Lurking in Hellworld

Jack Lawton

The following essay about Twitter was written towards the end of 2019 in an attempt to describe what the experience of using the site in a certain kind of way had done to me and maybe what it was doing to others. Much has obviously changed for both the site and the world in the intervening years, and I decided that editing the essay to reflect these changes would require transforming it into another essay entirely. So, we have decided to present it as it was written at the time, as a time capsule that hopefully still suggests where Twitter and the culture it created were heading. As such the essay is filled with references, jokes, and probably ideas that may seem played out or cringe, but I assure you that they were all cool at the time and, in fact, I originated them all.

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I didn’t tweet for the first two months at least. I can’t remember what lured me into signing up. It is difficult to maintain a chronology on the Hellsite, with all things, events, concepts, and people tending to mix together and disappear, swept away in the flood. Some friends were cautiously using the website that would quickly come to define my media consumption, but I didn’t follow them at first. A friend - somehow - came across my account and gave me my first twitter interaction: “found you”. I don’t know how he found me, but I courtesy fav’d his slightly invasive message anyway. Some more friends followed me after him. It was to be the first crack in my anonymity. This anonymity was important to me in the beginning. Despite signing up under my real name, I had no intention of ever adding to the endless cacophony. I was just there to watch, to lurk. I had a boomer’s aversion to microblogging, probably inherited from my father or someone who had just heard of Twitter - why would anyone care what you had for lunch? This was coupled with all the shame a deeply anti-social sixteen-year-old would naturally feel after, say, making a Bebo account and getting a precise numerical value for how little they mattered in their social milieu. I didn’t feel I had anything of value to add to what is now known as the Discourse. Some part of me thought the people I initially followed - comedians, writers - had important things to say. These verified blue checks dominated my twitter feed in the opening years.

What would Dril do?

Every generation has a historical poet-soul which voices the ethos of an age: the Renaissance had Shakespeare, the nineties had Kurt Cobain, the early noughties had Robbie Williams (in actuality they had Hideo Kojima, as we shall see later). The Age of Posting has @dril. A few days before I joined in September 2011, and a couple of years before I would follow him, he tweeted the following:

The implications of this are impossible to overstate. If future historians need a Rosetta Stone to understand our time, and the limits of our discourse, I do not think they will require more than these twenty-two words. I wish that in 2011, at age 16, my soul had been ready to receive His Message. Alas, it took me a while longer to find the true poster’s path.

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This was all, of course, before I realised that the simple, humble Poster is the true lifeblood of Twitter and that they must endlessly fight the blue checks in a righteous Poster’s War - but I digress. I followed a smattering of comedians and famous figures and random news sources—the way everyone follows Forbes and the Financial Times or something on a whim and never actually reads their posts. In retrospect, the content really sucked, but despite my aversion to the idea of the website I found myself scrolling regularly.


At this point I thought often of how my internet presence as a lurker would seem from the outside. I pictured myself as a gray, faceless, alien mass, surrounded by a dull hum signifying unknowable thinking. It is the same kind of anonymous horror I think of when I imagine the human brain: a grey lump of organic matter sitting unseen in the dark, filled with thoughts and ideas unknowable except by the words and actions it affects on the exterior world. My profile picture was the round egg Twitter used to have as the default to new accounts in keeping with their inexplicable bird theme. I was determined not to hatch.

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For just under four months I was good. I lurked diligently. I interacted with no post but by anonymous fav. I accumulated a couple of dozen followers by social osmosis, and the usual smattering of porn bots and people trying to gain followers by following thousands of people. Then on Christmas Day, with a new iPod touch giving me a much more mobile portal to Online, I decided on a simple message: Happy Christmas! The friend who had first found my nascent account and had been trolling me for months in an attempt to get me to post was delighted, along with a few other friends. I was bestowed with replies, RTs, and favs.

I don’t need to describe how social media works re: dopamine. One tweet on Christmas day would turn into many thousands over the next few years.

