Humour serves a variety of purposes on social media, from aesthetic content creation and social interaction through to corporate and institutional branding. Playful social media accounts tap into existing knowledge while building and consolidating networks. This article presents a contextualising model of commercial, cultural, and specifically bookish humour on Twitter, addressing such humour’s global reach and local context (Australia). We employ a practice-led approach and report on our creation of two playful Twitter accounts that promote AustLit, a repository of metadata about Australian literature. Quantitative and qualitative analysis demonstrates that scholarly institutions and academics were more likely to follow the pseudo-authoritative, numbers-focused @AustLitCodex account, but that the more broadly popular and engaging format was the enthusiasm of @AustLitTrip (which has a sheepdog persona). These accounts demonstrate the scope for playful Twitter to build audiences for cultural institutions and promote positive, albeit niche, online discussions.
Typology of funny Twitter accounts
Bookish business Twitter
Bookish institutional Twitter
Arts-informed Twitter research
Mediating AustLit on Twitter
Humour on social media assembles and galvanises communities, drawing on social, cultural and political knowledge to entertain, promote, and provoke. In this article, we build on existing research addressing broad trends in internet humour and its deployment by specific groups by investigating the important mediating role that humour plays in literary communities. Trip the AustLit Kelpie (@AustLitTrip) and Codex the AustLit Robot (@AustLitCodex) are two niche Twitter accounts, small experiments in the playful mediation of AustLit, a database of Australian literature. Recognising the affinity between word-based Twitter and bookish communities, this article uses the pseudonymous, creative avatars of Trip and Codex to explore the potential for humorous Twitter accounts to generate interactions between literary institutions and their publics in the digital sphere. Their creation is a practice-led, arts-informed project that reflects and builds on existing modes of humorous participation on Twitter.
Launched in 2006, Twitter is a digital platform that supports broadcast-like, performative communication (Crawford, 2009). In contrast to other social media sites’ active promotion of images and video (cf., Upbin, 2012), Twitter is a primarily textual medium , despite its gradual evolution to include gifs, photos, videos, and hyperlinks. Consequently, the markers used to perform identity on Twitter — to convey authenticity and sociability — tend to be linguistic (cf., Florini, 2014). Creative, language-based interventions have also driven Twitter’s development. When its norms were still, in Kate Crawford’s (2009) terms, ‘nascent and contested’ , textual user transformations included tagging other users with the @ sign , and organising conversations with the hashtag symbol (Pandell, 2017).
Twitter’s public-facing, one-to-many style of communication (Crawford, 2009) gives it a natural affinity with marketing. Such usage is explicitly encouraged by Twitter itself, via the blue tick badge it gives to accounts it verifies as associated with companies or public figures. Beyond marketing in the narrow sense, Twitter is often used to persuade and influence. Twitter is used by politicians (Evans, et al., 2014; Grant, et al., 2010) and in wider political and election-driven conversations (Bruns and Highfield, 2013; Small, 2011; Shapiro and Hemphill, 2017), generating discourse that influences political preferences and election results, but also operating as inward-looking networks of the like-minded (Boutyline and Willer, 2017; Himelboim, et al., 2013; Hong and Nadler, 2012; Murthy, 2015). Automated Twitter accounts or ‘Twitterbots’ capitalise on the broadcast-like nature of Twitter and are also starting to be used as influencers (Adee, 2016; Alperin, et al., 2017).
Humour is a rhetorical tool that can enhance persuasive communication . Innovatively satirical or playful accounts are increasingly deployed by a range of social media users. The corporate world has emphatically recognised the significance of social media engagement for branding (Lipsman, et al., 2012; Hutton and Fosdick, 2011), and some of the most advanced corporate uses of social media include creative, personality-filled accounts. Accounts affiliated with cultural institutions and scholarly organisations can also be humorous, although this is inflected by their distinctive public missions.
Research on humour explores the social and rhetorical functions it serves across a range of settings, from stand-up comedy to broadcast media to digital platforms. Humour is acknowledged to be culturally and contextually contingent (Kuipers, 2006), and can work to bring groups together, as well as being a form of critique. For John C. Meyer (2000), ‘[t]he flexible contradictions inherent in humor allow rhetors to enlist it for a variety of purposes, making it a most powerful communication tool’; in particular, humor is ‘a “double-edged sword” by which communicators can unite or divide their audiences” .
Early online humour tended to be dominated by ‘globally oriented topics such as sex, gender and animals’ . These trends continue on social media, evident for example in the proliferation of animal memes and the combative deployment of humour in discussions of gender politics. Indeed, humour’s potential to be divisive is evident in the misreadings, and negative reactions, that often arise online: internet humour often has a contested and ambivalent quality (Phillips and Milner, 2017). At the same time, Twitter humour can contribute to the ‘communicative intimacies’ that strengthen relations between social media users and their followers (Abidin, 2015). It is key to journalists’ follower-building (Holton and Lewis, 2011), and humorous accounts also gained significant traction during the 2012 U.S. presidential debates (Driscoll, et al., 2018). Shared humour generally conforms to symbolic political boundaries, and is used to discredit opposing views, or express support (Davis, et al., 2018).
