“This Is a Shady Business We In, Fam”

The rise and fall and likely rise again of parody Twitter.

Account suspended.
Another #influencer’s hopes crushed.  

Photo illustration by Slate. Screenshot via Twitter.

Late one night last week, Common White Girl logged onto Twitter and prepared to die. Over the past few weeks, she’d watched as other big “parody” accounts were purged from the network, and she suspected that she would be next. She deleted every joke and meme and pretty picture she’d ever tweeted from her @GirlPosts handle. In place of her bio, she typed a farewell note to her 5.63 million followers: “I love you. If this is the end, remember me babes.” In her final tweet, she asked them to tell Twitter to take pity on her account: “They can fix this if they hear you.”

Her fans tweeted into the night: “NOOO plzzz don’t do this to her” and “She’s honestly amazing and done nothing wrong!” and “I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without her.” But by daybreak, Common White Girl was gone. The Twitter page that once pulsed with feminine miscellany—like, “That feeling when your ponytail holder isn’t stretched enough to go around three times, but twice just isn’t tight enough”—now automatically redirected to a bare “Account suspended” page, a purgatory from which many banished Twitter handles never return.

Common White Girl is not a real girl: Her avatar is a still from Cinderella and her ponytail gripe was cribbed verbatim from an actual woman’s blog, plagiarized like so many of her other tweets. She—I mean, it—is one of hundreds of accounts that brand themselves around celebrities (like Will Ferrell), characters (like Tina Belcher of Bob’s Burgers) or even just floating personality traits (like bitchiness). They call themselves “parody” accounts, and furiously tweet whatever they think will earn them more followers in their chosen “niche.” Behind the curtain lies a network of social media wizards who make a real living off managing and monetizing these accounts. Late last month, I reached out to Common White Girl by email, looking to chat about a story I was writing on a controversy brewing around plagiarism on parody accounts. I received a reply from a “social media influencer network” called the Adsplash Group, urging me to speak with Dillon Travers, CEO of its parent company Viral, about his own “big story regarding Twitter accounts.” Travers, 24, introduced his company to me by saying, “We control 2.2 billion native Twitter impressions per month.” His company’s “extended network,” he says, “consists of close to every supermassive account on Twitter: the elites.”

The faux elites, that is. These accounts can’t compete with those run by real famous people like @KimKardashian or @KanyeWest. But @GirlPosts is the most-followed fake famous person on Twitter and is just one account in Viral’s arsenal. Last month, Viral executed a “viral blitz” for MathCrunch, an app that pairs teens with tutors who provide virtual homework assistance. MathCrunch had toiled in obscurity for several months before a crew of Viral partners and friends endorsed the app with tweets like “RT to save a life.” MathCrunch trended on Twitter and scrambled up the download charts to reach the No. 2 spot for education apps in the U.S.

When Viral launched earlier this summer, it entered a crowded market. Behind every Common White Girl is a network of Exceptional Tech Bros who connect #brands with #influencers to #monetize #audiences in one way or another. Peering into their world for the first time can feel a little like stepping through the looking glass. These are guys who have jargon titles like “wiz” or “guru.” They work for low-profile companies with anodyne slogans like “by influencers, for influencers.” They’re always tweeting from behind a parody alter ego (or 12). And what appears from the outside to be a tweet explosion ignited by a massive fan army is sometimes just the work of a few professionals banding together to whip up a viral trend. Some of the biggest parody accounts take credit for the rise of Twitter heartthrob Alex from Target and the mobile game sensation Flappy Bird—American culture, basically.

Spend enough time down the social media marketing rabbit hole, and you’ll discover endless strategies for making money off of parody Twitter. “Influencer networks” like Speakr and the Audience connect brands with people who will tweet about them for money. Affiliate marketing networks like OGMobi, Geenapp, and AdGatemedia pay #influencers every time they lure another person into clicking on an ad link, downloading their app, or otherwise engaging with their product. The freshest affiliate network on the block is The Blu Market, run by real estate developer Steven Forkosh and endorsed by elder Jonas brother Kevin; Blu gives off secret society vibes to outsiders and gives away IO Hawks and iPads to its top salespeople, many of whom are minors.

