FLIP THE BIRD
Whimsical and Annoying Viral Questions Are Taking Over Twitter
Question tweets have proliferated on Twitter, interesting brands and setting off a backlash.
Unpopular opinion time: What trend has taken over Twitter, inspiring enthusiastic fans and even more devoted haters?
For the past eight months, the answer has been tweets structured just like the question above. They’re open-ended. They’re designed to elicit quick responses. And they’re absolutely everywhere.
Did you believe something dumb as a child, or want to plug a particular album you think has been underrated? Do you have a weird confession that can be converted into favorites and retweets? Then you too can join in the fun.
Here’s how it works. Someone will ask what the biggest rumor at your high school prom was, for example, or about the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in public. Twitter users then rush to answer the question by using the site’s quote-tweet functionality, which embeds the original tweet with a user’s answer.
And voila! Suddenly, yet another viral question phenomenon is clogging up Twitter feeds across the world.
The formula works, in part, because of how quote-tweeting works, according to Alex Taub, the CEO of social media analytics company SocialRank. In order to participate in the question, users usually quote-tweet the tweet to all of their own followers rather than replying directly, meaning that the question spreads more widely.
And boy have they spread. Over the past eight months, according to a Twitter spokesperson, the site has seen a spike in their number of quote-tweets, most of which have been questions. Of the top five most quote-tweeted posts on the site in 2018, four of them were phrased as questions.
The question trend hasn’t gone away in 2019 either. The most quote-tweeted tweet of 2019 so far is another question tweet, a request for “weird confessions.”
The question-tweet craze has been a rare spot of good news for Twitter, which has been beset with investigations into foreign election manipulation, questions about its trouble policing extremist activity and harassment, and the various missteps of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Instead, with each round of viral questions, Twitter can start to look less like a platform for neo-Nazis and disinformation campaigns and more like a place for low-stakes fun. The company is notably eager to promote the question-tweet phenomenon.
“Twitter’s purpose is to serve the public conversation, and Twitter is home to the most interesting and engaging conversations in the world,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement.
The question tweets most resemble posts on Reddit’s Ask Reddit forum, according to Know Your Meme managing editor Don Caldwell. In both cases, people pose open-ended questions in a format that has turned out to be “wildly popular,” according to Caldwell.
The main difference is that Ask Reddit posts are easy to follow, while Twitter question threads can be comically difficult to track.
But the question prompts remain popular, in part because they let Twitter users talk about themselves, often with an added opportunity for self-promotion. A viral question tweet last week, for example, asked Twitter users to tell a story about a job they didn’t get—but then urged them to talk about how it all worked out in the end. The result was a cornucopia of humblebrags.
“It lets people make it about themselves, and I think that’s why it really blows up,” Taub said.
Most of the people behind viral questions tend to be relatively little-known accounts. The Twitter user behind the weird confessions tweet, for example, has less than 1,300 followers. But other Twitter personalities have managed to catch the viral question lightning in a bottle, over and over.
Nicole Cliffe, a co-founder of the now-defunct The Toast, is known for her questions about hot Game of Thrones characters and other pop culture miscellanea. So is Eric Alper, a Toronto music publicist who’s amassed more than 600,000 Twitter followers in part because of his skill at knowing how to ask the questions that people just have to answer. Among Alper’s greatest hits include a question about what job you’d have now if you were doing what 5-year-old you wanted to do for a living (dinosaurs playing baseball, as it turned out).
Alper, who has thought intensely about what makes for a successful question-tweet, keeps a log of his most successful questions and how much engagement they’ve earned.
“Nostalgia questions work really, really well, because it’s not questions that people ask you on a daily basis,” Alper told The Daily Beast. “I find that the ones that everybody can answer if they want to—those are the ones that go viral.”
The viral question phenomenon has also intrigued some brands, which are eager to be featured in the relentlessly positive, nostalgic light of a viral question tweet. Alper says he’s been contacted by brands asking him to plug their products in his questions, although he says has refused the offers so far.
Alper thinks the questions have taken off recently because of how political the rest of Twitter has become since Donald Trump won the White House. People sick of the latest political outrage on Twitter can opt instead to tweet about their favorite flavor of ice cream.
“In the last six months, I’m seeing a lot more engagement, a lot more followers, because they have specifically chosen to have fun,” Alper said. “If I’m able to allow people 30 seconds away from all of that, then I’m quite thrilled.”
As the questions have proliferated across Twitter timelines, they’ve also inspired a backlash. Frequent question-makers are often accused of relying on pandering questions to increase their own Twitter visibility, or just ripping off old AskReddit prompts.
Los Angeles comedian Chris Stephens was looking at his Twitter feed in December when he realized the questions had taken over. They opened with a faux-casual appeal, starting with “Ok Twitter” or “This is crazy, but…”, a tic Stephens attributes to questioners’ embarrassment at stooping to asking viral-ready questions.
After a question went viral, Stephens noticed that the winning questioner would often ask for PayPal donations in a reply to the original tweet.
“That seems like kind of the equivalent of paying someone to say ‘how’s it going?” Stephen said. “It’s just very bizarre, it just boggles the mind.”
The questions’ ubiquity prompted Stephens to cook up some of questions of his own, including “Ok Twitter, who’s the OLDEST man you’ve ever married?”
Despite his annoyance at the questions, though, Stephens doesn’t see them falling out of favor soon.
“It’s people having a conversation and telling stories, technically, to each other. But at the same time it’s making it all about yourself,” Stephens said. “Which I think is perfectly kind of the condensed thing that Twitter is.”