The strong sense of ‘in’ and ‘out’ crowds created by online humour reflects the marked symbolic boundaries of cultural taste and knowledge that demarcate participation in non-digital humour (Friedman and Kuipers, 2013, Phillips and Milner, 2017). One form of humour that circulates on Twitter is the meme, a form of cultural transmission based on imitation . In her account of medievalist memes, Kim Wilkins (2014) writes that ‘those readers who recognize the humor will find their pleasure in two ways: the first, because it is funny; the second, precisely because they realize they belong to a small section of the readership’ . These analyses emphasise the social nature of online humour: its reliance on sharing, replication, and re-purposing, and its simultaneous creation of divisions based on the knowledge it assumes.
The present article extends existing humour research by considering how deliberately humorous Twitter accounts can be leveraged in cultural communities; specifically how they can build engagement with and develop communities around existing literary institutions. Literary culture is one special interest group within social media networks; high culture is characterised by John Frow as ‘a pocket within commodity culture’ . Literary organisations use Twitter for a range of goals, including engaging festival audiences and disseminating information about new books (Driscoll, 2015; Murray, 2015; Murray and Weber, 2017). Although there is minimal research on the use of humour by literary people and organisations on Twitter, the literary field’s strong valuation of creativity, including word play, indicates Twitter’s likely affinity with literary communities.
Typology of funny Twitter accounts
Twitter humour intersects with the cultural, social and commercial logics of online content creation. The following typology contextualises our arts-informed research into Twitter humour, recognising a range of humour on Twitter from explicitly corporate accounts (which are often the most high profile, and have the biggest reach); through the accounts of publishers and arts organisations (which have both commercial and cultural interests); through to humorous academic and word-nerd accounts. Each type can be considered in terms of its commercial and cultural goals, and as being situated on a spectrum from open to exclusive in terms of the knowledge and affiliations required in order to enjoy the jokes. Under each type we have discussed examples that showcase that type’s salient features and that also illustrate these contradictions.
The first type of funny Twitter accounts we identify are explicitly and primarily corporate in nature, attached to a for-profit company. These accounts use humour as one amongst a range of strategies to engage with potential markets on Twitter: other strategies include direct advertising and product promotion, producing brand-related content, and engaging with consumer discussion and queries.
MoonPies — chocolate-dipped, marshmallow-filled biscuits — have been manufactured by Chattanooga Bakery in Tennessee since 1917. MoonPie (@MoonPie) was also one of the biggest Twitter sensations of 2017. With its social media under the management of advertising agency The Tombras Group since 2016, MoonPie’s Twitter following is now at 226,000, and nearly all its daily tweets garner ‘favourites’ in the thousands or tens of thousands . The success of the brand is described by one commentator in self-consciously edgy terms: ‘MoonPie gets it right on social media because they’re, well, super chill’ . The ‘chill’ tonal register that characterises MoonPie’s millennial Twitter humour is showcased by one of its most popular tweets, the ‘Lol ok’ retweet of a tweet from their competitor, Hostess — a tweet that is particularly notable as ambivalent due to its playfully, performatively antagonistic persona (Figure 1).
Figure 1: ‘Lol ok’ tweet from @MoonPie, 21 August 2017, at https://twitter.com/MoonPie/status/899624556377276416, accessed 9 January 2018.
MoonPie’s approach has been successful both in gaining engagement on Twitter, and in increasing sales figures (Ziegler, 2017). As one of the most prominent examples of funny, corporate Twitter, it reveals key features of its type: humorous discourse, in a contemporary register that is accessible to large groups of people and builds a consistent tone of communication.
A counterpoint to MoonPie’s successful use of humour on Twitter is 7-Eleven. With a reported history of wage fraud and problematic franchising practices (Berman, 2013; Ferguson, 2017), 7-Eleven’s online brand building is necessarily a more complex project. In one instance, shown in a screenshot (Figure 2), 7-Eleven responded to a tweet about a lizard in a 7-Eleven franchise. The corporate account asked for information to identify the franchise, possibly in order to remove the lizard and pursue disciplinary action. When Arnett objected, 7-Eleven did a swift about-face, reading the tone of conversation and trying to join in on the joke. Telling are the small numbers of ‘favourites’ given to 7-Eleven’s tweets in comparison to Arnett’s, and the number of conversations expressing concern for Marvin the lizard, and the staff responsible for keeping him . 7-Eleven’s tweets reveal concerns both with maintaining corporate standards, and appearing cool on social media — a contradiction quickly identified by other Twitter users. While engagement with MoonPie is almost uniformly celebratory, responses to 7-Eleven’s online brand are more critical, demonstrating some of the limits of Twitter humour.
Figure 2: Twitter conversation about Marv the lizard between @Kristsen_Arnett and @7eleven, 2–3 April 2018, at https://twitter.com/7eleven/status/981156278755102720, accessed 11 April 2018.
Bookish business Twitter
Whereas the humour used by corporate Twitter generally aims wide, different industry sectors deploy more targeted humour. Funny Twitter content in the book publishing industry is inflected by the word-based interests of both publishers and their followers, and the smaller size of this public. Publishers are active users of Twitter (Martin and Tian, 2010; Thoring, 2011) and have largely heeded industry advice that mere broadcasting is not effective on Twitter, but needs to be mixed with engagement with other users . Nolan and Dane (2018) write that one reason Twitter appeals to publishers is because it allows them to ‘construct their own communities’ . One way to form bonds is through humour that creates or appeals to a literary in-group.
