It started with lyrics.
A line from a song that someone else wrote somehow seemed to say it all attached to my name and next to a music note in all lowercase letters, because capitalizing proper nouns was not fashionable on MSN Messenger — you either went all lowercase, or Capitalized The First Letter Of Every Word. My MSN status was a message to whomever I was pining after at the time. As far as evidence suggests, these were either never received or consistently ignored, despite my strategic hourly practice of signing in and out like a flashing crush notice.
It may have been more effective to express my feelings by actually saying them out loud, rather than through a carefully curated strand of John Mayer’s musings. There was, however, a certain satisfaction in the simultaneous exposure and complete lack thereof of vague statuses shared with my MSN buddies, shrouded in squiggly lines and asterisks.
I call this the passive-aggressive web-based non-gesture — a pseudo-confession completely opposite to the grand romantic gesture. Rather than confronting someone directly with their feelings — romantic, infuriated, or otherwise — the non-gesturer coyly expresses their sentiments on the Internet without naming who they are directed at. In the case of my MSN names, I hoped that the subjects of my subliminal messaging would somehow read between the lines of Fall Out Boy and know that I was talking to them, and realize that they should demonstrate their reciprocal feelings by, for example, I don’t know, serenading me with that very song at the school talent show, or whatever.
These sorts of non-gestures have borne terms less wordy than mine, and the most prominent seems to be “subtweets,” which stands for subliminal tweeting. “Vaguebooking” is also sometimes used to refer people’s vague Facebook statuses, and “#oomf,” which stands for “one of my followers” or “one of my friends,” is often affiliated with “#subtweet.”
What I find most interesting about the phenomenon of subtweeting is that it seems antithetical to what social media is actually all about. Subtweets sometimes contain the affiliated hashtags, but don’t need to, and never directly mention their subject — making them effectively untraceable unless they come up on your news feed or you search the user. Subtweets are essentially private, anti-social media — they are a virtual retreat from confrontation. Rather than interacting with someone and starting a conversation, subtweets are, put succinctly, shy. They are the online equivalent of standing on the sidelines at the dance, staring at the object of your affection intently and silently, and hoping that they might notice your gaze.
The secretive nature of subtweets has earned them a poor reputation online. They’ve been characterized as gossipy, catty, a form of bullying, and attention-seeking, and were in fact declared “dead” in a typically balanced, sober, and not-at-all overstated Buzzfeed headline in October 2013. A lot of the #subtweet feed on twitter is made up of people criticizing others for cowering behind subtweets (and, in fairness, some of it is also pictures of submarines and subway sandwiches). As one user tweeted: “why subtweet when it’s so much more convenient to hit the @ button” — emphasizing that subtweets are a soapbox for the passive-aggressive.
For me, though, there’s a certain poetry to subtweets — or at least an affinity between something like a stream of consciousness poem and subtweets. They’re personal and raw like a journal, peppered with emotion that apparently refused to be contained. It’s fitting that my first subtweet-like expression was through lyrics, because subtweets remind me of songs. They’re about someone, but they don’t need to tell you who, and they let you slip into the first-person through a retweet if you’re so inclined, just as the unnamed subject of any song can be the object of your desire when the melody comes through your speakers.
The simplest subtweets have this global application, saying 1,000 words in under 140 characters — “Apparently I was wrong.” “Sorry I bothered you with my face.” “Oxford comma, motherfucker.” “Take out the garbage.”
And then there’s the rush — the strange satisfaction of putting your emotions out there in the world, or making a quip about someone or something around you.
People are using social media outlets more and more to craft their personal brands. Users painstakingly work on their tweets and making them fit the character limit, monitor the analytics of their accounts, and remove content that isn’t performing as well as they had hoped. Social media platforms can be as career-based as they are attention-based, demonstrating on a public scale the user’s real or perceived interests and insights.
When subtweets find their way into even those professional profiles, they are a break from the usual stream of strategic retweets and replies. They are personal — and, even at their most pointed and scathing, subtweets are vulnerable. They say everything and nothing at once, broadcasting a confession to an audience that may or may not arbitrarily include their subject. They are full of personality yet surprisingly generic, and casually biting while utterly ineffective. Subtweets are impulsive and, to a large extent, stupid, but they are often hilarious and nearly always honest, standing out in a social media culture broadly composed of branding and posturing.
For me, it continued with lyrics. My MSN statuses evolved into tweets and Tumblr posts of more song snippets, tagged #np for “now playing,” but never explicitly mentioning who the lyrics may be particularly pertinent to in that moment. Aside from stray observations of misogyny or strange behaviour in the coffee line, my days of subtweeting are mostly over. I still find myself occasionally typing them, but never hitting “publish.” My litmus test for subtweets is to ask myself whether I would say what I’m about to tweet out loud to someone distinguished. In conversation with Hilary Clinton, for example, if it were how I was feeling, would I say: “Seriously considering legally marrying my bed after my last dating experience,” or “Replying to my text with one word 16 hours after I sent is a cool thing to do”? Unlikely, but maybe if we were drinking — which we probably would be, because we’re best friends in this scenario. Regardless, I usually backspace.
As for the subject of some of my MSN sub-statuses, who ultimately did not reciprocate my younger self’s feelings, I have nothing to say, and I am far too mature to subtweet on the subject any further as I work tirelessly towards establishing my own social media brand, etc., etc., — except, of course, that I hear you’re into urinating on ladies these days, and that’s a hard pass for me. #subarticle