The art of the Twitter bio
- Article by: TEDDY WAYNE
- New York Times
- October 21, 2013 - 3:02 PM
‘Wife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate, FLOAR, FLOTUS, US Senator, SecState, author,” reads Hillary Clinton’s Twitter bio, before veering off: “dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker, TBD …” Written after she joined the social network in June, those descriptors earned raves.
“Hillary Clinton’s Twitter Bio Is Perfect,” pronounced a Slate headline. The Washington Post declared that it “may be the best bio ever.” With self-deprecating nuance, Clinton pithily overturned any patronizing claims by her former rival for the presidency that she was “likable enough.”
The Twitter bio is a postmodern art form, an opportunity in 160 characters or fewer to cleverly synopsize one’s professional and personal accomplishments, along with a carefully edited non sequitur or two. It lets the famous and the anonymous, athletes and accountants, surreal Dadaists and suburban dads alike demonstrate that they are special snowflakes with Wes Anderson-worthy quirks.
The standard bio is a staccato string of statuses and interests separated by commas or periods. Frequently, one’s parental status is tossed in, particularly by men who seem to want public credit for fatherhood (“Proud papa to three adorable kids who destroy everything in sight”).
Then there are the addenda, the hobbies and passions and random facts. As Alex Blagg, a writer, noted in a blog post, these are often punctuated by self-aggrandizing words like “addict” or “junkie” (as in “coffee addict” or “CrossFit junkie”); “enthusiast,” “aficionado” or “geek” (“Breaking Bad aficionado”); the glamorous suffix “-ista” (“accountantista”); or the “super-heroic” tag of “guy” or “girl” (“war reporter guy,” “hedge fund girl”).
Beyond such clichés, the potential hazards of bios are well known to any social media user: humble brags (“For some reason they put me in the movies”), unchecked self-promotion (“See my new movie, out this Christmas”) and the blandly literal (“I am a professional actor in a motion picture feature scheduled for wide release Dec. 25”).
The more famous one is, the less the need for straightforwardness. Tom Hanks needs no introduction, yet an aw-shucks approach for him — such as “I once said something about a box of chocolates” — may project as false modesty. His bio is true to his Everyman persona: “I’m that actor in some of the movies you liked and some you didn’t. Sometimes I’m in pretty good shape, other times I’m not. Hey, you gotta live, you know?”
For lesser-known wits, the preferred mode of expression seems to be absurdist subversion. The bio of Patton Oswalt, an actor and writer, says “Mr. Oswalt is a former wedding deejay from Northern Virginia.” (This is true, though Oswalt has accomplished much since then.) Actress Anna Kendrick describes herself as “Pale, awkward and very very small. Form an orderly queue, gents. Location: probably by the food.” (Kendrick’s wan diminutiveness did not prevent GQ from featuring her in a semi-clothed photo shoot.)
And in a deft collaboration, Jason Bateman’s reads “Friend of Will Arnett’s”; his former “Arrested Development” co-star’s is “Jason Bateman’s sponsor.”
Gaga, not so subtle
Rob Delaney, a comedian who has amassed a large Twitter following, is so steeped in its world that his bio is a parody of bios: “Comedian, Writer, 6’3 217 lbs. Preorder my book, Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.” The title comes from a tweet of his from July 8, 2012, which resonated with his followers, receiving more than 3,000 retweets.
When he joined, he simply listed his occupation (“Because nobody knew who I was, and I was soliciting work on Twitter,” he said in a phone interview) and weight, “because it’s irrelevant to my job, and bodies make people feel uncomfortable, or at least mine does.”
Delaney had opinions about other people’s Twitter bios. “I understand the urge to have people see other sides of you, particularly for celebrities,” he said. “But when a major-league pitcher puts in ‘barbecue enthusiast’ or ‘astronomer,’ I’m like, ‘I don’t care: you’re a pitcher.’ When people try to let everyone know just how delicious and multifaceted they are, I think that’s silly.”
And yet the revolving billboard that is a celebrity Twitter bio in sell mode can make one appreciate civilians’ attempts at subtlety. See Lady Gaga’s capitalized imperative: “Buy my new single ‘Applause’ and pre-order my album ‘Artpop’ here now!”
The cannier blend self-promotion with a more intimate message, as does Twitter’s most popular user, Justin Bieber: “So much love for the fans … you are always there for me and I will always be there for you. Much love. Thanks.”
Ego doesn’t fit
The cleverest, though, find a way to refer to themselves within the grammar of Twitter (Taylor Swift, quoting her own lyrics from the song “22”: “Happy. Free. Confused. Lonely. At the same time.”). Then there is the enigmatic empty bio, like that favored by the normally loquacious Kanye West, suggesting an outsize personality that cannot be restricted.
Not surprisingly, literary writers on Twitter tend to reach for linguistic virtuosity or allusiveness. The bio of Elif Batuman, a journalist and essayist, is “Like Dostoevsky, I wrote a book called The Possessed. Mine is shorter.” But Joyce Carol Oates, likely recognizing the bio’s inadequacy for her sprawling oeuvre, simply writes “Author.”
Politicians generally stick to square pronouncements about their jobs and families, sometimes with an of-the-people nod to their hometown sports team (“Go Pack Go!” concludes Paul Ryan’s bio; Samantha Power’s concludes “member of RedSox Nation”). Athletes, too, provide less entertainment than one might hope for, whether out of fear of offending corporate owners and sponsors or a lack of verbal panache.
There are also the earnest, spiritual or philosophical bios, adult-yearbook quotations that strive to say something profound about society or the universe. These range from the sober (Ann Curry’s “Journalism is an act of faith in the future”) to those of reduced gravity (Paris Hilton: “Living Life to the Fullest!”).
Among the guru set, words conveying internationalism, such as “nomad,” recur at a high rate, as in Deepak Chopra’s one-word location of “Global.”
Perhaps the most popular bio disclaimer is “Views are my own,” to differentiate between one’s tweets and one’s employer. As Forbes pointed out, such a qualification serves no legal purpose. But it is ripe for parody in bios like that in a discontinued account for Darth Vader, who, like any media-savvy Twitter user, favors family over work: “Community Manager for Sith Lord but tweets are my own. Asthmatic. Dad to two rambunctious Jedis. Love scrapbooking, Beyonce and galactic domination.”
© 2013 Star Tribune