By Kathryn Pope, Illustration by Rebecca Mass In a hotel ballroom in Boston on Jan. 4, a crowd of 250 members of the American Dialect Society and the Linguistic Society of America voted on the Word of the Year. Meant to capture the spirit of the past 11 months and nod to Americans’ linguistic ingenuity, the winning word should represent an aspect of American culture borne of 2012 and likely to endure for years to come. The official winner this year: #hashtag.
#Hashtag’s victory highlights Twitter’s eminent place in American society. It’s a forum for sharing information, following events as they unfold, making offensive jokes, and spouting ill-informed political ideas. But of the millions—maybe billions—of hashtags, one is the most annoying: #subtweet. Subtweeting, or referring to someone without using his or her name or Twitter handle, is the 2012 way to talk publicly about foes behind their backs. Subtweets can theoretically be good or bad, but most often they are malicious, petty, and passive-aggressive. A perfect example, plucked from Twitter’s #subtweet page: “Bitch you might be popular, but everyone still hates you.” The casual Twitter browser—like me—ponders the identity of this “popular” chick, why everyone supposedly hates her, and how she offended the subtweeter. At first glance, the tweet appears arbitrary and useless. However, the insidiousness of the subtweet lies in its nuance. First, Twitter won’t notify the subject of this tweet because of her absent Twitter handle. But if she notices the tweet by chance, she might just recognize herself as the popular bitch everyone hates. Second, at least some of the subtweeter’s 309 followers will know whom the tweet references.
This makes for a delicious inside, but simultaneously public, joke. It’s like a gaggle of middle school girls laughing and pointing at you from across the lunchroom. Ask yourself, “Are they making fun of me?” Of course they are, but like most cowardly bullies, middle school queen bees and subtweeters won’t tease you outright. They vent their aggression but avoid direct confrontation, liberating them from accountability and sidestepping the need for mature conflict resolution. Middle school politics aside, in-person conflict resolution might be a dying art. In 1999, two psychologists at Yale University found that effective negotiation, cooperation, and true problem solving depend on face-to-face contact. They worried that talking on the phone undermined interpersonal communication. Fourteen years later, when a subtweet can travel from someone’s devilish mind, through the smartphone at his or her fingertips, and onto the Internet in a matter of seconds, worrying about the telephone limiting face-to-face communication seems ridiculous. Nowadays, making a phone call shows politeness—if not downright intimacy—and dealing with issues in person is rare indeed.
Basking in the glow of our computer screens or gazing lovingly at our smartphones, we fire off every smartass comment and ill-conceived idea that pops into our heads. If someone else suffers, and if we don’t even have the nerve to mention our victims directly, all the better! An impenetrable fortress of digital anonymity protects us, right? Hardly. At the end of the day, when my Samsung Galaxy dies, I toss around in bed unable to sleep because the backlit computer screen ruined my circadian rhythm. The nectar of online vengeance doesn’t taste so sweet.