Meet The Viral Icons Of Twitter

How a community of young joke writers became cult personalities and shared across the internet

Nathan Allebach
8 min readJan 2, 2020

Twitter has evolved into a viral meme factory over recent years, arguably surpassing the old guard of Reddit, 4chan, and Tumblr. Screenshots from those forum and blog sites once populated public platforms like Facebook, but have now been replaced by tweets. The clean, 280 character format is easy to share and lends itself to quick setups that feed our dwindling attention spans, making it a hotbed for content creators who have mostly stayed under the radars of other platforms. The avis and usernames of these creators are constantly aggregated across BuzzFeed-esque lists and Instagram meme accounts for millions to see, but only a fraction of those viewers know who they are since very few seek out meme origins. So who are they, and what part of Twitter did they come from?

Twitter’s culture is amorphous and forms from countless intersecting subcultures. Political Twitter is a 24/7 news driver, Black Twitter is a hive mind for grassroots movements and emergent slang (which gets appropriated into the mainstream lexicon), Brand Twitter is where corporations experiment with bizarrely personified advertising, Weird Twitter is a melting pot of irony-infused-digitally-savvy-anti-corporate-shitposters, Stan Twitter attracts mostly teenage girls who worship stars like Ariana Grande and Shane Dawson, and Gamer Twitter attracts mostly teenage boys who worship streamers like Ninja and CallMeCarson. There’s Sports Twitter, Library Twitter, Furry Twitter, and then… there’s Joke Twitter.

Joke Twitter formed as a subculture dedicated to text-based joke formats, which are often referred to as “dialogue tweets.” Many of the formats originated from Weird Twitter and were fused with obscure humor inspired by early 2000’s blogs and forums like Something Awful. Joke Twitter adapted those formats and added more relatable content, giving them mainstream appeal. The subculture took off in 2012 through a third party app called Favstar (and Favrd before that), which tracked tweet popularity and rewarded creators for popular content prior to the modern usage of Twitter’s “like” and “retweet” functions. This incentivized joke writers to collaborate and innovate new formats for jokes, growing their subculture, personal brands, and spreading their humor style across the platform.

Around 2018, a loosely-connected group of young joke writers on Twitter began snowballing into stardom. They came from different backgrounds with content inspired by both Weird and Joke Twitter, however they differentiated themselves by integrating their personalities into tweets via stream of conscious thoughts, as well as personal photos and videos. Content included topics like depression, relationships, politics, and daily universal mundanities. By doing so they appealed not only to an extremely online base, but to lowest common denominator users as well (sometimes called “Local Twitter”) by being #relatable.

User @roxiqt explained how she got introduced to this Twitter landscape, “I’ve always drawn inspiration from Weird Twitter. @jonnysun is someone that I’ve always looked up to because of the unique way that he’s able to blend humor, absurdity and compassion together.”

But what exactly makes these accounts appealing to millions of people?

Well… @notviking tweets about how Dr. Pepper is a woman and soup. @michaelaokla exposes insane men through SheRatesDogs and has a thing for furbies. @CaucasianJames dances and is in love with Zendaya (although he may have moved on). @BillRatchet is perpetually horny and also a musician. @ehjovan gets banned from Twitter every other week. @shutupaida is raunchy. @roxiqt loves raccoons. @ryanyeetz tweets about bro culture (and now goes by Kelbin). The list goes on. Each one of them has ongoing bits and quirks that attract an audience. Their followers don’t just follow for entertaining content, they follow because they personally relate.

Dozens of these icons have crossed over various subcultures through shared humor. “I met everyone I know now through @ryanyeetz. He was one of the first big accounts to reach out to me and tell me he liked what I was doing.” @holy_schnitt explained.

Not all the icons are friends. There are cliques, beefs, and drama, as with any group, especially since many of them fall in between subcultures. @kobychill went onto talk about his intersecting background on Twitter, “I think I would say I’m a part of a couple communities or groups on Twitter, Joke Twitter, Troll Twitter, Stan Twitter, even Gay Twitter lol. I wouldn’t say I belong to just one group of users.”

Stars from other platforms and subcultures have also joined this community, including ex-viner Sarah Schauer and Brittany Tomlinson AKA “kombucha girl.” The singer of Waterparks, Awsten Knight has entwined his stanbase as well, along with comedian Elijah Daniel. Instagram model and Twitch streamer @DarthLux shares mutuals with them, and so does popular internet culture writer, Helen Donahue. “I think all of our brains are broken in the exact same way” as @holy_schnitt puts it, explaining a common thread between everyone. “It’s a bunch of misfits whose brains only work in 280 character sentences.”

