The best Twitter is when everyone on Twitter unites and points their 140-character-typing fingers at something together. Something sad, something funny, something gross. Doesn’t matter: Twitter is built on collective, rolling commentary. But Twitter is so large — and so easy to use — that as you crank out fire tweets and memes about presidential candidates, world events, and the Kardashian family at large, you’re more likely than ever to come across someone (or more than one someone) who’s already made the joke you are planning to make, creating a blurry line between stolen content and minds that truly just happened to think alike.
About a year ago, a few of my friends and then-colleagues were discussing the phenomenon after the New York Stock Exchange went down and people started flooding Twitter with variants on the the same joke: “Glitch better have my money,” a groan-inducing pun on Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” When a joke that bad becomes ubiquitous across Twitter, it seems unlikely that mass joke-theft was the culprit: Instead, a whole bunch of people came up with the joke at roughly the same time and sent their tweets out into the world.
My friends Caroline Moss of CNBC and Melissa Radzimski of the Huffington Post gave it a name. They called it “tweet-saming.” (Pronounced like “tweet-shaming,” but without the “h.”)
The same thing happens in real life all the time — two or more people come up with the same joke. It’s just that until the advent of Twitter, we didn’t have real-time access to the most basic thoughts, feelings, and punch lines of hundreds of millions of other human beings. Your one-on-one conversations now include the entire world, and jokes that would have had an audience of “everyone in the room” now have a potential audience of “every person on Twitter.” Add to this the fact that tweeting requires no effort, and that there’s no social punishment for a failed joke the way there might be in person, and you’ve found a perfect environment for millions of people to try out the first joke that comes to their minds — which often happens to be the same one.
If you Google “everyone on Twitter made the same joke,” you’ll see plenty of tweet roundups of people making wholly unoriginal comments. Singer Lesley Gore died and the Twitter collective replied with an endless stream of “it’s my party and I’ll die if I want to” jokes. Hodor, um, well, something happened to Hodor on Game of Thrones a few weeks back and everyone and their computer-savvy mother tweeted pictures of the character taped over their offices’ elevator buttons. The Czech Republic contemplated a name change to the tune of a zillion “Czechia-self before you wrechia-self” tweets. The list goes on and on.
Just this week, after Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, Democratic strategist and writer Laura Olin tweeted this celebratory meme, depicting every president in history using only emoji. The string of 43 old-white-man emoji juxtaposed next to just one man of color and one woman quickly went viral, with over 5,000 retweets.
But as Olin’s tweet spread, similar emoji-laden tweets started cropping up from people claiming the joke as their own. As Caitlin Dewey noted at the Washington Post, some of these tweets likely were copycats, but Olin later tweeted that she thought “there were a few alt versions of this that weren’t stolen (like @JuddLegum’s) but legit minds-thinking-alike-ing.” Read: Olin and Legum tweet-samed.
Tweet-saming is like a small-scale cyber version of simultaneous invention, the idea that things can be discovered and invented (or in this case, tweets can be tweeted) by independent people at approximately the same time. The case of Elisha Grey and Alexander Graham Bell, two men who both filed patents for the telephone, is an oft-cited example. (Bell filed first, by about a day, and was ultimately awarded the patent and the honor of becoming the father of the modern-day phone.)
As with Bell and Grey, but on a much, much more prosaic scale, Twitter jokes often come down to timing. If you get your joke out there first, you get, for better or worse, to claim yourself as its owner. (This spring, when Instagram changed its logo, I tweeted a joke likening the new look to a Microsoft PowerPoint slide and my mentions and comments included numerous people saying they had thought or said the exact the same thing. They just hadn’t tweeted it.) By this logic, the second, and fifth, and 23rd person to tweet a joke becomes the Twitter equivalent of that dude who almost invented the telephone: Smart, but not the guy history remembers. When the history of Twitter is, uh, written.
So tweet fast, tweet originally, and maybe get yourself a friend, a rabbi, or a justice of the peace to bear witness and lend credibility to your particularly fire tweets. But whatever you do, please, please, don’t knowingly steal someone’s joke and claim it as your own. We live in a post “CTRL-F” economy, and if you are caught you fully deserve to be tweet-shamed. The one with the “h.”