With a follower base of 23,300, Melbourne-based company Text Publishing is an example of a publisher that successfully engages in multiple modes of discourse, tweeting a mixture of promotional material, industry news, and humorous comments. Its industry tweets, such as congratulations to prizewinners, receive modest engagement, while its quirky contributions are more popular: the tweet ‘Sometimes I think about the fact that I’ve never been in a fistfight then I remember the time I signed off an email with “regards”’ received 65 favourites in a day . While Nolan and Dane (2018) suggest that in book publishing, social media marketing increasingly relies on ‘the potency of certain types of events’, with literary prizes a key example, the popularity of Text’s funny tweets demonstrates that creativity and humour can be successful social media modes for publishers .
Humour is also evident in Twitter use by another sector of the book industry: bookshops. Avid Reader, an independent bookstore based in Brisbane, has developed a strong following on Twitter through its humour, and this was spotlighted in the bookshop’s adept response to controversy in June 2017. After Avid Reader promoted a book by feminist author Clementine Ford, men’s rights activists (MRAs) ran an online campaign to bombard the bookstore’s Facebook page with one star reviews. Avid Reader responded by engaging directly with the MRAs and calling for support online through humorous commentary. Their two most popular tweets on this issue are ‘To everyone throwing support our way, we truly appreciate it. To all the MRA heroes: [screenshot from TV comedy series Parks and Recreation dismissing men’s rights]’ (8 replies; 159 retweets; 897 favourites), and ‘If you run with the big dogs, prepare to get bitten 🐶’ accompanied by screenshots of their own quips on Facebook (‘May we invite you to cry us a river’ and ‘We’re sorry John Jackson/Men’s Rights is not reeeeeal 🎶’) (14 replies; 205 retweets; 1,368 favourites) . Humour that deliberately antagonised the MRAs declared Avid Reader’s affiliations with online feminist communities, and this demarcation of ‘in’ and ‘out’ catalysed the public response to this situation (cf., Friedman and Kuipers, 2013; Kuipers, 2006; Phillips and Milner, 2017). Ultimately, this conversation transformed the tone of online discussion about this feminist book, and also drove business to the bookstore (Baidawi and Kwai, 2017).
Bookish institutional Twitter
Like publishers and bookshops, many arts-related government departments and organisations now have a Twitter presence, and their follower metrics suggest they garner high levels of public engagement. The Library of Congress, for example, has 1.2 million followers, while the National Library of Australia has 40,200. In most cases, these institutional accounts function in broadcast mode. For example, during the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the most prominent users of the #PMAwards Twitter hashtag were the National Library of Australia (@nlagovau, the prize ceremony venue) and the Federal government Office for the Arts (@artsculturegov), and their tweets were neutral and informational (Driscoll, 2013). There are, however, some bookish institutions that adopt a humorous Twitter tone. One example is the Melbourne UNESCO City of Literature Office, which often tweets playfully to its thousands of followers, as seen in the screenshot in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Picture tweet about staff planning day by @MelCityofLit, 18 March 2018, at https://twitter.com/MoonPie/status/899624556377276416, accessed 18 March 2018.
In an interview with the authors, David Ryding, director of the Melbourne City of Literature Office, explained that the use of humour on Twitter is part of a planned social media strategy for the organisation, in which Facebook is used for image-based international communications and Twitter is used to communicate with a more focused group:
We have two platforms, we have Facebook for international, so we have a very small very clear brief of what we’ll post on Facebook... it’s image heavy, it’s not events, it’s not conversational [...]. And then Twitter is our primary way of getting information out, but it was really about finding a place within the landscape where irreverence works, so it’s got a definite tone... we’re trying to do different things.
Ryding offers a thoughtful assessment of how Twitter humour can build bonded user groups. @MelCityofLit seeks a critical mass of followers, but this group is constituted as a community of engaged listeners, rather than a promotional market — and a community primed as receptive to playful and expressive communication.
A different kind of institution, but one which uses some of the same word-based humour, is academia. Academics use Twitter to contribute to the public engagement mission of research and scholarship; share and publicise day-to-day work (Lupton, 2014); facilitate networking; and as an innovative conference tool: for example, an international scholarly association with which the authors are associated, SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing), experimented with the use of a bot, @SHARP_2018, to disseminate conference information in 2018. Indeed, Twitter use has become a feature of scholarly conferences, creating a ‘backchannel’ discussion (Li and Greenhow, 2015) that can include playful participation .
Funny academic Twitter accounts also relish jokes for their own sake, generally satirising elements of either academia or academic Twitter use. One such account with demonstrably broad appeal, ‘Shit Academics Say’ (@AcademicsSay) has gained approximately 284,000 followers since it started running in 2013. The account is run by Nathan Hall of McGill University in Canada, who accounts for the popularity of @AcademicsSay by noting that there is a large contingent of academics on Twitter, that most of those individuals are primarily using Twitter as a source of distraction, and that parody Twitter accounts tend to be more popular than their straight, serious counterparts (Hall, 2015). @AcademicsSay’s tweets tend to be favourited and retweeted from several hundred, up to tens of thousands, of times. These tweets satirise commonly frustrating elements of academics’ work and life.
