On Drunk Tweeting

I’m re-posting this because I get regular emails from people asking for tips on how to create something like Drunk Hulk on Twitter. This is the closest thing I’ve written on the subject and it might point you in the right direction. 

Back in May I was invited to participate in Social Media Day, an event sponsored by Wroclaw International, where I was asked to speak about my experiences with Twitter and the success of Drunk Hulk. After listening to intelligent and knowledgeable professors and business people discuss the advantages and disadvantages of social media, the audience had the opportunity to listen to a bumbling American discuss the challenges of pretending to be an inebriated green man in purple pants on Twitter. Luckily for them, I left my Hulk hands at home.

I’ve been asked a few times by some of the people present for copies of my presentation, and I thought this would be a nice opportunity to share some of it here with you all. Especially since I’ve received wonderful emails asking me for advice on how to get a similar following.

Now, I don’t want to pretend that I’m an expert on social media or tweeting. I feel that there are many, many other people on Twitter who do this better than I do – as proven by their number of followers (I’m aware that the number isn’t necessarily a reflection of quality, but there are those out there who are doing amazing work with a gigantic and well-deserved following). And if people saw how low-tech I tend to be in the Real World, they’d understand that I’m really just an unfrozen caveman. Your virtual world with your bings and tweets and youtubing and googles frightens and confuses me!

I’m also aware that the initial success of Drunk Hulk involved a lot of luck and timing. On top of that, being Drunk Hulk carries a lot of disadvantages, such as 1) some people’s inability to deal with tweets written in ALL CAPS; 2) some people’s inability to deal with poor grammar; 3) an incorrect perception that a humor/parody feed has no value on Twitter; and 4) an apparent over-saturation of Hulk feeds on Twitter.

These are some of the observations I’ve made over the course of the last three years as Drunk Hulk…

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In 2010, the average Twitter user had 300 followers and followed 173 people, and only 20% of Twitter users used the actual website. This means that most people are engaging on Twitter with their mobile devices, and those screens are small. On top of that, people’s tolerance for scrolling down, especially with a phone, is fairly limited. This means that if people miss the tweet when it’s initially posted, there’s a very high chance that it’ll be missed all together.

This is why I generally write tweets between 15:00-23:00 GMT+1 here in Poland, which makes it 9:00-17:00 EST in the States – this is where most of my audience is. This is when that 20 minute window allows the most sunshine in the room.

Remember, tweeting is one of the most ephemeral ways of communicating. It’s just a bunch of us screaming at the top of our lungs in the dark.  So pay attention to who your audience is and when they’re usually online. Once you have that figured out, tweet during the hours that will allow the most people in that audience to hear what you have to say. Timing is everything.

During Social Media Day, someone asked why Twitter isn’t popular in Poland and I thought the answer was pretty obvious: it’s hard to communicate in a language as loquacious as Polish in 140 characters or less. English is more malleable and playful and can provide a tweet with a lot of density in the right hands. I don’t think it’s accidental that the most successful feeds in Poland either go back and forth between Polish and English or use the latter exclusively.

I’m also a big believer in Warren Ellis’ burst culture. In fact, a large part of my MA work took a hard look at burst culture, and I’m now reconsidering some of those ideas with my PhD work. I had Ellis’ ideas in mind when my friends and I created euphiction. I believe that narrative bursts (whether we’re talking fiction, music, YouTube clips, etc), rather than being limited or underdeveloped compared to longer works, create new avenues of communication and exploration that can’t be achieved any other way. A tweet can be just as explosive as a novel and can stay with a reader as successfully as any short story can.

A tweet is short, obviously, but in a burst culture even 140 characters can feel overwrought. Whereas a blog post or a short story is a machine gun that’s shooting so many bullets that one is bound to hit the desired target, a tweet is a single shot.

A short tweet (especially using half the allotted characters) can be read faster and it usually helps establish momentum for someone to RT it. That said, this is one of the most important things I’ve learned: a lot of people don’t know how to RT. Some people like to cut-and-paste. Some people want to add a comment or emoticon.

The first rule I gave myself with Drunk Hulk was this: never tweet more than 126 characters. I did this for three reasons – 1) to make the writing more challenging; 2) to help keep the tweets short; and 3) to make it easier for those who RT.

For the cut-and-pasters out there, they’re going to take a 125 character tweet like the one on the left and add “RT @DRUNKHULK” which automatically adds 14 characters. If the tweet is longer than 126 characters and this happens, they might be inclined to abbreviate or edit the tweet (which happens), but more than likely – seeing that there’s work involved – they’ll simply not RT and move on to other things.

More importantly, people love to comment on the tweet. Whether it’s something simple like lol or :) or something more complicated like I hate Drunk Hulk with all my heart or I bet the guy who writes Drunk Hulk is sexy. If they can’t share what they want to communicate along with the RT, they might not RT at all.

The most successful Drunk Hulk tweets tend to be the ones where he’s reacting to something happening in real time. One that comes up again and again is when Drunk Hulk announced that Gaddafi had been killed. Out of blind luck, Drunk Hulk happened to be one of the first people to announce the death on Twitter. Even Anthony Bourdain admitted that he “gets all of his breaking news via Twitter, and learned about Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi‘s death in 2011 via the oddball/awesome account @DRUNKHULK.”