Re-reading old tweets now (to the extent that you can – the design of Twitter frustrates any attempt to interact with anything that isn’t happening right now) I am embarrassed by how I engaged with the what-you-had-for-lunch style of tweeting. I didn’t interact with anyone, really, beside the same three or four close friends who had brought me to post in the first place; these were really just shouts into the void, utterly banal observations designed to disappear from memory as soon as they appeared.

This began the phase of Sincere Posting.

hahahaha. this sucks man

As a sixteen year-old, my posting consisted of terrible jokes (my jokes are unfunny now on purpose, which is better), complaints about school, and earnest expressions of hype for various corporate cultural products and effluvia; uncommented upon lines from tv, song lyrics, incomprehensible jokes about my secondary school’s debt crisis. Re-reading these posts is a mortifying experience. I would toss them all into a black hole if it didn’t take forever to manually delete them. These posts make me seem boring—which I probably am, and understandably was at sixteen. There is a certain nostalgia, though, for a time when my posts were mainly just about me and my banality and were shared and interacted with by people I knew in flesh-and-blood space. But for the most part I look at them with the finely honed sense of embarrassment that using the site instilled in me over the next few years.

This Website is Free

It is a truth universally accepted that @jack does not know how to run the website. @jack, known amongst the less terminally online (I must remind myself that such people still exist) as Jack Dorsey, is the founder of Twitter, and the Face of Hate erected once any change thought of as ill-advised is made to the site. And, to be fair, the changes are almost always terrible, made as if the people in charge of making the site have no idea what is good about it. They seem incomprehensible until you realise that they are designed in order not to make conversation easier or more enjoyable, but to make them more profitable. @jack can claim that doubling the character length (thus eroding Twitter’s key feature: brevity) increases the quality of civil discourse (which should be laughable to anyone who glances at responses to his posts), when in actuality larger amounts of texts increase engagement and are easier to optimise. This was followed by the most disconcerting and destructive change to the way Twitter functions thus far; one that has had the largest implications for the ways Twitter shapes culture, identity, and memory: the non-chronological timeline.

Reactions to the non-chronological timeline were strong - you would be forgiven for thinking it was an abomination before God himself - but, like all the changes, only garnered momentary protest before being accepted, the protests swept away in the endless scroll. Prior to the change, posts would appear from the accounts the user followed in the order they were posted, with the newest first. Now, Twitter delivers the posts it thinks you will be most interested in. The methods it uses to decide which posts are worthy of elevation are inscrutable; they seem to be based on engagement, favouring the accounts that the user tends to interact with most. This drives popular tweets onward and onward, optimises your timeline to deliver the posts you are most likely to interact with quicker and quicker, the algorithm accelerating the rate you consume to higher and higher speeds, getting better and better at making sure it delivers those things to you that will keep your attention from straying away for even a moment, bouncing from subject to subject every second or two.

This change was accepted. Eventually, a function to switch back to chronological order was added as a sop to the protestors, though the site resets your preference to non-chronological every time you come back to it, knowing that most users – including myself – will forget to switch back. This change was the final ingredient in the maelstrom of psychic chaos that Twitter has become, the final change needed to evolve our puny human minds to the Information Age. The Hellsite had already eroded all notions of space or boundaries; everything everywhere was happening together. There was no sense of what kind of subject the site was for—it wasn’t a place to let loose social news, exclusively, like Facebook was then, or to share pictures, like Instagram. It was for everything. Political takes, jokes, poems, short films, emotional declarations, networking, learning, everything, all of it existed all together, and your attention was being trained diligently to switch between every kind of topic, subject, and tone imaginable at an incredible rate. The one boundary left was time—conversations unfolded linearly, for the most part, and if you were following a couple of dozen discourses at once, this was a blessing. Now that final boundary has been erased. We consume everything not only together but all at once. You see the rebuttal, but then the algorithm decides not to show you the original argument, and then the rebuttal to the rebuttal, and you consume a couple of dozen conversations in between. You see fifteen parodies of a post before you see the post itself being parodied, if you ever see it at all. Accounts you have low interaction with simply tend to disappear—Twitter knows that, by following them, you have asked to see their posts, but by virtue of your not interacting with them it decides for you that you couldn’t have meant it sincerely.