Figure 4: Tweet about voice from @AcademicsSay, 18 March 2018, at https://twitter.com/AcademicsSay/status/975488696530202625, accessed 21 March 2018.
One of the more popular recent tweets, for example, shown in screenshot in Figure 4, is part of a running online joke that extends discussion about passive and active voice to include ‘passive-aggressive’ voice. Riffing on feedback commonly provided when marking student essays, the tweet also jokes about the expectations and lack of time common to academics. Academic humour ranges from the broadly popular to the niche and postmodern: the account SHARP Ice Cream (@sharpicecream) tweets from the point of view of an ice cream attending SHARP’s annual scholarly conferences, engaging with hashtags affixed to predominantly serious, scholarly conversations to operate as a kind of absurdist backchannel. A similarly unusual Twitter intervention in the small field of book history is @robotdarnton, a bot with 165 followers which remixes Robert Darnton’s (1982) well-known communications circuit.
The popularity of accounts like @AcademicsSay or Hall’s other funny academic Twitter account Research Wahlberg (@researchmark), and the proliferation of accounts in minute sub-fields, are in keeping with the demonstrated levels of Twitter activity among academics (Lupton, 2014), and with the representation of well-educated, professionally inclined audiences on Twitter (Greenwood, et al., 2016), a feature of Twitter that also supports our final category, word-nerd Twitter.
Twitter accounts that reflect and play on word-based interests do not generally draw attention to products or books that exists outside of social media, nor are they trying, necessarily, to build professional connections. The accounts in this type are more inwardly focused on the generation of particular kinds of content — these tweets are l’art pour l’art (cf., Bourdieu, 1993).
What we affectionately dub ‘word-nerd Twitter’ — funny conversations about linguistic features, linguistic playfulness, and linguistic correctness — appeals to an audience more general than academics but nevertheless requires significant cultural knowledge to enable participation. Word-nerd Twitter conversations stem from long-ongoing preoccupations with ‘correct’ language usage (Hitchings, 2011; see also Clune, 2013; Chivers, 2014; Pinker, 2014), and the politics of cultural knowledge and social class inform these conversations.
A prime example of word-nerd Twitter is the Oxford Comma account, @IAmOxfordComma, which has 21,600 followers. Its tweets, often written in the first-person, assert the importance of the Oxford comma, particularly by pointing to examples where a missing Oxford comma has created humorous ambiguity. Although tongue-in-cheek, the account promotes a prescriptivist and exclusionary attitude toward the English language, and is part of a culture of language critique online. Alongside this, there has also developed a sub-cultural movement of people celebrating online language innovation. Indeed, in true self-referential Internet style, this cyclic critique-of-the-critical attitude has developed as a phenomenon to the point where it itself has become meme-worthy .
As this typology of funny Twitter demonstrates, there are significant roles to be played by humorous accounts in encouraging sociable engagement with cultural content. In the remainder of this article, we present our creative intervention into the potential of irreverent social media use to playfully mediate engagement with literary institutions.
Arts-informed Twitter research
Studies of Twitter use often conduct network or content analysis, developing models to interpret the flow of information through social media networks. Our object of study, bookish Twitter humour, is creative and social. Just as online humour demonstrates, in Limor Shifman’s (2007) terms, a ‘postmodern spirit ... evident in [its] mixture of fiction and reality’, so too does our creatively social methodology . Our autoethnographic, arts-informed research follows a similar approach to that articulated in ‘Serious fun: Gaming the book festival’ (Driscoll and Squires, 2018), which presents game-inspired thinking as ‘deliberately playful and creative, an arts-informed complement to methodological empiricism’ . Arts-informed research supplements analytical processes with creative work. It requires researchers to adopt an art form, to reflexively situate themselves in the research, and to support what J. Gary Knowles and Ardra Cole (2008) describe as ‘an openness to the expansive possibilities of the human imagination’ .
For this research, we created Twitter accounts that would mediate literary institution AustLit, a not-for-profit database of authoritative bibliographical information for Australian books, collaboratively maintained by researchers and the National Library of Australia. Data from AustLit has been used by researchers studying Australian publishing (Carter, 2016; Stinson, 2016). To date, however, no one has analysed AustLit’s role in online conversations about Australian books. This is despite the fact that engagement is an evident focus of the AustLit management: AustLit (@AustLit) is active on Twitter, where it has tweeted 10,700 times and gained 4,348 followers.
Our practice-led approach explores how different social media voices encourage audience engagement with humanities data. We created two Twitter personas with distinct and quirky tones: Trip is friendly, personal and enthusiastic — never cool or ironic — while Codex is (apparently) authoritative, focused on statistical data and tonally flat. These contrasting personalities, voices, and behaviours were created in advance, recorded in style guides used as reference points throughout the project. Each persona publicised information from and links to AustLit for five months, between December 2017 and April 2018. The accounts are pseudonymous, although we name ourselves and the research project in their Twitter profiles. Our affiliation with these accounts is likely overlooked by users engaging casually with the accounts, but is available to more interested users — those visiting the account profiles — and also tacitly evident in the consistent retweeting of Trip and Codex from our own personal accounts.