Some successful parody accounts are built and grown by young hobbyists, who then link up with middlemen to help monetize their massive followings. Others are launched and branded by a company from the start. And as the cottage industry expands, new hustles emerge. Social Chain, a company run by a twentysomething British college dropout, was the first to orchestrate ad campaigns across hundreds of parody accounts; the company recently moved into a new London office outfitted with an indoor slide that empties into a ball pit. Meanwhile, from its home base in San Diego, the “social media advertising” umbrella group Mass Social brokers sales of social media accounts through FlipMass, sells generic #content like tweets and photo galleries through ContentMass, and helps independent #influencers manage their revenue streams through ShareMass. Little deals are made on Twitter every day—people trade shoutouts on Instagram, advertise accounts for sale, and encourage potential business partners to “slide in” to their DMs to learn more.

Some #influencers have even started cutting the #brand out of the equation by manufacturing their own products and marketing them through their massive networks. This spring, a group of twentysomethings associated with the parody account @TanGurlz and #influencer marketplace Seafoam together launched Ivory Ella, an apparel company selling colorful T-shirts illustrated with cartoon line drawings of elephants; a small portion of the proceeds are donated to the Nairobi charity Save the Elephants, a detail that Ivory Ella exploits in a very big way. The shirts were a hit, and several months later, Twitter parody accounts and, unwittingly, the real people who follow them are hawking a host of new apparel companies molded in an oddly similar style, including Makai Clothing Co. (for saving turtles), Paisley Sarah (also for turtles), North Cub (bears), Savannah (lions), Hipster Hippo (hippos), and Shelly Cove (more turtles). The list of operators trying to make money off of tweeting kids “could just go on forever,” Travers told me.

Except: This summer, some #influencers felt their grip on the zeitgeist slipping. Dozens of “Twitter-famous” parody accounts have been suspended by Twitter over the past couple of months in an event Travers calls the “Twitterpocalypse.” All told, the accounts have registered a combined loss of as many as 60 million followers. Some of those killed off include a novelty account branded around cute animals (@BabyAnimalPics), an account tweeting out awkward video game screenshots (@SimsReacting), an account named after a hazelnut spread (@NuteIla) that mostly just tweeted random clicky stuff, and accounts aimed at teen girls (@DiaryforTeens), spoiled girls (@LifeofaPrincess), flirty girls (@fIirtationship), girls with bubble butts (@BubbleButtBabes), and all girls (@TweetLikeAGirI). Some related businesses, like T-shirt company @ShopIvoryElla and Twitter marketplace @FlipMass, were suspended, too.

When the hammer came down, some influencers tried spreading hashtags—like #UnsuspendSexualGIF and #SaveThePubs—to raise awareness of their plight. After several of his mammoth novelty accounts were suspended at once, Ray Lopez retreated to his personal account and cried out to Twitter support, “y’all gonna help me?” One #influencer publicly called for a one-on-one meeting with acting Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey; another requested personalized assistance from a Twitter rep because, as he put it, “I own 30 million followers.” FlipMass’s 23-year-old founder, Stephen Johnson, expressed his anger in an original rap verse he performed, recorded, and posted to his personal account. Another FlipMass guy tweeted that the combined follower count of suspended novelty accounts was larger than the number of people killed in the Holocaust, then tweeted an illustration of the Twitter bird dressed like Hitler. Nothing worked.   

The parody account holders just “want an explanation of why their accounts have been suspended” and “what they can do to get them back, as well as future guidelines for staying within the TOS,” FlipMass’ Johnson told me over DM. But the truth is that many parody accounts survive by slipping between the lines of the network’s terms of service and outsmarting its evolving detection mechanisms. If Twitter outlines its expectations too specifically, operators will find loopholes and exploit them. Plus, Twitter has ads of its own to sell, and these guys are looking more and more like direct competitors every day: Twitter charges brands hundreds of thousands of dollars to place a term atop its trending list (a feat that Viral promises to deliver at a significant discount), and Twitter recently waded into the #influencer marketing game itself by acquiring the creator network Niche. It has little incentive to aid opponents who don’t play fair. When I reached out for comment on the parody suspensions, Twitter rep Nu Wexler called the Twitterpocalypse hype a nonstory whipped up in a summer “news lull,” denied any recent “increase in account suspensions,” and sent along Twitter’s official position: “Our rules on parody accounts, which are more permissive than most social platforms, haven’t changed in over three years. We enjoy and encourage parody accounts that comply with our rules.”