Fuck You and Die

“He was just enough civilized to show off his outlandishness in the strangest possible manners.” - Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

At some point during my first year in college I began to dive into weird Twitter accounts beyond the few I was already aware of, like @dril. I was still using Twitter in a sincere way, and my political thoughts (undeveloped beyond a vague affinity for socialism) were almost entirely separate from the site. Weird Twitter would be the gateway to that changing. In 2013 Weird Twitter was starting to get really big and the language that had been developing within that subculture started to become, more and more, the language of Twitter itself.

Weird Twitter got its start on Something Awful, a popular forum throughout the earlier noughties and home to some of the most degenerate and Terminally Online people of the early days of the internet. A lot of the accounts that came to be grouped under the (quite broad) header of Weird Twitter originated there on a subforum known as FYAD (Fuck You and Die). There they would post often image-based, brief, and intentionally crude jokes based upon layers and layers of increasingly complex and ever-growing in-jokes. They migrated to Twitter under names like @dogboner or @fart or @weedhitler, where they started building a similar subculture with a bigger audience.

This subculture seemed revelatory and seductive: it was totally incomprehensible at first, but the more you read, the more accounts you followed, the clearer it got. You began to understand the references and humour bit by bit. It would rewrite your brain, slightly, being inducted into this language and code. You felt like a part of it even when you were just a spectator. The ability to actually interact was there but it felt unnecessary beyond a fav or retweet. The illusion of interaction was satisfying enough. And, even better, it seemed like a format that could only exist on this site, that made clear why all the stand-ups and other people trying to use the format for traditional jokes seemed to fall flat.

It has to be said that @dril is the undisputed Poet Laureate of this shit, revered across the entire subculture, if you could call it that. He is always in character, a complete and total comedic persona that could only exist in this space in time. In an Oral History of Weird Twitter posted in 2013 on Buzzfeed, @dril described his life and time online like this:

Ok, I was considering sending a response "in character", but I thought that this would probably be a good opportunity to let people know who I am and what exactly I'm trying to do. People seem to have the idea that I'm this really "wacky" guy who behaves rather similarly to his offbeat twitter persona in real life, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Please allow me to dispel some of the myths out there and let people know what I'm all about. Twitter, as I understand it, is a sort of "Hell" that I was banished to upon death in my previous life. In this abstract realm, the only thing I am certain of is that my cries are awarded "Favs" or "RTs" when they are particularly miserable or profane. These ethereal merits do nothing to ease my suffering, but I have deliriously convinced myself that gathering enough of them will impress my unseen superiors and grant me a promotion to a higher plane of existence. This is my sole motivation.

This is as good a description as any of the Hellsite as you can find - a pit of degradation and misery where the inmates laugh at each other’s expressions of misery. You have a choice: you can be self-aware, ironic, and detached about how miserable you are, and have others laugh along with you, or you can be sincere in your expression and have them laugh at you. In 2013, as an isolated and depressed first year university student, I found this all very brilliant and natural. I absorbed this language and vocabulary with glee.

Antonin Scalia retire bitch

The tone of a weird or ironic tweet can be difficult to parse. It’s often a commentary on the tones and formats people already use sincerely online. Several geniuses with Powerful Brains often post sincerely in a way that would be seen as the greatest works of ironic genius if they came from any of the stalwarts of Weird Twitter.

These tweets are praised and boosted among Weird Twitter often, and it feels like this level of Weird Twitter tone and vocabulary seeping back into the real world (probably best exemplified by the tweets of Donald Trump) cause a kind of feedback loop that pushes Weird Twitter into even higher levels of ironic delivery and sincere speech to be dragged even further towards ironic presentation, endlessly.

Epic Corncobbed Milkshake Duck’d Brain Worms

“What is “binch”? What is to be “corn-cobbed?”” - @johnastoehr

Soon you learn to speak the lingo. Some examples.