Below, we reflect on our tweeting practice as Trip and Codex, and present and analyse data on engagement with these personas. Although the numbers involved are small, as carefully designed case studies these personas are valuable for the nuanced social media engagement dynamics they reveal. We consider the extent, in quantitative terms, to which each humorous persona was effective in developing an audience for AustLit, but also consider qualitative differences between audience responses to assess how the styles of these personas may have shaped perceptions of the AustLit database.
Mediating AustLit on Twitter
Trip is a kelpie, an Australian breed of sheepdog, whose Twitter profile states that she ‘developed a love for Australian books as a puppy’. Trip shares links to the AustLit database with Twitter users discussing books, especially Australian books, or dogs, and to a lesser extent, other animals. Trip’s mode of operation is to ‘round up’ Australian literature and its readers, and the kelpie persona is a metaphorical nod to this sociable work.
Codex is a book-robot hybrid that tweets facts and statistics from the AustLit database. Codex is a faux-Twitterbot: a person lightly mimicking a bot. Codex’s tweets count the number of entries in the database for any one keyword or search term, and consist of that number, the keyword, and a link to the database. Codex tries to keep the format of these tweets consistent, but a close follower would note that the punctuation varies, as does the time of day tweets are posted. Typical examples of tweets by both Trip and Codex are shown in screenshots (Figure 5 and 6).
Figure 5: Tweet about honeyeaters from @AustLitTrip, 23 April 2018, at https://twitter.com/AustLitTrip/status/988349002360832000, accessed 30 April 2018.
Figure 6: Tweet about Windows 10 from @AustLitCodex, 26 April 2018, at https://twitter.com/austlitcodex/status/989760915775016961, accessed 30 April 2018.
Trip tweets more often than Codex: 212 times , compared to 116. This is part of the project design, reflecting Trip’s online friendliness and her highly active persona. In terms of content, both Codex and Trip’s tweets are similar to some of those tweeted from the main AustLit account, although AustLit also tweets material that would not be covered by either Trip or Codex (for example, admiring individual book covers or advertising events). In a sense, each playful account took an element of AustLit’s institutional engagement and amplified it.
As we developed confidence tweeting ‘as’ Trip and ‘as’ Codex, the accounts’ voices became standardised and internally consistent. Codex’s neutral tone in practice achieved a reworking of the millennial flat affect that characterises the success of accounts such as MoonPie, while Trip became ever friendlier through multiple exclamation marks.
Each account established a network on Twitter, a process that was initially slow for both accounts. Trip and Codex do not follow, favourite, or retweet each other: they run in parallel, building their own communities. However, both are regularly retweeted by the same four accounts: @AustLit, the authors’ accounts @Millicent_Weber and @Beth_driscoll, and @PopFicDoctors, the account affiliated with the research project that provided funding for this work.
Trip has more followers than Codex; 101 to Codex’s 61. None of these followers seem to be operating as sockpuppets (deceptive accounts articulating strong opinions), which is perhaps due to the uncontroversial nature of our discussions. While it is possible that some of the follows were bots or prompted by automated functions, these follows appear indistinguishable from those of non-bot accounts — with the possible exception of a pet insurance account that follows Trip.
Despite the niche nature of tweeting from the AustLit database, the accounts’ follower bases do not overlap closely. This suggests that the contrasting voices, styles and personas (dog vs. robot) meant that the two accounts attracted different followings. Although we didn’t gather information on recommendation algorithms, it is likely that such algorithms — for example, people to follow suggestions — treated the accounts quite differently. They share 18 followers. Codex has a further 43 unique followers, and Trip has 88 — between them, a total of 149 unique followers. Some, but not all, of the followers overlap with the authors’ professional networks. The chart shown in Figure 7 shows the overlap between followers of Trip and Codex known (followed) by the authors .
Figure 7: Followers of @AustLitTrip and @AustLitCodex followed by the authors.
Codex’s follower base is primarily literary institutions and scholars. Codex was taken up more quickly than Trip, potentially showing that these accounts are early adopters, but overall has had a flatter growth trajectory for followers, suggesting the limits of this particular milieu. It follows 61 people, and has tweeted 117 times. Drilling down, of its 61 followers, 25 are academic colleagues of the authors, from several different universities. Six are industry professionals; two publishers; and five writers. Seven are Australian literary institutional accounts, including Reading Australia, the academic journal Australian Literary Studies, and the Australian Literary Interface conference. This suggests the existence of a kind of shadow network of institutions. The authors know many of the people tweeting for these institutional accounts, so that what appears to be engagement between institutions is engagement between friendly acquaintances. Codex also has followers who are unknown to the authors personally, who may have discovered Codex via retweets. The existence of new followers shows the potential for Twitter to draw in new people to a scholar’s networks, albeit on a modest scale. Some seem to respond to the playfulness of the project: the im yours (@endlessfeelling) account that followed Codex demonstrates similar deadpan humour, with no other obvious points of connection.
