. The rapper’s feed, like many others’, consists primarily of retweets of praise directed at him. They verge on hysteria—”@LILBTHEBASEDGOD Is Respected And Loved Globally,” “@LILBTHEBASEDGOD is all I want for Christmas,” “@lilbthebasedgod WE LOVE YOU LIL B PLEASE TWEET US PLEASE.” It’s a hilarious study in self-absorption, as well as a brilliant form of self-promotion. As obvious as the narcissism is, one thing saves it from utterly masturbatory egoism: Li’l B isn’t saying these things. His coolness self-perpetuates. It’s practically recursive. The more Li’l B retweets his fans, the more his fans tweet at him, asking to be retweeted. Call it repetitive, but it’s nothing if not democratic. This is crowd-sourced PR, an equal-opportunity critics-are-calling-him.

The celebrity-quotes-everyman phenomena glimmers with the appeal that comes from fame recognizing obscurity. We’ve deemed Li’l B’s voice to be significant—well, someone has, at least—and now, with a single retweet, he can draw momentary attention to any one of us. But one of the most interesting, fun and potentially rich Twitter phenomena happens at the opposite end of the spectrum. Regular guys retweet the rich and famous, implicitly indicating, among other things, the humor of their out-of-touch or slightly unwound musings.

Twitter’s form serves, in some ways, as a great equalizer—even the illustrious have to keep under 140 characters. While “verified” celebrity accounts get the perk of a blue check by their names, as well as, of course, several thousand more followers than your average user, their tweets are open to all. The best celebrity accounts display equal parts hubris and charisma, along with a healthy absence of self-awareness.

Reality TV stars and musicians tend to pull this off best. Take, for instance, Cher and Kanye West. Both have distinct, vivid personae: Cher tweets haphazardly punctuated musings and observations, always going heavy on the caps and the exclamation points. Kanye (until his recent, tragic deletion of all his past tweets) often posts surprisingly articulate observations, tinged with the absurdity that comes packaged, it seems, with his extremely wealth and extravagant lifestyle. Case in point: “I know this is not a very rapper thing to say but I haven’t bought a new car or piece of jewelry in about 2 years.”

The retweet allows any user to recontextualize such quips however they please. Anyone, from their computer or Smartphone, can participate in an act of re-framing, of cultural critique or celebrity gossip or found poetry, all dealing with the same 140 characters. The retweet can serve as an implicit comment on the state of our Internet-formulated language, forcing us to consider a barely coherent Martha Stewart rant as a work within itself, rich with Steinian echoes. Or it can point out the humor in a particularly misguided or insensitive statement—see Donald Trump’s “I love Twitter…. it’s like owning your own newspaper— without the losses.”

That possibility of appropriation holds one of Twitter’s most unique potential. It allows everyone to engage with and understand quotation as an intentional and powerful act. Every user, whether consciously or not, engages in an investigation of how we say what we say. Perhaps most significantly, it opens up the possibility for a Duchamp-ian investigation of the language—particularly the poetic language—that we value, its context and its sources. It’s a postmodern melding of highbrow and low. Perhaps Cher represents it best: “God I love ART in Any FORM! GOTTA GO TAKE BATH ! Later Lovelies !”

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