“Dunking” Is Delicious Sport

But it might be making Twitter even more terrible.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Images by Twitter and Thinkstock.
In 2017, we all must dunk or be dunked.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Images by Twitter and Thinkstock.

To be a Twitter user in 2017 is to know at all times that you are just a quote-tweet and 280 characters away from being publicly owned. You don’t have to be famous to get owned, though that helps, nor do you have to have lots of followers. One of the easiest ways to do it is to tweet something really blinkered or easily refutable. You probably don’t know who Twitter user @xnulz is, for example, but there’s a good chance you know her recent tweet about Taylor Swift.

If you saw this tweet splat onto your screen, it was likely not because one of your friends retweeted or liked it, but because one of them dunked on it: Twitter users, it turned out, could think of quite a few bitches badder than Taylor Swift, and the original tweet became an occasion to celebrate many women throughout history, of both the unsung and already justly famous variety.

This Taylor Swift example wasn’t the first and surely won’t be the last notable dunk tweet of the year. Remember Donald Trump Jr.’s Halloween fiasco? After he tweeted about taking half his daughter’s candy to “teach her about socialism,” he got dunked on but good, with everyone from J.K. Rowling to John Legend quote-tweeting his original post beneath a witty riposte of his or her own.

The Taylor Swift and Don Jr. tweets may have inspired all-out dunk contests, but you see it on a smaller scale on Twitter all the time, too. Since Twitter rolled out the feature a couple of years ago, the quote-tweet has evolved into something like a pair of magic high-tops dispensed to every user on the service: Anyone can botch a tweet, and anyone can leap over him or her to score a couple of points—or a couple thousand likes and retweets.

The basketball term is apt: In a Twitter dunking, someone has made his point or said her piece, and instead of responding to it with a direct reply, perhaps in the spirit of equal-footed debate, the dunker seizes it like an alley-oop on his or her way to the basket. Maybe another player gets the unwitting assist, but the point is yours to be liked and retweeted not just as a reply but as a worthier tweet in its own right. The dunk metaphor can even be extended to apply to situations that have more than two players. Below, Meghan McCain attempts to dunk on HuffPost reporter Ashley Feinberg … only for the dunk to go to writer Jeb Lund in a buzzer-beater.

In a game, points count toward a final score, but in social media, points in the form of likes and retweets count toward a harder-to-quantify cachet that can’t be exchanged for any specific monetary value. (Which is just as well, since in social media there are no winners.)

The rise of the quote-tweet, which Twitter revamped in 2015, has enabled a culture of dunking, one that’s all but taken over Twitter. It took a little while for people who were using the retweet function for years to get accustomed to quote-tweeting, which, perhaps combined with our particular political moment, has set the stage for our suddenly dunk-happy times. It’s hard to believe it, but before this year, we didn’t have “the ratio,” a concept that now so aptly describes the experience of Twitter that it’s become a verb—to “get ratioed.” 2017 gave us ratios—the notion that a bad tweet is often accompanied by a high ratio of replies to likes and retweets, and the higher the ratio, the worse the tweet is—and now it gives us dunks.

Should we celebrate the dunk or bemoan it? Some, including Farhad Manjoo, former Slate and current New York Times columnist, lament this development as having made Twitter less civil (as if it ever was).

With or without the quote-tweet, social media has always loved some good old-fashioned insult comedy. What the design of the quote-tweet does is make it so your insult incorporates and is inextricable from the original post. Before, if you were on the receiving end of a dunk, it probably meant your tormenter had screenshotted your misguided tweet—insulating you from the inevitable pile-on that now takes over the mentions of Twitter dunkees. With a quote-tweet, you’ve been singled out and you’re vulnerable. Which brings us back to the term own: The platonic ideal of a dunk-tweet makes mincemeat of whatever the original poster was trying to say, and his or her message ends up contributing to the argument (and social currency) of the dunker. Your tweet no longer really belongs to you, but is in service to your dunker.

For politicians and other public figures, the possibility of being dunked is an occupational hazard. But sometimes in the race to the basket, you end up taking out a relatively innocent bystander. Pity the journalists who, when tweeting not something they believe but what a politician has told them, get fiercely dunked upon. Pity, too, the poor tweeter who ignited the Taylor Swift/bad bitches dunk-off. The person who’s really being dunked on is Taylor Swift herself; a fan who’s guilty of nothing but tweeting about a pop singer she likes has become collateral damage in the process. Did she really deserve what felt like an internet’s worth of clapbacks?

In March of this year, former Slate writer Amanda Hess published a New York Times Magazine column on the language of getting “owned.” She wrote:

The most successful ownage finds hubristic targets, people who think they know more than they do. But ownage is itself a hubristic act — it turns knowledge into a tool for exploiting another person’s lack thereof. Owning someone sets you up to be owned yourself, sometimes in the same breath.

This is true about owning, and it’s true about dunking, too. He who dunks on others only further fuels Twitter’s aggressive, dunk-or-be-dunked culture—basically guaranteeing his own dunkage down the line. Next time you’re tempted to dunk, recall the words of none other than the bad bitch herself, Taylor Swift: “Are you ready for it?”