Trip’s mode of playful sociability is more popular than Codex’s, and her 108 followers include both bookish accounts and users with no connection to the literary field, demonstrating more expansive engagement. Two of these followers are spam accounts, which are not visible on the follower list. Trip was initially slower than Codex to gain followers, which we connected with the un-cool enthusiasm essential to Trip’s doggish persona. But Trip found her people. Like Codex, Trip’s followers include some of the authors’ personal connections — 20 academic colleagues — and eight institutional accounts, although these are a different and less academic set of institutions than follow Codex. Australian publishers Allen & Unwin and Text follow and engage with Trip: medium-large independent publishers, both are active examples of the funny bookish business Twitter type. These publishers responded to specific @ mentions, but also seemed to understand and appreciate the social media brand of Trip. There was no engagement with Trip from either multinational publishers or very small micro publishers. 23 writers follow Trip; in contrast, only five follow Codex. There are also many new, non-book-related followers, particularly dog lovers, in Trip’s follower list. It may be that Trip’s dog-oriented profile triggered different algorithmic pathways on the platform, including ‘who to follow’ suggestions. The result is an expanded social network, suggesting that Trip looks out more, beyond a bookish in-crowd. Animals are a perennial internet favourite , and perhaps the animal theme makes Trip more egalitarian and accessible — even though (almost) every one of Trip’s tweets includes a link to the AustLit database.
Beyond followers, which accounts are engaging with Trip and Codex, and what are the patterns that characterise their interactions? Across the board, Trip was more involved in interactions with other Twitter users, and our findings suggest that consistently pushing sociability encourages engagement, whereas content-driven social media accounts receive more sporadic engagement. The pattern of interaction with Codex has always been that some tweets are immediately retweeted and favourited while others are ignored: there is much less conversation than with Trip.
Our first measure of engagement is retweets. Codex has 347 retweets, and Trip has 501. In counting retweets, we note that the authors consistently retweeted both accounts’ conversation-starting tweets (but not replies) in order to boost the signal of the project. Additionally, Trip has more followers, and so potentially more visibility for her tweets. Lastly, Codex tweets relatively regularly, once per day, but does not as a general rule join in conversations. Trip engages in conversations and replies to others — and consequently tweets more frequently. Each of these factors likely contributes to the proportional similarity between the two accounts’ retweets, follower size, and total number of tweets.
Trip is replied to far more than Codex. In our archived datasets, 71 of the tweets that mention @AustLitTrip were replies to someone — that is, they weren’t simply retweets but were someone directly engaging with content, and joining in a conversation. By contrast, only 12 tweets mentioning @AustLitCodex were replies. This indicates that Trip’s account yielded more involved engagement. Trip has gained regular favouriters and retweeters, who now consistently promote Trip’s content. Several accounts also spontaneously direct content at Trip. Generally however, Trip seeks out interactions, eagerly pushing content out to individuals in a targeted way, and getting consistent engagement.
Responses to Trip are positive, sociable, and enter into the shared joke of the bookish dog. They join in conversations, and share both dog- and book- related content. Several tweets that mention Trip are friendly and praise Trip in a generic way, including ‘@AustLitTrip well aren’t you just the best thing on the internet?’ and ‘Hiya Trip, who’s a good boy? (dog emoji)’ . Others praise Trip for her book recommendations: for example, ‘Thanks for the link, I’m loving seeing so many fabulous recommendations!’; ‘I have been enjoying tweets by @AustLitTrip for #wildread #rwpchat — lots of lovely suggestions.’ and ‘Excellent! Much thornbill poetry! 😁’ .
A frequent way Trip is praised is by being called a ‘good boy’. Trip, where gendered by other Twitter users, is always read as male — presumably a result of her being interpreted as one of the Internet’s many popular doggish ‘good boys’. This happens despite our deliberate insertion of female pronouns into Trip’s Twitter bio, and into several of Trip’s tweets. People calling Trip a ‘good dog’ or ‘good boy’ are making fun of Trip in an on-brand way, joining in on the joke. Although Codex is also praised, for example: ‘I’ve just discovered @austlitcodex this is amazing’, the gently patronising second-person tone is reserved for bookish dog Trip .
Other humorous tweets that join in on the joke of Trip tease her for her attitude and ineptitude. For example, ‘Trip, remember that you don’t have opposable thumbs so flying will be trickier for you.’; ‘Absolutely no one tell Trip how this film ends.’ (in response to a comment about Red Dog); and ‘Nobody tell @AustLitTrip, the AustLit kelpie, what happens to the dog in every Colin Thiele novel. He’s a good boy: he doesn’t deserve that knowledge’ . All these tweets are from the official @AustLit account, which provided tonal guidance for others engaging with Trip and amplified the joke.
Other Twitter users joined in conversations with Trip about books. In response to a tweet about eligibility for the new UnderDog prize, literary magazine Westerly commented ‘You would need to clarify that with the editors, @AustLitTrip. They do use the non-dogscriminatory “writers”, so maybe?’, while another user replied to Trip’s question about their book: ‘Hiya. The Ark is set during a post-peak oil crisis in the near future, during which a group of scientists and their families retreat into a bunker tunnelled into Mount Kosciusko. It is a novel-in-documents which tells the story of what happens in the first 2 years in the bunker’ . After Trip shared a tweet from the Children’s Book Council of Australia about Madeline Finn and the Library Dog, another user suggested to Trip, ‘I think we need someone to instigate a library reading program with pups here in Oz and then write a book about that!’ 