Me and my father are driving to Dublin, one day. Looking at my phone I say, absent minded, “Ken Bone got Milkshake Duck’d.” He looks at me in confusion. Explaining seems more trouble than it's worth. And I wonder why I speak like this, how I came to it. A phrase from Moby Dick comes to mind: "strictly this word was not indigenous to the whale’s vocabulary."

Now We Live in the Zone

The events of 2015/2016 seemed to politicise the whole of twitter—at least it did from the perspective of the people I follow. These events, along with my own growing political consciousness, lead me deeper into left twitter. Irony twitter had always had a sort of overlap with left-wing twitter, and some of its greatest luminaries straddle both worlds. My feed had an increasing left-wing bent as I followed more and more Weird Twitter accounts, and the Weird Twitter approach to humour seemed just as revelatory when applied to politics. Here people were insincere in a way that actually seemed to present things as they were. Here people actually talked about politics like they are, about power how it is. There was no cloying sense of decorum or civility that dominated mainstream political discourse and stifled everything in euphemism. It felt genuinely radical, even as it seemed to do little but make the people who agreed with laugh and the piss off those who disagreed with it. And, yes, it was often rude to the point of aggression - owning or dunking on someone is the prime social capital - but it seemed to say the right things to the right people, which was worth the cost. It was just a relief to find people who say things that help you make sense of the world, that had a language perfectly suited to voice those ideas.

Kill All Normies

Last year, someone posted: “Best subreddit bar none is r/cigarettes.” The tweet is accompanied by a screenshot of the subreddit, where a selfie has been posted under the title:

“Sitting in front of my work before I clock on for my shift while listening to Aenema, kind of wanting to go home already. Wish me luck ladies and gents!”

The selfie depicts a bearded man wearing sunglasses and a hoodie smoking a cigarette. What is funny about this might be unclear to the uninitiated: it is funny because he is normal. He also, on closer inspection, has some kind of skin condition (easily missed on first glance, people in the comments diagnose psoriasis). The poster who originally posted the tweet later claimed he had not noticed this condition and had to post a follow up explaining that he had not intended to make fun of people with skin conditions. That wouldn’t be funny. He is sorry if he made anyone with skin conditions feel bad. Only being normal is funny. Not hypernormal – that would border on the self-aware ironic . Being normal enough to typify a kind of person. That’s funny, here. The tweet gets 3500 favourites.

The Discourse

Every single day, a few odd hundred thousand people stare into poisonous blue light rays and feel debilitating rage at some things that understandably prompt it and some things that do not. In any event, they will respond with a generic style of online sarcasm that’s been culled from the greatest perma-banned posters of the last decade and sanitized into nothingness. - Felix Biederman, review of Joker (2019).

And so I found myself immersed quickly in the world of Left Twitter. I continued to lurk, for the most part. Occasionally I would throw my hat in with a dunk on whoever was being attacked that day. I make it sound bad; I still don’t think it’s bad to tell someone being transphobic or whatever that they’re awful. It just doesn’t feel useful anymore. But in 2015-6 I was doing it a lot. I would get a few favourites and it would feel nice. Validating. A follower or two here or there. But I would never message them or interact in any particular way. I finished college in 2015, identifying as a socialist but in reality a borderline agoraphobic person with few friends and no political praxis. I decided to move to Vancouver for just over a year, throughout 2016-17, because the few friends I had were doing it. Politics seemed to be unavoidable throughout the year between Brexit and Trump hitting in quick succession. It was an exciting if depressing time to be a witness to this part of Left Twitter. It seemed more and more common to identify openly as a socialist, and even a communist, in a way that hadn’t seemed possible in the past. It felt like things were happening. There was a sense that my values and beliefs were rising in the world.

But I was just sitting alone on my couch with a laptop.

Nerds, jocks, ironybros, new sincerity kids, donuts and rose emojis,...

