We’re more predictable than we thought.
Here’s a very popular tweet: “she’s a 10 but she cries on her birthday every year.”
Solid. Concise. I can see why people would relate to the sentiment. Who doesn’t want to think of themselves as hot? And further, who doesn’t already think of themselves as emotionally complicated enough to shed a tear on a day that is supposed to be happy? Nearly 246,000 accounts liked this tweet, and I have no problem with that.
There’s a whole universe of big accounts that post content like this—little snippets of language with mass appeal. They often regurgitate the same messages. That “she’s a 10” tweet was posted by @itspureluv, an account with roughly 200,000 followers; an almost identical tweet was posted by @spicybabew, another account with nearly 200,000 followers, three months earlier, and by dozens of others at various times.
“are u ok” no but i’m pretty
I started noticing this phenomenon last year and followed about a dozen of these accounts out of a curiosity that felt kind of sick—they gave me a chill! They were so good at spitting out (or selecting and copying) sentences and fragments that hundreds of thousands of people related to, and they were doing it to no obvious end. They were shameless about retweeting themselves or tweeting several slightly different versions of a thought to see which one would hit biggest.
Other people on Twitter had noticed them as well and referred to them (usually with irritation) as “gradient accounts,” because many of their profile pictures are not of human faces or anything else, just color gradients. Gradient accounts have usernames that sound like AIM usernames: @f41ryluvrr, @urf41ryg1rl, @moonlouvrr, @newmoonbaby2, @glitteryxhearts. Through their tweets, they identify as overthinkers and dreamers and hot people, and they often profess melancholy and romantic longing. The romantic longing sometimes clashes with casual misanthropy; the all-lowercase disclosures of trauma and malaise are mixed with playful Gossip Girl memes. Their content is more popular than I can possibly explain, and they know it. Some provide links so that people who enjoy their content can send them tips on PayPal. Others promote small businesses; a few lead to porn.
Ysabel Gerrard, a lecturer in digital media and society at the University of Sheffield, in England, told me she’d also noticed gradient accounts last year. She described their presentation as an “infantilized version of femininity.”
“I was initially surprised to see these accounts on Twitter, because I’d assumed its demographic skewed older than these posts seem to speak to,” she said. She saw influences of the currently voguish Y2K nostalgia—a trend associated with Gen Z—including the use of baby pink and the early-text-message abbreviation u instead of you. But she reasoned that Twitter was a good platform for creators who wanted to be mostly anonymous and grow their following through text-based posts.
The facelessness of the accounts is what gives them a strange, bordering-on-sinister allure. Who is posting all this stuff, and why? @maybeeevirgo, which doesn’t use a gradient profile picture (just a solid circle of baby pink) but falls into the same category, has more than 359,000 followers and discloses no personal information besides a bio that reads “made in heaven.”
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“Having a blank yet highly aesthetic and communicative profile picture is an unsurprising move in an era of hyper-self-presentation,” Gerrard told me. “It adds to the appeal of the accounts, because followers aren’t connecting themselves to a persona. Instead, they’re connecting themselves to the familiarity and relatability of the posts.” The entities behind the accounts don’t have to personally win anyone over the way they might if their faces were visible, she added.
To some, that’s charming; to others, it’s alarming or annoying. Viral “relatable” Twitter threads have been used to rope people into scams in the past, which is a good reason to be wary of them. And the repetition from all of these accounts makes them seem somehow callous or inhuman—they’re copying or they’re being copied, or what they’re saying is so generic that it just keeps bubbling out of the ether. (Try searching for saying nvm instead of explaining or “of course i remembered” is a love language.) Naturally, this leads some people to make the assumption that the accounts are bots.
what am I about to experience… pic.twitter.com/JBxiVl8EGv
“I want to set the record straight,” Andrew Zaffina, the 25-year-old behind @itspureluv told me when I messaged him on Twitter and asked him to call me. “I’m so sick of people thinking we’re bots. I’m literally just a really relatable, chill, fun internet personality.”
Zaffina uses his Twitter to drive attention to his other accounts and to his businesses—he is a spiritual medium, teaches online classes about spiritualism, and sells hoodies explaining different angel numbers. Relatable content is easy for him to come up with, he says, because he looks at Twitter all day, every day, and his brain has started to operate in the language of the site.
