Following Alexx Rodriguez around the campus of the University of Central Florida, no one would get the sense that the 20-year-old is, in at least one small microcosm of the world, sort of famous. Hardly any of the strangers she encounters daily in her classes recognize her.
She's a triple major, studying molecular and microbiology, biotechnology, and psychology, and hopes to one day become a reconstructive plastic surgeon. Born in Puerto Rico, she's the daughter of conservative, Catholic parents (she says her father's very close to the Romney campaign) and shares many of their political views; she describes herself as both fiscally conservative and pro-life, though she does support gay marriage.
When people do recognize her, it's often with a sense of perplexity, the kind you get when you come across some minor celebrity and can't quite place where you've seen her before. "I'll be sitting in class and I'll notice someone staring and looking, and they never say anything," Rodriguez says. "But if I pull up Twitter on my laptop and they see it, I hear an, 'Oh, that's where I know her from.'"
Rodriguez counts herself among a small, elite group of Twitter users who have amassed a large following on the site through the use of humor. While many celebrities can lay claim to multimillion-follower counts, this group has secured its influence with little outside fame, relying almost solely on a daily barrage of wit, absurdity, and surrealism, all delivered in 140-character snippets. With such limited character space with which to work, the group has been refining and transforming the one-line joke, taking it down a darker path of self-deprecation, one devoid of political correctness and propriety.
Given her conservative upbringing, you might be surprised by the blunt raunchiness of Rodriguez's tweets. "If somebody hates you for no reason," she wrote in one tweet, "give that mother f---ker a reason." Here's another: "The weirdest part about working in a tanning salon is getting hit on by guys who don't know they're gay yet."
The sardonic, quasi-autobiographical persona Rodriguez now adopts on Twitter has evolved over time. When she opened the account, soon after graduating high school in 2009, her tweets centered mostly on the mundane happenstance of her life.
Though now the account is semi-anonymous (her first name and picture appear on it, but not her last name), at the time it carried her full name and was connected to her Facebook account. Eventually, however, her interests began to gravitate toward the burgeoning humor community on the platform. "I started following some funnier people," she says. "One guy in particular, he was just hilarious. He was the funniest person I'd ever encountered in my life. I followed him on Twitter, and it was through him retweeting other users that just kind of introduced me to the world of comedians on Twitter."
Rodriguez began to experiment with observational humor, testing out political tweets that reflected her conservative ideology, but as she became fully immersed in college life—and the partying and hijinks associated with it—she adopted a profanity-laced, sexually charged alter ego.
"I want to say my Twitter is maybe 40 percent of who I really am as a person and 60 percent exaggerations and things I would think are funny," she says. "They're maybe things that happen to my friends but my friends don't have the following to tweet it so they tell me to tweet it. But there's still a little bit of me behind every tweet."
Though growth was slow at first, Rodriguez got a boost when her favorite Twitter humorist—a guy named Craig Sinkwich—followed her back and began to retweet her stuff. From there, she quickly gained momentum, amassing sometimes 1,000 to 2,000 new followers a day earlier this year. On some of her biggest days, she'd gather as many as 10,000 new followers. Today, she's leveled out slightly above 70,000, and she says she's reached somewhat of a plateau recently.
So what makes a tweet particularly funny? For the most part, the one-line joke has been on the wane—some of its greatest practitioners like Rodney Dangerfield and Groucho Marx have been replaced by comedians who have adopted a narrative approach to comedy, one with interconnected storylines that rely little on punchlines or easy laughs. While there have been a few one-liner specialists who have emerged in the last decade—the late Mitch Hedberg and Demetri Martin come to mind—the form is viewed by many as slapstick and amateurish, a product in search of cheap laughs.
Twitter, by virtue of its strict character limits, has provided a platform for the resurgence of the one-line joke, and its most fervent enthusiasts have attempted to expand its reach and scope, packing as much meaning into as few words as possible. "There are things that fly on Twitter that would not fly on stage in a comedy act, and vice versa," says Sinkwich, who tweets under the handle @YUCKYBOT. "There are a lot of things that someone might say on stage that would get lost in translation on Twitter. I think there's a lot of different ways you can be funny. Sometimes it's very astute observational humor people can relate to, and other times, it is very absurd."
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Many of Sinkwich's most successful tweets are often relatable, hinging on the observation of a daily annoyance that is so common and banal that it remains unnoticed until he plucks it out and succinctly pinpoints the absurdity of it. "I had a tweet that said, 'My roommate doesn't know it, but we're engaged in a war over where to put the bathroom rug.' Whereas that might not be funny said out loud or in a comedy venue, people can relate to that. People are like, 'Whoa, it's funny because those are just like tiny snippets of our lives that get captured so perfectly and in a little 140-character write-up.'"
Other tweets draw humor from the sudden twist or turn of phrase, leading the reader to believe they're going one way and then suddenly veering in the opposite direction. Often the beginning of this kind of tweet relies on a cliche before then turning that cliche on its head. "Sometimes mommies and daddies stop loving each other. But they still love you," one of Sinkwich's tweets begins before before falling down a darker hole: "Sometimes. When they're not consumed with filling the void."
Of course self-deprecation also plays its part. Sometimes the funniest tweets are the ones in which the user casts himself in the most pathetic light. "I wouldn't say I'm lonely," tweeted Greg Schindler, "but sometimes I tap the brakes just to make my seatbelt hug me tighter."
Those who engage in this near-constant battle to make us snicker as we comb through our Twitter feed are often obsessed with the metrics behind their jokes. Rodriguez recalls instances in which she would constantly refresh her screen and delete tweets that didn't generate a sufficient number of retweets or favorites. Many have become addicted to the instant high that comes when a tweet takes off and goes viral, and they have to resist the urge to just launch out rapid-fire jokes to see what sticks.
"It just doesn't seem like there's a formula for it," says Will Phillips, a comedian who lives in Los Angeles. "Some of the more popular ones that get retweeted a lot, those are the ones I just didn't expect to take off at all, but for some reason they resonate. And of course you want that again, but I think the more you try for it, the more you back yourself into a corner and the material starts to suffer a little bit the more you try."
The Twitter humor community has become a closely-knit one over time, with the same kind of support network you'll see among standup comedians. For many, the big break came when a more popular Twitter user began retweeting their material, and there's an inherent reciprocity in how they promote each other's work.
"There were a lot of people in the beginning who kind of helped me out and supported me and got my name out there," says Sinkwich. "The thing is that Twitter can be very lopsided. It's unlike a lot of other websites in that you don't need to be mutually following someone else. You can have thousands of people following you and have no idea who they are. And for someone who's just starting, that can be a little intimidating. You don't really know how to get your name out there. For me it was important to promote and interact with those people who I found funny, and after a while they started following me back as well. I think interaction is a huge part of it."
Perhaps this is why Rodriguez was so excited when, in late 2011, Sinkwich, who she'd long admired, followed her back. "I can tell you where I was standing when he followed me back," she recalls, sounding slightly embarrassed. "That was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me."