Ah, the rules. Some of these account holders are well aware that they’ve bent a Twitter rule or two by engaging in prohibited behaviors like buying and selling usernames, trading “fake engagements” like paid retweets, or spamming their followers with affiliate links that lure them off of Twitter and into a bogus diet ad. “This is a shady business we in fam,” a dude with the Twitter account @Cheerleader recently observed. But these people worked long and hard to build a following for @NuteIla or whatever, and they feel very protective of their accounts. So over the past month, #influencers have raced to uncover which Twitter algorithm tweak, policy shift, or rogue hater might be behind the various suspensions. FlipMass has tried to suss out the root of the problem by circulating a Google Docs survey among suspended influencers, quizzing them on whether they’d engaged in various shady practices in the past three months. It also invites them to check a box if they’d recently “contemplated getting a job at McDonald’s.”

This is the nightmare scenario. “Getting a job” haunts #influencers. Late last month, beauty vlogger and #influencer #ally Jenny Dey filmed a passionate vlog from the cream leather passenger seat of a parked SUV, in which she urged her fans to support their favorite novelty Twitter accounts through this difficult time. “I feel like you guys don’t understand! Social media is not just social media,” Dey said. “To be completely honest, if I didn’t have my YouTube channel, I’d probably be homeless.” She paused, reconsidered, and rephrased that last bit: “Well, I mean, I’d have a job and stuff. … I’d have to find a normal job.” The point is, “I’d be poor.” As tech/culture site Smashd’s Adam Popescu  wrote of the purge: “For kids who bypassed college, and made tweeting a business, whole livelihoods are in jeopardy.”

And what kind of lifestyle does this livelihood pay for? Sometimes, the game funds the player’s college education. Plus his Louboutin sneakers. And the Benz he raced in the desert, or the GTR in his garage, or the Lexus he bought for Mom. Parody Twitter affiliates can be seen Instagramming photos of their baby-faced #squads lounging on boats, smoking cigars in golf carts, and hanging behind DJ booths, maybe with a Playboy model or two. They hire ponies for parties and snap selfies with Mark Cuban and hold out-of-control ragers where you might just get maced. They brag about their biggest PayPal paydays on Twitter and argue over who gets laid more on account of their Twitter microfame. The “elite” #influencer’s favorite insult is “peasant,” as in, “MY ONLY GOAL IS TO MAKE MONEY NOT BE ORIGINAL YOU FUCKING PEASANT.” They are, in a hashtag, #blessed

And they earned it. Many of these schemes are inherently unstable revenue streams, which is exactly what makes them so lucrative for those willing to take the risk. Scammers can easily fleece rubes and abscond into anonymity. Twitter tweaks its rules and wipes out a business model. And competitors exploit weaknesses in Twitter’s system to try to take each other out. Though some parody accounts fell this summer over presumed violations of Twitter’s rules, others have been victims of what Travers calls “the DMCA game.” In recent weeks, a host of big parody accounts have been barraged with Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown requests, filed to Twitter from people claiming to be the copyright owners of pictures tweeted from the accounts. Soon accounts like @GirlPosts and at least 10 other “elite” accounts were notified that they’d been banned from the network following a rash of violations. But when account holders tracked down the copyright owners on Twitter, they denied ever filing the claims. Some even supported the parody accounts who lifted their material.

Now, after years of creatively interpreting Twitter’s policies, parody accounts are asking Twitter to create new rules to protect them. Last week, Viral launched @CyberReform, an account dedicated to surfacing reports of fraudulent DMCA notices. Viral reps are reaching out to journalists like me, celebrities, and Twitter employees who follow popular parody accounts, asking them to pressure Twitter to change its copyright procedures. Twitter told me that people who file false DMCA claims have perjured themselves and are liable for damages under DMCA, and that victims of false reports are invited to file counternotices asking Twitter to reconsider. But people who lie about their identities can’t be brought to justice, while victims who file counterclaims are forced to reveal their own names and addresses on Chilling Effects’ public DMCA database—a level of exposure many in this “shady business” can’t stomach.

Watching so many accounts go down, some #influencers have resorted to selling off their last Twitter accounts so they can head to Instagram or Snapchat and mine a fresher social network for all it’s worth. But Travers is optimistic about Viral’s future on Twitter. Though most of the other recently suspended parody accounts remain dark, @GirlPosts was mysteriously reinstated by Twitter a couple of days ago. Every wave of Twitter bans means some #influencers will get booted from the site. But it also means that the smartest, hungriest, and craftiest marketers have a new opportunity to discover the next big trick for making money off Twitter. “If someone’s life has been ruined by this,” Travers told me, “then they’ve given up too soon.”