Twitter tempts us with a delicious possibility: that we might find connection with total strangers. On Twitter, we can discover people who share our moral vision—or, at least, our weird tastes in memes. Sometimes it works, and Twitter gives us warm and intimate communities. But Twitter also hands us the perfect weapon to exploit that intimacy: the retweet.
Most of us on Twitter spend our time in some small backwater. We chat with a regular gang, in a space of shared context. We use insider language; we throw around ironies without explanation. Sometimes, Twitter can just seem like a long series of inside jokes.
But Twitter also builds in the tools to rip those inside jokes out of their context, to catapult them far outside their home communities, into distant and unsympathetic eyes. Dunking and shaming often follow. The frequency of context-destruction is no accident. Twitter rewards high-context speech, and then gives us the perfect tool to decontextualize that speech. Twitter is designed to invite our vulnerability, and then punish it.
To understand how Twitter does this, let’s start in what might seem like an unusual place: Ted Cohen’s theory of jokes. Cohen was a philosopher of art and one of the very few philosophers of intimacy. He was also a fiend for jokes. He collected them and, eventually, he gave us a theory of them in his delightful little book, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters.
He doesn’t analyze all humor, just that very specific form we call jokes—the kind with a setup and punch line. For Cohen, jokes run on intimacy. They depend on an assumed connection, and when they succeed, they deepen that connection.
Jokes, says Cohen, have an essential structure. All jokes require that the joke-teller and audience share some background knowledge. And that background knowledge needs to be unstated for the joke to work. A joke will absolutely fail if the teller tries to prepare the audience with an explicit declaration of the necessary background knowledge. We need to be surprised by the sudden emergence of that shared background knowledge, mid-joke.
Here’s an example from Cohen:
The thing about German food is that no matter how much you eat, an hour later you’re hungry for power.
Maybe you laughed. Maybe you didn’t. If you laughed, you did it because you already knew two things: that there is a common (and slightly racist) saying about how Chinese food always leaves you hungry an hour later, and that there is a stereotype that Germans lust for power. And, as Cohen notes, the joke is probably funnier if you believe that this stereotype contains at least some kernel of truth. I certainly would have ruined the joke if I’d tried to prepare you for it: “OK, to get the joke you’re about to hear, you need to know about this old saying about Chinese food…”
Cohen uses this simple observation—about the requirement for shared background knowledge—to make a profound point. Jokes, says Cohen, highlight our connection: our common knowledge, understanding, and attitudes. And jokes don’t just point out that shared background. They trade on it. The basic structure of a joke forces the teller to presume the existence of a shared background. The teller must take a risk, a leap of faith. And when it works—when the audience laughs—then that laughter emphasizes the connection between them. The laughter is a vulnerability redeemed.
Jokes, then, are intimacy pumps. The teller gambles on a presumption of intimacy, and when the joke succeeds, it accentuates that intimacy. The practice of joking highlights the fragility of the relationship: of the teller’s leap and the audience’s catch. Every joke is a trust fall. And every laugh is a direct experience of connection.
And when we actually laugh, our laughter confirms something more than just shared knowledge. It reveals an emotional alignment. We don’t just see the connection; we share the exact sense of humor needed to laugh at it. Says Cohen:
When we laugh together, that is a very special occasion. It is already noteworthy that we laugh at all, at anything, and that we laugh all alone. That we do it together is the satisfaction of a deep human longing, the realization of a desperate hope. It is the hope that we are enough like one another to sense one another, to be able to live together.
This is why jokes are good for building and affirming in-group connections. It also explains why jokes are often put to racist, sexist, and other exclusionary ends. Every time we emphasize the connections of an in-group, we also emphasize their lack with outsiders. Every intimacy is also an alienation.
Twitter, I want to suggest, is a machine made for intimate jokes. The central fact of the medium is its brevity. A single tweet is 280 characters. This is barely enough for a coherent thought, let alone a full story. And the gold standard of tweeting isn’t a thread—it’s a single tweet that does the job all in one.
How could you possibly express the entirety of a complex, rich, or interesting idea, in 280 characters? The answer is: you can’t. It is impossible to pack complete explanations and self-sufficient content into a single tweet. But your tweet can play off some rich shared background. It can gesture at what your audience already knows about you or draw on your shared history. A good tweet plucks at pre-existing strings. A tweet can’t be a whole song by itself—but it can reference, and mash up, a whole bunch of other songs. Twitter often seems like a game of how rich a mash-up you can make, with the fewest words.
And think of the raw joy, when a finely crafted tweet comes off. Consider this gem from January 6, 2021— during the insurrection at the US Capitol during the last days of Donald Trump’s presidency:
This is a perfect gag; it reduced me, and thousands of people like me, to incredulous tears of laughter. But the joke depends on an intricate tangle of background conditions. The audience needs to share a very specific attitude towards the Capitol insurrection. They don’t just need to be against the insurrectionists. For the full effect, they need to be in a specific emotional place: reacting with a simmering sense of incredulity, and a weariness and exhaustion at this particular set of political actors. And they need to believe in the dangerousness of COVID-19 and the idiocy of anti-maskers.
