We’ve heard a lot over the last few months about how first-term Bronx congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uses social media. She is, Inc. magazine proclaims, “the Queen of Digital Emotional Intelligence”; in February, the Guardian wrote, she “beat everyone at Twitter in nine tweets.” On Twitter and Instagram she is casual, punchy, and intimate, adept at moving through multiple contexts to engage her audience and communicate her ideas. She sounds, you might say, like a “native” — someone fluent at and comfortable with using social platforms to communicate.
The implication of the coverage is generally that AOC is better at social media than other politicians. Like, say, Joe Biden, who announced his candidacy for president yesterday in a tweet that evinced none of the qualities that tend to be praised in AOC’s posts:
Grasping at gravitas but undermined by the banality of its sentiments and irregularity of its punctuation, Biden’s tweet fails at displaying either the casual intimacy or the barbed intelligence that make AOC’s tweets so engaging to her followers. Instead, it’s a perfect example of the kind of post that appears frequently on the subreddit r/OldPeopleFacebook: a bathetic blend of intense feeling and vapid ideas communicated amid total context collapse in what might be gently described as an orthographically and grammatically unorthodox style. (To put it in Twitter power-user terms: *makes Italian-chef-kissing gesture*.)
These posts are often called “boomer posts,” after the generational cohort from which they most frequently appear, but they’re not limited to boomers. (Biden, born 1942, is technically of the “Silent Generation.”) I prefer to call them “balloon-background” posts, because on Facebook (where older people seem to predominate) they tend to be accidentally posted with the “fun” background banners (as memorialized in a brilliant Twitter thread here):
Social-media natives like to make fun of “Old People Facebook,” because it lacks the qualities that they associate with being “good” at social media: Expertise at navigating context, proficiency with multiple layers of irony, and an ability to register and communicate tone over text. If you’re a power user, you are likely to prize an essentially protective sense of self-awareness and sophistication that’s totally lacking in the social-media world of baby-boomers and balloon backgrounds. The posts above — unselfconscious, unironic, naïve, and accidentally revealing of weakness — seem obviously “bad,” and Biden’s tweet similarly embarrassing. No wonder AOC “beat everyone at Twitter”!
But to suggest that AOC is “winning” Twitter because she is good at communicating with casual intimacy and deft humor would be to take a strongly prescriptivist view of social media. AOC may be fluent in a particular grammar of Twitter, but there are other grammars that are no less successful — like, say, that of the president of the United States of America. Trump is not quite, to my mind, a balloon-background poster (as in so many things, he is sui generis), but he is dabbling in an adjacent style, and his willful disdain for rules of grammar, punctuation, context, Twitter threading, and propriety is both “bad” by the rules of the power user and undeniably successful.
Which is what makes the Joe Biden campaign’s apparent intent to balloon-background post its way to the Democratic nomination so interesting. Biden has, presumably, invested in a professional social-media team, but his opening tweet projects a kind of haplessness, if not total cluelessness. Did he overrule their advice (“Use a Drag Race GIF!”) to tap it out himself? Did he see an original draft and insist they delete some spaces in order to make it seem more boomer-y?
Or did the team decide that Biden’s social-media brand is going to be “balloon background”? In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s Twitter presence was widely mocked (by natives, at any rate) for its attempts at mimicking the power-user form that AOC has managed to deploy so effectively on her own account. The core complaint was about authenticity: Who could believe that Clinton was tweeting Mean Girls GIFs to dunk on Donald Trump when, as a baby-boomer, she’d be much more likely to be posting the single word “banana,” presumably accidentally, on top of a gradient background? Biden may look very silly to Twitter sophisticates with his attempted solemnity interspersed with odd ellipses and double hyphens. But no one can say it’s not how a 76-year-old would post.