None of these personalities became viral icons overnight. ”I wouldn’t say there was a ‘tweet that started it all’ because truthfully once I figured out a voice that worked for me, the consistency is what built my account” @holy_schnitt described. This is a common theme where each user tweeted jokes for fun and over years of gradual success, they began to mold a unique voice and feel more comfortable in their digital skin. “I never went online to become ‘popular’ nor did I ever want any type of following. I was just online venting and making jokes with my friends” @ehjovan added.

Followers are often drawn into parasocial relationships with these icons where they feel connected and become stans. This is common among reality stars like the Kardashians, but now people are reaching this status through stars on Twitter. It’s a new medium for “fame.”

Some of the icons view followers more as friends than fans. “My relationship with my followers is one of friendship to be honest. They can DM me about whatever and they’re also there for me when I’m feeling down” as @kobychill puts it. @holy_schnitt went into the solidarity she feels from hers: “There’s nothing I love more than getting a DM from a girl who says that I helped her in some way that I never would have thought about just by tweeting about my anxiety or some guy that broke my heart.”

@ehjovan has garnered a unique relationship with his followers as he’s been permabanned from Twitter, creating a Streisand Effect that enhances his popularity. “I think the constant bans and deplatforming just made them appreciate my ‘unique’ and consistent stream of conscious content” he wrote. @sweatyhairy separately went onto share how much he appreciates people who enjoy his jokes, but he also touched on how managing a big profile can take its toll. “I could wake up tomorrow living on a farm with my account suspended and I would probably be happier or more well-off psychologically.”

One of the major downsides of producing content on public platforms is that it’s become culturally normalized to steal it. The legal lines are intentionally greyed so platforms aren’t liable, and people have become so adjusted to consuming mass amounts of content each day that very few consider where or how it’s sourced. These Twitter icons have had thousands of tweets stolen by everyone from tweetdeckers, to curators like The Fat Jewish, to media publications like BuzzFeed and Barstool. “I think when i was growing followers was the coolest shit in the world but it was so much different back in 2012–2015,” @BillRatchet replied. “There were no tweetdecks of all these people ‘cheating’ and inflating numbers and shit like that.”

Awareness to joke theft and creator exploitation culminated with the #FuckFuckJerry movement early in 2019, which was the first time masses of people began understanding the culture-wide problem. “I have a HUGE problem with accounts using our tweets as space to sell ads and make money” @notviking added. Although it persists, more content curators are trying to change the model by asking for consent and giving credit, such as @trigoMEMEtry on Instagram.

Despite constantly being exploited in the unregulated wild west of online, many icons have still monetarily leveraged their accounts. @cottoncandaddy got a job at Funny or Die through her tweets, @PrestoVision got one at Dog Rates due to his viral @awhalefact account, @shutupaida became a co-host on Crooked Media’s Keep It podcast and is now a writer for Big Mouth, @ginadivittorio became a writer at Hinge, and @holy_schnitt got picked up by Barstool. Most of them also sell merch, do sponsored posts, or funnel their followers into Only Fans profiles and other monetary models. “He (@richbrian) was always in our circle of people. before he got huge rapping i’ve always known him just as an internet kid who was making jokes with us which is dope” reminisced @BillRatchet. “I love seeing what this website really has done for a lot of people and how it’s changed lives for some.”

This cult of personality trend isn’t new to the internet. Popular bloggers, YouTubers, Twitch streamers, Vine Stars, and Instagram influencers have existed for over a decade now. What makes these icons unique is the majority of their public personas are created over text memes, which are virally aggregated. Since they’re locked into so many intersecting subcultures of Twitter that are active 24/7, they often set internet culture trends, like @SJSchauer who helped popularize the “weird flex but ok” meme.

Millions of people across the internet have enjoyed the tweets of these creators, yet only a fraction even know who they are, while brands like BuzzFeed and FuckJerry have not only profited off their backs, but built entire click-based advertising models around them. Each of the icons talk about the importance of having followers, not just to benefit their personal brands, but to maintain the value of human connection in a time when people feel more disconnected than ever before. “They are my children and I love them” @notviking confirmed.

To the average content consumer, these might just be tweets, but behind each one is originality, humor, and creativity that deserves to be rewarded, not ignored or exploited.

Interviews conducted over Twitter messages and email

All tweets were used with permission from the creators

I addressed the critique that this story disproportionately features white people and included additional twitter icons here

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Nathan Allebach

writer covering internet culture, advertising, and conspiracy theories