By contrast, Codex often gets no engagement. In the initial stages of data collection (January 2018), Codex experimented with using hashtags trending in Australia to inspire its tweets. The most popular tweet produced by Codex was the ‘shithouse’ tweet, which piggybacked on a trending topic and matched it to the AustLit database. The tweet also used unexpected swearing, and gave more detail than Codex usually supplies in its reporting of results. On 15 January, Ben Dreyfuss, Editorial Director at Mother Jones, had tweeted ‘“Shithouse” isn’t a thing people say’, a comment to which other Twitter users, particularly Australians, objected (the tweet has since been deleted). Codex retweeted Dreyfuss’ original tweet with the comment ‘3 results returned in a search for “shithouse” in @austlit, the database of Australian literary culture. 2 from poets and 1 from @Meanjin’ .
An instance where Codex acknowledged the conversations happening around it on Twitter rather than just broadcasting statistics, this retweet was deliberately funny and provocative. It was retweeted and favourited eight times, and prompted three responses: a joke; a comment from AustLit about the nature of the database; and a link to a similar search performed in Trove, a combined catalogue of Australian library holdings and digitised newspapers run by the National Library of Australia. Codex’s tweet about AustLit results for Australian writer Anita Heiss also received unusually high engagement, with four retweets and seven favourites, highlighting the strength of Heiss’ Twitter fanbase and her close ties to AustLit itself .
Trending is a very algorithmic, computational way to generate content — and, apart from the ‘shithouse’ tweet, received minimal engagement. Codex subsequently generated tweets following patterns independent of other Twitter conversations, choosing instead five related topics to tweet about each day of the week. These quirky tweets were still pattern-based, but the patterns were more unexpected. Crucially, the most popular of Codex’s choices about what to promote are those that are odd or otherwise surprising — whether they follow algorithmic patterns, in the case of the ‘shithouse’ tweet, or in this quirkier slow-burn way, such as a five-day series of tweets about days of the week, computer operating systems, regional Australian towns or saint’s days. Because this content is sometimes shown to some people and sometimes not, an irregularity enhanced by the opportunistic and ad hoc signal boosting of organisations like AustLit, the audience for a regular and periodic series of tweets is in practice vastly different for each individual tweet. The patterning thus becomes increasingly absurdist, tapping into the periodicity and contemporaneous nature of how Twitter content is accessed, while simultaneously drawing attention to the ways in which Twitter’s algorithms force breaks with its own conventions.
Due to their flat tone, Codex’s tweets offer a blank slate for inscription by other accounts and individuals — AustLit and other institutional and personal accounts regularly riff off Codex’s comments about the proliferation or lack of Australian literature on a particular topic. Thus while Trip facilitates sociability by forcing connections between specific individuals and books, Codex enables more open kinds of creativity — remixes, threads, and jokes — that reflect the observed ‘producerly’ qualities of media texts that drive fan engagement , and support practices of ‘produsage’ that characterise participation in new media environments (Bruns, 2008).
Other engagement echoes Codex’s own authoritative tone. The official AustLit account, for example, commented on 5 March 2018: ‘Have you checked out @austlitcodex? It’s so compelling seeing the database contents exposed from the outside like this’ . This tweet explicitly recognises producerly potential in what Codex is doing (‘it’s so compelling’). It also privileges the content-heavy nature of Codex’s tweets (‘the database contents’), and recognises the function of Codex’s objective-ish patterning work (it ‘expose[s] the contents from the outside’).
Playful, humorous Twitter accounts can mediate engagement with cultural as well as corporate organisations. Our aim in this article was to consider how different social media voices might produce different kinds of audience engagement with humanities data. @AustLitTrip and @AustLitCodex played with voices and registers in sustained and peculiar ways to reframe and promote a formal institution, the AustLit database of Australian literature. Engagement with both accounts was modest, unsurprising considering the niche constitution of the communities within which they were operating, as well as the fact that interacting with these accounts required people to simultaneously navigate competencies with books, Australian literary culture, databases, social media, and humour. Nevertheless, each account developed its own distinct network of ‘friends’ and mode of social media engagement, suggesting the potential for different and innovative accounts to be used to develop new audiences for literary institutions like AustLit.
The increasing use of humour on Twitter, as explored through our practice-led ethnography and our survey of corporate and cultural accounts, raises questions about the way that Twitter users perceive officially authorised humorous accounts. Do users expect playful social media accounts to be authorised rather than rogue or undermining? Is there a potential for resentment to be generated by the prevalence of funny corporate or institutional Twitter; do these kinds of accounts play into a history of corporations stealing their customers’ ‘cool’ to sell products? These questions suggest the usefulness of a study that engages directly with these accounts’ followers, in order to better understand how their audiences are constituted and how they conceive of funny Twitter.
