just asking

How Question Prompts Took Over Twitter

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“Why do this?” This is the central question I have regarding Prompt Twitter, a craze sweeping the social media platform. Prompt Twitter is a more shameless, smarmier version of the types of grade-school tricks people use to “randomly” generate funny results — like when kids play MASH or use a scientific formula to determine their porn-star name, (which, as we all remember, is the name of your pet plus the name of the street where you live). Harnessing the power of quote-tweet functionality, Prompt Twitter asks users to answer questions about themselves. Sometimes, the prompts are relatively simple, but the weirdest ones are arbitrarily, unsettlingly elaborate.

The most viral of these prompts are so popular that the person asking them could not possibly read every single response. In Twitter terminology, it “ruins their mentions,” inundating the section of Twitter’s site that notifies users when they receive engagement and replies. So why play the game?

Twitter, the company, has recently taken to being more conversational. The @Twitter account has been chattier, less promotional. The company found that casual questions it tweets out, seemingly unrelated to any peg, led to 14 times more replies than posts pushing brand messaging. It turns out people will often take any opportunity to generate chatter. Maybe that’s why brand accounts like Little Debbie’s are opining on toxic fandom, or Steak-umm’s is helping kids with self-care. People don’t really care if they’re talking to anyone in particular, as long as they get to talk.

For example, one prompt asks, “Do you think you could defeat in physical combat the most famous person who shares your first name, and who is that person?” Which is just a fancy way of asking, “Who’s a celeb with your name?” The latter version certainly sounds less revealing than the former, even though it’s not really any less informative. The magic trick being performed before your very eyes is that Prompt Twitter takes simple facts and givens — your birthday, your first name — and turns them into character traits. Your birthday is not just your birthday, it’s a key to unlocking some incredible anecdote.

The most curious Twitter prompts take simple questions and make them seem complicated, thus making the answers people offer seem insightful. One prompt I discovered yesterday asks users, “A reputable university asks you to teach a class starting tomorrow. You get paid $1 million a year, but you have to be an expert. What can you teach?” A few questions: why is a reputable university hiring me at the last minute? Why does it matter that the salary is $1 million? Obviously, I’d hope a college professor to be an expert in whatever they teach? Again, the only detail that really matters here is the question, “What is your expertise?” But that’s not gonna get engagement. Prompt Twitter is like encapsulated clickbait, gussying up simple concepts in elaborate scenarios, pretending the ordinary is extraordinary. But it’s still simple enough that local Twitter can pop into the app once a day, check the Top Tweets section, and tell everyone what their last text message said.

(This prompt … doesn’t even make sense!!!)

The best prompts are arbitrary, like the ancient tradition of Googling “[your name] the hedgehog.” The current iteration of Prompt Twitter feels, well, indulgent on behalf of both the prompters and those supplying answers. Why does the prompter care what a thousand different people have to say? Why does the answerer want to tell a random person when their birthday is? Prompt Twitter is not an entirely new phenomenon. The conversation starter is an old concept, and even web-enabled tweaks have been around for years.

“I’ve asked similar questions in the past,” Gin, a writer whose recent prompt about horror-movie survival took off recently, told me. “A couple years ago I started posting semi-regular Twitter threads with questions ranging from mundane (What’s your favorite food?) to totally absurd (Would you rather be a reverse centaur or a reverse merperson?), just rolling with it.”

The engagement that these types of tweets generate both snowballs and cobwebs. The more people who like and reply and retweet and quote-tweet tem, the bigger they get, the further up in each algorithmically generated feed they get placed. But the quote-tweet mechanism also means that each person who answers a prompt becomes a new Patient Zero in their own thread, with their own followers, spawning countless arguments and affirmations.

Prompt Twiter is mostly harmless, but it also feels hollow. It’s really about creating a chance to talk about yourself by pretending to respond to someone else. Asked if he actually cared about anyone’s replies to his prompt, journalist Joey D’Urso said, “To tell the truth, not really. It was interesting to observe how very few of the people doing it got any likes or retweets — [Twitter is] just far more interesting when you’re talking about yourself.”

Even with an awareness of this dynamic — quote-tweet answers are more for the answerer’s followers than they are for whoever posed the question — a number of people I surveyed about this trend claimed to be genuinely interested in what people were saying.

“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t want to know. And the responses have been pretty bananas,” journalist Eleanor Penny told me after her prompt about accidental injuries took off.

Kathryn Brightbill, a writer who asked about “on-brand” childhood stories, echoed the sentiment. “It’s been fascinating to watch the tweet spread from country to country and see how, for all of our differences, people had the same kinds of hopes and dreams and interests as kids,” she said.

Most of the prompters I spoke to claimed to care about how people were interacting with their tweets, even as they also admitted that going viral had made their mentions tabs almost unusable.

It’s probably not a coincidence that many of the people posting these prompts — and, at the very least, not not trying to get responses and go viral — are writers or in the media. “I wanted to hear about how people spend their day from their own perspectives, but it is also on-brand with my online presence,” said Yael, whose question about job titles took off.

Jason Kirk of SB Nation told me, tongue-in-cheek, “A team of influence synergists at Jason Kirk Labs determined based on proprietary algorithms that this is the exact question that would get my brand into New York magazine.” Well … it worked, I guess.

Maybe that’s another reason why this trend sticks in my craw a bit. Coming up with these prompts is publicly play-acting inquisitiveness, and going viral (intentionally) on a network like Twitter is obviously a boon for anyone working in media — hesitant though people may be to admit it. But the act of writing one tweet, or asking a single question, or answering it, feels so low-energy (and the downsides of being ignored nonexistent) that it’s also tough to fault anyone individually for taking part. Prompt Twitter is an activity people can participate in in which they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Still, taken as a whole, there’s a film of smarminess and faux niceness over the whole thing. It hints at conversation and intimacy, even though most of Prompt Twitter, when seen over and over again, just feels like signaling.

How Question Prompts Took Over Twitter