The video of a college-age Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing on a rooftop was ostensibly meant to be a takedown. “Here is America’s favorite commie know-it-all acting like the clueless nitwit she is,” wrote the poster, Twitter user @AnonymousQ1776, referring to the congresswoman by the nickname “Sandy” and incorrectly dating the clip to her high school days.
As we all know now, it backfired. “I keep rewatching the @AOC dancing video and can’t find the problem. She’s… having fun? Has friends? Likes music?” tweeted Time journalist Charlotte Alter. Ocasio-Cortez’s cheeky response, posted the next day—a video of herself dancing in front of her new office on Capitol Hill—was shared widely, becoming the congresswoman’s most retweeted tweet within hours. The attempted smear, another user wrote, was the “best self-own of 2019.”
We live in the age of the self-own. Spend enough time on Twitter and you will become familiar with the phenomenon’s telltale signs: enormous ratios, dunking via quote tweets, dozens or even hundreds of users pointing out the original poster’s fatal mistake. It’s the hypercharged equivalent of a social faux pas in which one, say, sets out to pointedly humiliate a co-worker, only to lay bare one’s own assholery for the entire office to see. Online, the self-own follows an established pattern: the cocky assertion, the twist, the pile-on, the humiliated retreat into silence (or, worse, the attempt to argue yourself out of the hole you’ve dug—otherwise known as “doubling down”). A self-own is an act of hubris and aggression: In trying to cut down someone else, you only wound yourself, and the carnage is lapped up by an audience intimate with schadenfreude.
2018 was rife with examples: Andrew Cuomo inadvertently calling himself a liar; MAGA enthusiast Jacob Wohl betraying his own ineptitude when attempting to discredit Robert Mueller (leading to a spike in notoriety that resulted in a self-own aided by Chrissy Teigen); and, in what might rival the Ocasio-Cortez dust-up as the most iconic self-own in recent memory, the Texas GOP inadvertently broadcasting what an actually cool guy Ted Cruz’s opponent Beto O’Rourke was both in his youth and in the present.
Self-owns aren’t just limited to the world of political intrigue, although that’s certainly where some of the most cringeworthy examples are found. Irate men trying to humiliate large corporations by burning their Nikes and throwing Gillette razors in the toilet in response to calculated brand marketing choices? Self-own. Odell Beckham Jr. losing it on the field and punching a sideline kicking net, only to get hit back? Self-own. Elon Musk calling a cave rescuer a “pedo guy” (and later doubling down with the taunt “I fucking hope he sues me”), only to actually get sued for defamation by the rescuer? Self-own.
The self-own did not materialize out of nowhere. Its parent concept “own” has long been a hallmark of internet conflict, stemming from ’90s hacker slang describing the act of cracking open the virtual backdoor of a machine, seizing total control of another person’s property. “Owning someone isn’t just about taking his things; it’s about diminishing him as a person,” Amanda Hess writes in the New York Times Magazine. To own (or to “pwn,” as mid-2000s gamers typed) is to utterly dominate. Attach the prefix self-, and the word becomes humiliatingly reflexive, a lunge that ends in a fall flat on the face.
Self-own first appeared in Urban Dictionary in 2004, but it wasn’t until a decade later that the term began to catch on in mainstream media, beginning, fittingly, with Gawker. The site’s 2015 article “Bobby Jindal Nails Trump With Brutal Self-Own, Flagrant Copyright Infringement” detailed one of the earliest self-own examples in our current golden age: Louisiana’s then-governor attempting to burn Donald Trump by implying that his own campaign was little more than a scam.
“Yes, only a fool would write Bobby Jindal a check,” concurred Gawker’s Ashley Feinberg. Self-owned.
By now, self-owning has become firmly embedded in our online vernacular, describing everything from “social media gaffes to things like errors in political judgment and badly executed recipes,” Merriam-Webster editor at large Peter Sokolowski wrote in an email. It routinely appears in publications ranging from the Guardian to Splinter. Merriam-Webster itself highlighted the phenomenon in a “Words We’re Watching” published in November, defining the concept as when people “try to put themselves in positions where they look smarter than the person with whom they are arguing, only to have it blow up in their faces.”
It’s no coincidence that 2016 appears to have been the real inflection point. It’s hard to imagine an environment more ripe for their propagation than the current state of politics. What distinguishes a self-own from the more quotidian “you played yourself” is the raw aggression of the act; one cannot self-own without trying to own someone else. What characteristic better describes our president? This is a man who openly threatens other nations on social media, explicitly endorses violence against perceived foes, uses his official channel of communication as a dumping ground for insults like “Horseface” (itself a self-own of sorts). Anger, writes Dan P. McAdams for the Atlantic, is “the emotional core around which Donald Trump’s personality constellates.”
Inextricable from the entanglement of politics and the self-own is the role Twitter plays. Trump has proven adept at weaponizing the platform through “age-old dick moves” and the astonishing, likely subconscious, employment of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion, as Hess wrote for Slate in 2016. More than any other politician, he seized upon Twitter’s capacity for bluster, amplification, and collective pleasure in someone else’s humiliation. Owning others on Twitter is a strategic move—that’s how you gain clout and followers. It’s how you win the game.
But, of course, not everyone can win. The obvious losers are those who get owned, and the shame burns exponentially hotter when the ownage is self-inflicted—theoretically, at least. While self-owns occur on both sides of the aisle (here’s Ben Shapiro on Elizabeth Warren), scrolling through the Twitter search results for “self-own” surfaces a greater number of leftists and #Resistance types gleefully skewering conservative figures’ self-owns and obtuse attempts to “own the libs” (Dinesh D’Souza, Donald Trump Jr., Kaitlin Bennett, 4chan). Even Trump himself continually self-owns, lashing out petulantly and putting on displays of dominance and wealth that he intends to shame his opponents—yet that seem, not only to those opponents but to ostensibly politically neutral corporations, utterly pathetic.
Nonetheless, the question remains: How much does the humiliation of a self-own really matter in the real world of politics? Ted Cruz still beat Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 Texas Senate race. Trump and those in his orbit continue to elude justice. To a spectator, perhaps the appeal of a self-own lies in how objectively disqualifying they should be; in a fair world, someone so clearly lacking in intelligence and self-awareness would not be able to ascend to the highest echelons of power. And yet.
It turns out that if you hold enough of the levers of power, you can self-own all you want and keep grinning in the face of the jeers. Even now, Trump’s administration continues to play a “game of chicken,” as Vox’s Tara Golshan puts it, with Democrats over the border wall and government shutdown, while essential federal employees work without pay and our national parks fill up with uncollected trash. The total collapse of the federal government, the management of which is Donald Trump’s entire job, seems like the self-own to end all self-owns. But of course, there are no real winners here. We are all being owned.