The prevalence of corporate accounts and official brands co-opting funny Twitter for promotional reasons also means that Twitter humour is always less niche than it appears. Social capital operates on Twitter in very public ways: unless accounts are locked down completely, followers and the amount of engagement tweets receive are publicly visible. Unlike Facebook, there are no explicitly demarcated ‘groups’ in which only members can converse and share content, and following is often one-way rather than mutual. Together, these features of sociability on Twitter mean that even apparently niche accounts have a public audience. Nonetheless, conventions of discourse, persistent hierarchies of value, familiarity with culturally powerful institutions such as universities and prize-giving bodies, and shared affinities like humour can create the experience of a small community.
There are pitfalls for those trying to use Twitter to be playful. Humour is usually risky, and on Twitter, this risk-taking is public. Even if the danger — as with Trip and Codex — is simply that no one will like the content shared, this is still a very public unpopularity. Some humour falls flat, missing its target audience; in the 7-Eleven example discussed above, the shared trust that enables enjoyment of humour was lacking. Do these risks mean that there is less incentive for institutions to use social media creatively?
We suggest that while these risks should be borne in mind, and ethics and inclusivity should be considered, humour is a powerful tool on Twitter, particularly for cultural institutions. Humour on social media can be savvy marketing, a demonstration of cultural or social knowledge, and consequently an indicator of status within or affiliation with particular groups. It can be a community-creating exercise; or, conversely, cut across or work against existing communities or conversations. Satirical twitter accounts can respond to broader commercial environments and imperatives in cultural ways, and much humour also operates as a pleasure in its own right. The dynamics of debate on Twitter may often feel aggressive and exposed, but the warmth and appeal of some funny accounts — including our own creative interventions Trip and Codex — demonstrate one route to positive online cultural discussions.
About the authors
Millicent Weber is a Lecturer in English at the Australian National University. She researches the intersections between live and digital literary culture, and is the author of Literary festivals and contemporary book culture (Palgrave, 2018).
Direct comments to: millicent [dot] weber [at] anu [dot] edu [dot] au
Beth Driscoll is Senior Lecturer in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne and the author of The new literary middlebrow: Tastemakers and reading in the twenty-first century (Palgrave, 2014). Her current research includes the Australian Research Council Discovery Project, “New Tastemakers and Australia’s Post-Digital Literary Culture”, as well as a forthcoming short monograph on bestsellers and the Frankfurt Book Fair to be co-authored with Claire Squires.
This research was supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grant DP160101308. The authors would also like to thank the staff at AustLit for their ongoing support of our research.
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3. Honeycutt and Herring, 2009, p. 1.
4. Myer, 2000, p. 310.
5. Meyer, 2000, pp. 328–329.
6. Shifman, 2007, p. 24.
7. Dawkins, 2006, p. 192.
8. Wilkins, 2014, p. 200.
9. Frow, 1995, p. 86.
10. All final follower statistics for this article are taken from 3 May 2018.
11. Ziegler, 2017.
12. For example https://twitter.com/ComfortablySmug/status/981167134154764288.
13. Driscoll, 2013, p. 104.
14. Nolan and Dane, 2018, p. 156.
15. Available at https://twitter.com/text_publishing/status/950510192717791232.
16. Nolan and Dane, 2018, p. 157.
17. Available at https://twitter.com/avidreader4101/status/879269494396301312 and https://twitter.com/avidreader4101/status/879285644547178496.
18. As well as SHARP Ice Cream, discussed below, examples include @IndPubConf, @ouchSHARP, and @Lit_DeFace.
19. For example https://twitter.com/madisonblegh/status/888845877120512000.
20. Shifman, 2007, p. 205.
21. Driscoll and Squires, 2018.
22. Knowles and Cole, 2008, p. 33.
23. All statistics about Trip and Codex, as with follow statistics for other accounts, were finalised on 3 May 2018.
24. At the time of writing, @Millicent_Weber has 444 followers and @Beth_Driscoll has 1,072 followers.
25. Shifman, 2007, p. 204.
26. Available at https://twitter.com/KatieRowney/status/941118604912635904 and https://twitter.com/AllenAndUnwin/status/941086582265675776.
27. Available at https://twitter.com/KerriNTurner/status/971557675543625728; https://twitter.com/ellenforsyth/status/968418232825606145; and, https://twitter.com/ThoraiyaDyer/status/958195177633411072.
28. Available at https://twitter.com/claresmillar/status/974145732306354176.
29. Available at https://twitter.com/AustLit/status/960996762918928384; https://twitter.com/AustLit/status/941472656427163648; and https://twitter.com/AustLit/status/941076540539863040.
30. Available at https://twitter.com/WesterlyMag/status/971541353552216065 and https://twitter.com/AnnabelSmithAUS/status/960763711022514181.
31. Available at https://twitter.com/KayOddone/status/953554215229521920.
32. Available at https://twitter.com/austlitcodex/status/953430291053363200.
33. Available at https://twitter.com/austlitcodex/status/938647272807469056.
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Received 25 October 2018, revised 12 February 2019; accepted 12 February 2019.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Playful Twitter accounts and the socialisation of literary institutions
by Millicent Weber and Beth Driscoll.
First Monday, Volume 24, Number 3 - 4 March 2019