One lesson from one of my creative writing classes that stuck with me came from an interview we watched with an author who was discussing her characters resembling people in her life. She said that when challenged by a friend or family member on whether or not a character is based off of them, especially if they thought it was in a negative light, she would ask “why do you think that?” This would challenge them to look at why exactly they think this character is based off of them, and if it truly is in a negative light, they then have to come to terms with the fact that these may be traits about them that they have to deal with. If there’s no direct reference to a real life person, whether it’s by name or a very specific situation that slanders them, or tries to influence the reader to see them in a specific way, then realizing that the character could be based off of them forces them to think about the impact of some of their behaviors.
I often apply this lesson that I learned when it comes to the phenomenon of “subtweeting.”
For those who don’t know, a subtweet is a post made on Twitter about a specific person on the platform without actually mentioning them. This usually happens when someone is throwing shade, talking down about someone, or being hyper critical. It’s usually seen as petty or vindictive, and is often discouraged.
There have been a few times where I’ve made a tweet about a rising trend I see, usually about a certain kind of problematic behavior people are taking part in (homophobia, sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism, etc.) and if I do make tweets like these, seeing one particular tweet may drive me to tweet about it, but the tweet would, by no means, be directed at one specific person. It’s more like, that specific tweet was a “straw that broke the camel’s back” kind of a thing. Because of this, the attitude I’ve started to take when people ask me if I made a subtweet about them or someone else, it’s usually “no, but if the shoe fits!”
Because, let’s be real: if you feel called out by a post critiquing problematic behavior, then it probably is about you.
But before you start calling out people willy nilly on your Twitter, let’s maybe clarify what could be a subtweet, and what might not be. If your friend tweeted a selfie with a new striped sweater, and you made a tweet that said “wow, a striped sweaters in winter? Groundbreaking,” then you’re definitely participating in a bit of a petty subtweet, there. Someone can easily link that back to you and think “wow, someone’s being a shady little [REDACTED].” Instead of doing a very specific callout in a public setting like that, a better suggestion would be to message that friend and say “we should go shopping so we can add some spice to your wardrobe!” Arguably just as shady as a subtweet, but at least it didn’t become public.
However, if someone tweets about a trending phrase that’s actually more racist than it seems, or they point out that a meme is actually very ableist and probably shouldn’t be used, and you feel called out because you just post that meme earlier in the day…is that really a subtweet? In my opinion, it’s most likely not, because it’s not necessarily just about you now, is it?
And yes, while calling in via direct messages or personal conversations as opposed to calling out problematic behavior with public tweets and comments can be a classier method of education, can you imagine how much work it would take for someone to message every single person they see doing something that’s actually racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.? Wouldn’t it be smarter and more time-efficient to put an educational piece of content out there as opposed to repeating the same thing over and over to what could be a laundry list of people? It’d be one thing if I was actually mocking people who may have done something homophobic without realizing it, but if it’s a simple, informative tweet that says “hey, this thing is problematic” and you feel called out, maybe just think about why you feel called out, and less about how you got called out.
The nature of a subtweet may be different to everyone, as we all have a different threshold as to what makes us feel attacked. Any time I think of a subtweet, I think of a very specific situation being referenced about another Twitter user. Others may think any tweet that could be about them (regardless of the content of the tweet) without specifically referencing them is a subtweet.
My thoughts? If the tweet is a general call-out against problematic behavior or otherwise, and you notice that you may have that problematic behavior, maybe take a minute to look at what you’re actually angry about: was it because you now realized you’ve been in the wrong? Or is it really because you think the tweet is the user personally attacking you, and only you? However, if the tweet is just a little too specific to be a general call-out, especially if it puts you in a light that just isn’t correct, that’s when you can throw around the “subtweet” accusation.
We can use our platforms to make content that calls out problematic behavior without it being only about one particular person. More likely than not, if we’re tweeting about a growing trend in problematic tendencies, it’s probably not just about you.
And if it does happen to be about you? Well…what are you going to do with that shoe that just so happens to fit you so well?