And in 2022, the language of Twitter is the language of a hot, anxious girl. She was the MySpace girl, and then the Tumblr girl, and then the TikTok girl. There has always been a version of her on Twitter, and now there is this one. Girl culture has long been highly visible on social media, so it makes sense that people who spend time on social media would relate to tweeted bits of micro-fiction reflecting its tropes. “Obviously, relatable things are relatable, but are people interested in this because they identify as a hot, anxious girl?” Alice E. Marwick, an associate professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, asked me rhetorically. “Or are they interested in inhabiting the persona of a hot, anxious girl?” She found the accounts’ posts to be “aspirational, in a way,” and suggested there was an emotional component to their success as well. “The ability to articulate sadness, I think, is really highly valued,” she said.
When Zaffina posts a new tweet, it needs to get 1,000 likes within the first hour; otherwise, he thinks it was a mistake and should be deleted. When a new tweet goes really viral, that means it’s time to cool down. To avoid getting suspended—or “s-worded”—Zaffina tries to stay off of Twitter’s radar. He suspects it flags accounts that go viral too often. (Twitter did not comment on this when I asked.) “I can go viral multiple times a day if I wanted,” he said, “but why would you work so hard for something to get taken away?”
if u look for a painful thing u will find 100 gradient accounts with the same tweet pic.twitter.com/gHljsVl6A9
Some gradient accounts make money by promoting junky products or bad music videos, which Zaffina thinks makes their page look aesthetically offensive. According to Zaffina, super-popular Twitter accounts can also sell “retweet packages” (a flat fee to retweet content to their audience a certain number of times) or collect money for “repping” smaller accounts (helping them gain followers by simply liking or replying to their tweets). Once they’ve reached a mass audience, they can also “flip” their accounts by selling to a lazier user who just wants a ready-made audience. (Some of this violates Twitter’s terms of service.) Zaffina said he has done paid promotion before, but he didn’t want to name specific clients or his prices. He would only say that some accounts can charge up to $200 for a single retweet.
“It’s not always about the money for me,” he told me. “I genuinely do Twitter because I love Twitter.” He admitted to liking the power of being an influencer. If he’s interested in a trend, he can promote and sustain it just by putting it in an accessible package: “It’s not a trick, but the secret is just being a relatable person.” He thinks of relatable content all the time—he was thinking about tweets while we were talking, he said. He can get a hit whenever he wants, with posts like “sharing music is a huge love language for me” or “sexy people overthink everything.” He’ll often riff several times on a similar premise or format, and each iteration performs beautifully: “she’s a 10 but she needs attention 24/7” (66,300 likes), “she’s a 10 but she doesn’t talk when she’s upset” (290,700 likes, even better than the aforementioned 10 who tears up on her birthday).
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Justifiably, gradient accounts have often been accused of stealing tweets. Zaffina responded to this criticism by insisting that most of his content is “pretty much” original. At the same time, he argued, many of these posts are interpretations of linguistic memes, which means that anyone who takes credit for them is kind of just flattering themselves. If you start with “she’s a 10” and then add something relatable, you’re probably going to end up writing the same tweet as someone else. And if something is totally recycled, well: “We don’t really think of it as, like, stolen content,” he said. “It’s just cute tweets.”
The other criticism of gradient accounts is that their tweets are bad. Another way to say “relatable” is “lowest common denominator.” (Marwick called them “banal and uninteresting.”) A little more than a year ago, according to Zaffina, Twitter users turned on the gradient accounts and started calling for their heads (“these gradient accounts are a fucking plague,” “ban all gradient accounts pending federal investigation,” etc.). Many of them stopped posting in August and September of 2021, and Zaffina’s is now one of the few huge accounts remaining. “A lot of people actually changed their profile pictures,” he told me. “They changed their whole accounts, changed how they tweet, they changed everything.” Then, earlier this year, Twitter announced a policy update that would “limit the visibility” of duplicate content, or “copypasta”—some read this as a harbinger of the true end days of gradient accounts, though many have continued to thrive.
sometimes the color gradient accounts feel like therapy…. like so true marsbby444 i am not my past self
As long as people are drawn to the disembodied girl in the machine, and as long as there are any spoils to be had from racking up the highest number of impressions and the greatest amount of engagement possible, these accounts will proliferate and confuse those who don’t have the magic touch. Most of us may be relatable, but that doesn’t mean we know how to tweet relatably. Does that make sense? “People just don’t know what other people like,” Zaffina told me. “I think there’s two types of people in the world. You know, there’s just regular people, and then there’s entertainers. I’m an entertainer. I know what people like. I know what they’re gonna vibe with.”