My status as a lurker allowed me to exist in a way outside the cliques and ideological camps that divided Left Twitter. Not saying anything allowed me not to declare anything I’d have to stick to (not that anyone was listening to me saying nothing). There were a lot of different divides. There was the emerging “dirtbag left” a term coined by Amber A’Lee Frost, a host of the podcast Chapo Trap House around which the “movement” is often grouped. As a religious listener of CTH I relate to this group while detesting some of its worst members – those who just want to use slurs for shits and giggles – and sometimes even find myself siding with the “New Sincerity” segment of Twitter that often criticises their use of irony. The more extreme element of the New Sincerity camp would paint irony as inherently fascistic, and indeed there is a class of, let’s be honest, grifter that tends towards the neo-Strasserite when using irony, like disciples of Aimee Terese, Jason Unruhe or Angela Nagle.

Another discourse has emerged which cuts Left Twitter into “class reductionist” and “idpol” (identity politics) camps. Again I have sympathies with arguments on both sides here, and the divide seems simplistic and a simple way to dismiss criticism from either camp. A recent discourse around the podcast Red Scare, for example...

If the above seems confusing and exhausting, it is. This is not the fun part. This is the part that makes the wires of your brain feel hot and the whole thing seem pointless.

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My tone on twitter at this time reflected my split allegiances among these different approaches, vacillating between earnest political observations and hyper-ironic, typically very stupid jokes that none of the friends from home who followed me would understand. They usually contained oblique references to death or harm, because I wanted to make it seem like it was funny to me that I was depressed. And in a way it was. Wow! This app lets you hear your own death rattle! Just trying to find a nice traditional girl who can cut my arm off and beat me to death with it

I managed to obtain a few more left-y followers but it became clear that I was neither funny nor interesting enough to maintain them, and that I wasn’t ever going to be a prolific enough tweeter to gain much of a following. This led me to tweet even less, but I was still reading constantly. I would wake up every morning in a cold basement room in the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver, reach out from my mattress on the floor, and, still bleary-eyed, begin each day with a 15-minute scroll. This would set the tone for my day: sometimes amused but usually pissed off by something I’d read.

The Sons of Liberty

In November 2001, an AI system in a videogame that sought to control all civilisation had this to say:

But in the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness. Never fading, always accessible. Rumors about petty issues, misinterpretations, slander… All this junk data preserved in an unfiltered state, growing at an alarming rate. The digital society furthers human flaws and selectively rewards the development of convenient half-truths. Just look at the strange juxtapositions of morality around you. You exercise your right to "freedom" and this is the result. All rhetoric to avoid conflict and protect each other from hurt. The untested truths spun by different interests continue to churn and accumulate in the sandbox of political correctness and value systems. Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever "truth" suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large. The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh. No one is invalidated, but nobody is right. Not even natural selection can take place here. The world is being engulfed in "truth." - Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty

The Hellsite where we now live is where this happens.

Original Dry Boys

Across Twitter all media is subjected to all kinds of political analysis, every scrap of Netflix or Amazon Prime content twisted and bent into every kind of ideological shape possible. Felix Biederman, one of the hosts of Chapo Trap House, which is essentially jokes about US politics through the lens of Irony Twitter, is a genius of this kind of thing. He hilariously compared Warren supporter’s Big Structural Bailey to the EVA 001 Unit from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. This may be incomprehensible and unfunny to you, and, indeed, it is becoming so for me. It happened just a few months ago but already the political reference on which it relied has been overwritten a couple dozen times by the intervening news cycles—I’m pretty sure it was funny, though. Something about a dog. Who cares. The Pete Buttigieg Panic at the Disco dance is now the go-to reference for cringey political theatre, but that’s already growing foggy in my memory at this point, feeling like an artefact from an age long past, echoing in my memory from that foreign country; one week ago.


