Twitter obeys a certain kind of gravitational law. When large bodies move through it, accumulating likes and retweets, they create waves in the gravitational field of your news feed. Smaller bodies are caught up in their wake. A reply to a celebrity or a brand can drag off its parent’s popularity for hours, collecting nearly as many likes and retweets, forming a small planetary system of its own.
There are few Twitter bodies larger than Kanye West, and none with orbits more erratic. When, on Tuesday, he unexpectedly and enthusiastically expressed a belief in the innocence of accused rapist Bill Cosby — “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” — he seemed to pull all of Twitter with him. (West has been frantically tweeting in the run up to his runway show, which you can see images of here.) The replies to his tweet are endless; the feelings expressed innumerable: castigation, disbelief, anger, confusion (and I’m only listing what was being expressed through GIFs of Tyra Banks). And then there was this: “@kanyewest I just masturbated with a cucumber and put it in the fridge by accident 😳 my dad is eating it.”
This tweet — we’ll call it the Cucumber Tweet to save time — seems to have struck a nerve. I reached Rick, the Colombian college student who tweeted it, over Twitter direct message (I’ve added punctuation and capitalization to his quotes for clarity) and asked what he expected from his tweet. “Nothing, LOL,” he told me. “Just 20 RTs.” Instead he got 3,000. And nearly 5,000 likes. And 600 new followers. And a multitude of replies, which he gleefully tweeted out over the course of the evening. “Most told me that I need Jesus and ‘WTF that’s disgusting,’” Rick wrote. “A lot of guys DMed me this: ‘You can do whatever you want with my cucumber.’” The tweet, by Twitter’s own metrics, has been seen 1 million times.
The practice of tweeting vulgar replies to celebrities and top accounts on Twitter and Instagram is a phenomenon that is well-known but little-understood. Beneath nearly every tweet or Instagram photo sent from a celebrity is a litany of fantastically crude come-ons, ranging from the direct and imperative (“fuck me daddy”) to the peculiar and narrative (the cucumber tweet), creating a category of response rivaled only by the infamous “come to Brazil.”
To some extent, the crude-celebrity-reply comment game is driven by humor. In September, Broadly’s Monica Heisey interviewed the teens who tweet “fuck me daddy” at the pope: “I do it mainly because it’s funny but also as like a social commentary?” one told her. “It’s just for the fun of it,” said another. Rick was similarly unforthcoming: “I did it bc is funny lol.”
I tend to sympathize with the view that tweeting rude things at famous people is, well, stupidly funny, in that stubbornly incomprehensible way teen pranks often are. But it’s also an attention-getting strategy. “People who do this are called ‘trolls,’ and they do it out of humour, and just want everyone to see,” a London teenager named Dilan told me. “By getting top reply, [a tweet] will get lots of RTs.”
Dilan, an influential fan (she has nearly 50,000 followers) of Lady Gaga and the English girl group Fifth Harmony, is the original author of the cucumber line, which she first tweeted back in August. Not prevalent or well-known enough to be properly called a meme, the cucumber line is nonetheless a repeated reply line: It appears on Twitter in replies to Rihanna and Ed Sheeran, among others. Rick, who says he lives and attends college in Bogotá, told me he first saw it on the account of a “mutual” — a Twitter friend — who no longer uses Twitter.
Rick and Dilan are both Twitter power users, but of a sphere that rarely intersects with the more commonly covered power user of the media or tech industries. Rick spends “like five hours” a day on Twitter (“but I’m always on”), which he uses to “stalk” his “idols” — the pop singers Zayn Malik, Ariana Grande, and Selena Gomez. Dilan, who’s “mainly on Twitter” but also uses YouTube and Instagram, says she spends most of her time on Twitter if she has nothing else going on. “I’m honestly boring 😜,” she wrote me.
Except on Twitter, I guess. I asked Dilan what she made of her crude joke’s success. “I guess people just want to be me,” she said. Twitter is competitive, the celebrity-reply game doubly so. Tweet-stealing, Dilan says, is “very common.” It burns her that an obscene tweet of hers from last year (11 RTs, 28 likes), was repurposed into a hugely successful celebrity reply. When you live by attention, you die by it, too. “People lack originality,” she told me, “and I deserve more credit.”
But credit, ultimately, isn’t worth as much as 3,000 retweets. If “come to Brazil” springs from the democratizing impulse of social media — the ability of the fan to connect directly to his or her hero — the cucumber tweet is the natural outgrowth of metrics-focused attention economy. If you want people to see you, there’s no better way to do so than with creative obscenity adjacent to a celebrity tweet, like a nude cyclist drafting off a semitrailer truck. And a certain kind of attention matters most. Dilan told me that there was, maybe, another reason to catcall celebrities on social media: “So they” — the celebrities — “can see it (maybe).”
I asked her if she had anything else she wanted to say to the readers of nymag.com. “Tell them to follow me,” she said.