More recently, Drunk Hulk was one of the first feeds to announce the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Obamacare. In fact, I managed to tweet the correct decision before CNN and FOX News did, and I was some guy sitting in front of a computer in Poland with two jokes ready depending on which decision was made. The same can be said when Drunk Hulk announced Tom Cruise’s divorce.

If you react to something that’s happening in real time, especially with a dose of humor, your followers will do the rest of the work for you. No one’s really interested in your thoughts to something that happened yesterday, especially on Twitter. People love to be the first in their social circle to announce news, especially when it’s bad news. RTing breaking news from Drunk Hulk helps them to accomplish that.

This is something that took me a lot longer to figure out than it should have. People love it when you respond to them on Twitter. It’s so gloriously simple that I think most of us don’t realize it. Now, I don’t respond to everyone, but when there’s an opportunity to reach out, I try and take it. People are adding and dropping feeds all of the time, and if they’ve had a connection with you – no matter how brief – they’re more than likely willing to keep following you.

Twitter isn’t a place where you can expand on your mind-blowing ideas. That’s what therapy is for.

While Twitter has a lot of useful advantages, it’s most successful trait is its ability to communicate humor. Comedians like Steve Martin have exploded on Twitter and I think a lot of it has to do with the simple fact that their humor was basically tweeting long before there was such as thing as Twitter (I mean, why isn’t Steven Wright a Twitter superstar? His jokes have been waiting decades to be tweeted).

Most people on Twitter are sitting at work, running errands they don’t want to do, or stuck in a day they wish was over already, and if you can make them laugh with one sentence, you’re providing them with a priceless gift.

This is why it amazes me that so many talented writers and artists use their feed as a platform to complain about everything. I get that people have a bad day now and then, but if your default setting is miserable, you might find Twitter to be a lonely place. Why would I want to read your book or listen to your music if your Twitter feed can’t provide me with anything remotely positive? On Twitter, you are what you sell.

Make people laugh and they will follow. And on top of that, they’ll consider what you want to sell because they already feel like you’ve given them something. They’re not just buying something from you, they’re paying you back for what you gave them.

Despite what I said above, please remember that humor is a point of view. This means that if you’re cracking a joke about politics or religion, half the room is laughing and half the room isn’t. It’s impossible to write a joke about either of those subjects without losing half your audience. There is no universal laugh. When I make an Obama joke, people complain that they didn’t realize Drunk Hulk was Republican. When I make a Romney joke, people are turned off that Drunk Hulk is a crummy liberal. Many of the jokes I’ve made as Drunk Hulk have attacked people, ideas, institutions and more that I fully support or believe in. The biggest difference between me and the audience I offend is that I’m not afraid to laugh at myself.

A celebrity or politician is a shortcut to make a point. I tend to take a shot at whoever is in the spotlight that will best serve the joke. If I did the joke last week, it probably would’ve been someone else. Yesterday’s Hilton is tomorrow’s Kardashian. It’s never personal.

So if you’re on Twitter to sell something, remember that humor is one of the best ways to connect with people, but it’s also one of the easiest ways to lose them. I’m not asking you to neuter your material or become Twitter’s answer to Leno, I’m telling you this because when the complaints start coming in (and it’s inevitable), you have to step back from it and not take it personally.

While we’re on this subject, when you eventually get tweets from people attacking you, your pride will convince you that the best course of action is to respond. Ignore your pride. This might be the hardest thing in the world to do, I know, but if you engage in an argument with someone on Twitter you. will. never. win. You will never create the perfect insult that will make that person cry and stop. You will never tweet a statistic that will change that person’s political/religious belief. You will never have a fight on Twitter and come out looking good. If you really want to upset or annoy someone who attacks you on Twitter, simply ignore that person. I promise you that will do far more than anything you can write in 140 characters or less.

Oops. </soapbox>

This might be the most important part. Look, you’re probably on Twitter to sell something. It could be something you made or you could be selling yourself (we all want to be liked, after all). I think everyone implicitly understands this.

I’ve spent a long time online trying to get people to read and/or buy my stories and books which basically amounted to “Look at me! Please! For all that’s holy! Look at me!” And while I tried a lot of different approaches, most people could see right through what I was trying to do. Basically, I started blogs and Twitter feeds for all the wrong reasons.

With Drunk Hulk, I never expected it to be anything but a quick distraction. I never planned to be working on it for a week, let alone three years. I know it’s probably a coincidence, but I like to think that one of the reasons why it blew up was because I was sincerely having fun. And it still is fun. I don’t think I’ve had such a good time with any of my writing until Drunk Hulk came along. And like I mentioned in my TEDxWarsaw talk, it’s taught me to have fun with all of my writing, not just when I’m working in ALL CAPS.

Drunk Hulk changed my life. All because I was trying to have some fun instead of frantically worrying about how I can get readers to check out my work. And the reality is, people are now reading my stories, more than ever before. Not because I begged them to, but because they enjoyed my having fun.

And that’s what I’m going to sign off with. Make yourself happy first and the rest will sort itself out. Because when you focus on having a good time, you’ll find yourself far less disappointed in life. And when an opportunity happens along the way, it’s a beautiful bonus, like when the bartender surprises you by saying, “It’s on the house.”

- All Drunk Hulk images by @BECKintl.

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