I follow an account called @MobyDickAtSea. Its bio reads: “Over 2,000 lines handpicked from Moby Dick. This bot tweets them one at a time in random order, once every two hours.” The bot has been faithful; a little snippet of Melville’s finest is delivered to me and the rest of the account’s 55.6 thousand followers in regular bite-sized chunks. It is the only way I have ever read Moby Dick, but receiving its best bits in this way has allowed me to imply that I have read it and sound clever on several occasions. Sometimes I’ll click onto the page and read a bunch of these snippets in a row - the closest I get to reading them in anything resembling the original context of the book. But the rest of the time these literary phrases reach me among the flotus and detritus of the rest of the timeline, meandering in its fragmented way through a myriad of contexts that Melville could never have foreseen, taking on new resonances in the totally unique setting that they arrive in based on my own personal timeline. A line like “it smells of the left wing of the day of judgment” arrives battling its way for attention in between DSA infighting or an attempted Latin American coup, or just sandwiched between a picture of Baby Yoda smoking a joint and an earnest declaration of someone’s inability to cope with their depression any longer. This is how all things are consumed, here and now, all things chopped and fragmented together in a way that is totally, beautifully and alienatingly unique to the individual.

It’s a maelstrom of everything saying everything to everything but “only by inference is it that anyone can tell of what”.

Hellworld 2016

The site has lost some of its appeal in recent years, it has to be said. Part of this is the world we live in now, perhaps. Everyone seems depressed and angry all the time. It is now commonplace to refer to it as the Hellsite - it is widely accepted that it is a horrible pit filled with the baying of the worst elements of humanity. And yet everyone who says this is still on there every single day. I don’t tweet so much since moving back to Ireland. It would be easy to say that this could be attributed to me being less depressed, to having a fuller life, to having a wonderful realisation about the unhealthy place of Twitter in my life and doing the responsible thing and excising it entirely. But I’m still on there, every day. It is Hell. But if you had a window to Hell, wouldn’t you have to watch?


“I’m literally impervious to trauma due to years of rigorous irony poisoning and deep level blackpilling. I can dissociate at will and come back in an instant to sincerely enjoy looking at a dog or eating anchovy pizza. I’m the strongest person alive” - @6footinvisible

I’ve seen a lot on the Hellsite. Horrors coinciding all together. I would compare it to a Hieronymous Bosch painting but that would be cliché in a way I’ve learned to never allow even the smallest possibility of being. You see stuff like asking XBox support why your wife left you. @PhilGreaves calling soap operas and Harry Potter fascist along with everything else in existence. @MovieBob sincerely asking us all what Mario and Link would think of “us” (gamers) being misogynist. Kurt Eichenwald hentai. Twitch streamers insisting Israel and Palestine need to study John Lennon Imagine. Ed Balls tweeting “Ed Balls” in 2011. That woman saying she doesn't care a kid got eaten by an alligator because it was due to his father’s male entitlement. Curvy Wife Guy. Fake Wife Guy. Elf Wife Guy. Cliff Wife Guy. Don’t E-mail My Wife Guy. The Eric Garland Game Theory Thread. The Gamergate wars. The Last Jedi controversy. The Joker controversy. Rachel Dolezal. Ted Cruz porn tweet. White people revealing they don’t wash their legs. Baked beans in the theatre guy. Dr. Manhattan memes about the baked beans in the theatre guy. Gender reveal bomb deaths. 30-50 feral hogs. How could you call it a Hellsite with memories like these? Who could forget any of this stuff? Well, I did. Researching this essay I realised I couldn’t remember more than a couple of incidents from the eight years I’ve spent on the site. So much happens every day. Going looking for these things, I started to recall them, and I realised they are still inside my head, rattling around, waiting for an ironic reference to pull them to the surface. Shaping my frame of reference, a cocktail of US politics and irony twitter, Irish twitter, UK politics twitter, gaming twitter, film twitter, comic twitter, all of it, sloshing around and forming a language and culture that is totally unique to me, that no-one else could ever understand or match fully, that made it difficult for me to express anything with total sincerity, and all of it was given to me by a bunch of strangers that I will never speak to, and all of it getting in between me and the people who are actually in my life.

And you know what? None of this makes me mad. I’m laughing, actually.