The Art of Subtweeting

Twitter NinjaIn the complex and shifting social rituals of Twitter, nothing is more misunderstood and poorly executed than the Subtweet. Elusive in its perfection, deadly when used correctly, pathetic and laughable in the hands of a amatuer— it is a delicate art only mastered by an illuminated few. For the handful of people who grasp the Subtweet’s delicate grace, there is virtually no limit to the power they can wield. If Retweeting is the warhammer of content distribution, then the Subtweet is the assassin’s knife that strikes swiftly from the darkness, leaving quivering Tweeps in its wake. It is the language of modern day machiavellis— poignant 140 character doublespeak.

Step One: Master the Definition of Subtweeting

On the path to mastering Subtweeting, the first step is to get a firm understanding of the definition. As a famous, dead Frenchman once said: “If you wish to argue with me, you must first define your terms.” 99% percent of Subtweet failures are due to a misunderstanding of what it actually means to Subtweet. Urban Dictionary, the undisputed authority of all online definitions, has this to say:



“It’s the shortening of “subliminal tweet” which is directly referring to a particular person without mentioning their name or directly mentioning them…. Basically, it’s talking about someone behind their back but sort of in their face on Twitter!”
-Urban Dictionary

Overall, this is a pretty good definition. Let’s pick it apart a little bit. Subliminal discourse is essential in Subtweeting. Like a 140 character double entendre, the intended recipient needs to understand the hidden meaning, but the tweet needs to stand on its own in the eyes of the general public. Other people reading must remain unaware of what you are actually saying. This is where most Subtweets fail; it’s not really a Subtweet if the majority of your audience knows you are passive aggressively tweeting about a specific person. That’s not being clever, and it’s not Subtweeting. That’s just bitching on the internet, and we all get enough of that on Facebook.

Willy Wonka learned the recursive truth about Facebook bitching a long time ago. Listen to the man.

Step Two: Master Speaking in Parallel Streams

This is what the Subtweet is really about, speaking simultaneously in two directions at once. Not only speaking in two directions, but speaking fluently. This is a major stumbling block for would-be Subtweets. Most tweets lean too heavily in one direction, neglecting the needs of the other. That stab at your ex comes off as petty and obnoxious if you make it obvious: cloak your subtweet within the context of a normal tweet. The more innocuous your tweet appears, the more bitingly effective it is.

To make myself more clear, let me give an example: let’s say you are really angry at somebody (like a boy or girl that didn’t call back after that last date), and you want to broadcast your frustration to the world. Avoid the temptation to tweet “OMG Boys are SO Stupid! #FML!” No one will find that amusing, and potential employers (if they manage to decode your L33tspeak) will most likely count it as a strike against your general communicative intelligence. No one wins with this approach.

Instead, try a lighter touch. Tease out the details for greater amusement. If said “stupid boy” wears a lot of hats, go with “From my research, Snapback wearers run a high risk of braincell suffocation. Communicative intelligence may suffer from even short term use.” Might be a little brainy for your personal taste, but then again I don’t have much experience insulting people who wear hats. The thing to take away from this is, even though you are talking about one person, your message has to be suited to your entire online follower base: you never know who might be listening to what you say.

Yeah, there is nothing to insult about this hat. Nothing at all….

Step Three: Learn at the Feet of the Masters

As any aspiring Twitter ninja knows, you must study the works of the great people that have come before. There are many people to study in pursuit of mastering the double meaning of speech. Shakespeare, Henry Kissinger, Shostakovich, the list is endless. Personally, my favorite example comes in the form of one of the greatest rock songs of all time: Eric Clapton’s Layla.

Here’s a little background: Eric Clapton was best friends with quiet Beatle and fellow guitarist, George Harrison. Mr. Harrison had a beautiful wife by the name of Pattie Boyd, a perfect situation until Eric Clapton decided that he was madly in love with Pattie as well. What’s a man to do in this situation? The only thing he can do: steal your best friend’s wife and write one of the greatest love songs of all time about her.

Layla is a reference to the classic Arabian love story Layla and Majun, a tale of unrequited love that ends in the madness and death of the male protagonist, and marriage of Layla to another man. It’s a major bummer for all parties involved. Story goes that Clapton went to a party and played the song for Pattie and George, admitting his unrequited love for Pattie shortly thereafter. Eventually, Pattie left George for Clapton, leaving George in an ocean of moping quietude.

After the ruckus at the party, the song Layla went on to become a massive hit, playing on the radio 24/7 and rocketing Clapton further into the stratosphere of rock and roll immortality. Anyone with a pair of ears and a functioning soul loves the song—everyone but George Harrison. For George Harrison, I’m sure it was a maddeningly painful affair. Harkening back to one of the most epic bummers of his entire life, and quite possibly one of the most epic in rock and roll history, each and every time the song plays. Considering how often Layla comes on the radio to this day, this entire affair might count as one of the most torturous experiences in all cuckoldom. Even though it is not a tweet, Layla is a perfect example of all the things that a Subtweet should be.

Plus, it’s an amazing song.


So, in closing, let us review the components of a perfect Subtweet: It must be clever,  its meaning must be hidden, and it has to stand on its own in the eyes of the general public. The process is difficult and fraught with danger, but the rewards are immense. For each person who learns how to cloak their online animosity inside the silken threads of a subtweet, the less people there will be clogging up our timelines with pointless drivel. We need a digital world filled with Twitter ninjas, who are entertaining even when complaining. Twitter is still young, and we can still prevent it from becoming an echo chamber of myopic whining and mediocrity. Zuckerberg has that market cornered already, and we don’t need another Facebook.

Mr.  David Benson is a social media analyst and coffeephile. He currently lives in New York City and works as an analyst for Mashwork, a social media analytics company.

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2 Responses to “The Art of Subtweeting”

  1. Michele Brenton Says:

    Suddenly my twitter profile blurb seems so much cleverer:

    I’m a poet… Everything you say or do may end up in a poem.
    But nobody will understand it – so you are safe 😉


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