Most importantly, the joke also depends on knowing one specific novelty rap single from 2008 by Das Racist: “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” (That song’s heavily repeated hook: “I’m at the Pizza Hut. I’m at the Taco Bell. I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.”) Das Racist was a brilliant—and profoundly geeky—rap group from Brooklyn, who had a moment of popularity among a particular rap cognoscente. The group radiated a very specific cultural texture: they were multiracial hipsters who struck finely honed balance of hyper-intellectuality, goofiness, and cleverness. And, for fans, the fact that Das Racist scored a hit with this one intentionally stupid piece of stoner-rap silliness offers an especially delicious irony.
Jeong’s joke hit especially hard that day for those of us who were so caught up in the chaotic spectacle of the insurrection that we had entirely forgotten about the pandemic. I myself had been staring for hours at pictures of maskless insurrectionists. I was so obsessed with the political angle of the spectacle that I hadn’t even noticed that they were also engaging in some seriously unsafe COVID-19 practices. Jeong’s tweet made an abrupt connection between these two attitudes.
But the cherry on top, of course, is the callback to Das Racist. There is a satisfying echo: the inanity of the original Das Racist song resonates with the particular brain-melting absurdity of the attempted coup. The deep pleasure of the joke lies in having all those connections go off in your head in a dense, firecracker sequence. But to get that wild firecracker, you need to already be standing at a very precise cultural and emotional confluence.
I was at that confluence. I laughed hysterically and immediately sent the tweet to my friends, who texted back strings of the laugh-cry emoji. And at least 66,900 total strangers also seemed to have laughed with me.
Twitter can’t give you the immediate, visceral experience of in-person laughter. But it gives you access to a very different—and seductive—social pleasure. You hurl an obscure joke into the void. To land, it needs to find a perfect confluence of shared background knowledge and emotional attitudes. But sometimes it all works out, and then Twitter rewards you with likes—sometimes a torrent of likes. Bare acquaintances and total strangers are leaping in to confirm this strange, subtle connection. Every like is a discovery that, at least in this one weird way, somebody else shares this precise set of attitudes with you. People are saying: Here we are, your family, and you didn’t even know we were here. With Jeong’s tweet, it was 66.9K momentarily intimate family members, having the same “realization of a desperate hope”—that we are all profoundly and unexpectedly similar, at this one anxious moment, in this one peculiar way.
A friend of mine once explained his love of fishing this way: You throw your line into a blank bit of water—and then sometimes, your line snaps to buzzing life. A fish appears out of nothing, like magic. The joy of fishing lies in this moment of thrilling, unexpected, thrumming connection. Twitter is fishing for intimacy.
The promise and pleasure of Twitter lies in our hope for finding this sudden, sharp, intimate connection. And this thought can explain why so much of Twitter tends towards comedy, irony, and shitposting. For many of us, the most satisfying use of Twitter’s enforced shortness is to attempt, over and over again, that leap of faith—hoping to fall into comforting arms of a stranger. Twitter, through its brevity, draws out of us acts of vulnerability and intimacy. It forces us to depend on shared background context in order to create richly meaningful tweets.
And then sometimes, it punishes us for our leap.
This part of the tune should be familiar by now. Most of the time, you’re tweeting to your little community. Sarah Jeong’s followers understood, for example, that when she tweeted “#CancelWhitePeople,” she didn’t actually hate all white people. But when you write something in an intimate voice, intended for a specific community, you open yourself to having your words pulled out of context and radically misunderstood. Critics read Jeong’s tweets in a most unsympathetic manner and called for her to be fired.
And the mechanism for context-shredding is built directly into Twitter. It’s the retweets. A couple of unlucky retweets, and suddenly your tweet is splayed across tens of thousands of screens of people who don’t share your background context, who can’t interpret your tweet properly. Jokes are read straight; ironic mockeries of racism are read as actual racism. This kind of thing is so familiar that new media scholars even have a name for it: context collapse. And we know the usual results: misunderstandings, firings, shaming, mob pile-ons. To be sure, not every Twitter pile-on is the result of misunderstanding. Some pile-ons are clear-sighted responses to perfectly legible statements. But many of them involve context collapse.
What Cohen’s theory of jokes shows us is that the frequency of context collapse on Twitter is no accident. You couldn’t build a better engine for context collapse if you tried. It’s not just that we tweeters are all just woebegone idiots, forgetting where we are and accidentally making these context-dependent, vulnerable claims out in public. It’s that Twitter’s basic structure—its shortness, the promise of connection with strangers—draws out of us these vulnerable, context-dependent stabs at intimacy. Twitter is built to reward us for these risky, high-wire walks on the thin strand of shared context.
The heroin-hit joy of connections, on Twitter, depends directly on our having made ourselves actively vulnerable, on our having deliberately flirted with the possibility of misunderstanding. A trust fall is a thrilling drop into a heartwarming catch. But it’s only thrilling and heartwarming if we actually put ourselves in danger. And the more times we’re caught, the warmer and safer we feel, and the further we will walk out on that high-wire.
At some unexpected moment, the other part of Twitter’s mechanisms will kick in. The platform makes it easy for any user to rip something out of context and activate the pleasures of another kind of intimate connection—the gratifications of shared outrage, the intimacy of collective dunking. Twitter incentivizes its users to take trust falls, and then it rewards other users for blocking the catch. Twitter is a technology finely tuned to call forth, and then crush, intimacy.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mistakenly claimed that Sarah Jeong was fired from The New York Times for her tweets. We regret the error.