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The enduring strangeness of Twitter parody accounts

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Twitter accounts that borrow the likeness of fictional characters are surprisingly popular, but why?

Twitter is cluttered with stray artifacts of fandom. There are countless fan accounts — some active, some long dormant — for Katy Perry, One Direction, and Taco Bell (@TacoBell_fanz bio: "the place for Taco Bell lovers"). There’s a fan account for DJ Khaled’s Snapchat and Donald Trump’s hair. These accounts are generally places where joyful, intermittently ironic tribute is paid to the people or objects that make up popular culture. But dig a little deeper into Twitter’s dustier corners, and you’ll find a huge, interconnected, bafflingly popular collection of fan-made parody accounts — a strange cousin to the Twitter fan club, where celebrities and brands are assimilated, rather than fawned over.

Each parody account comes equipped with an avatar and a handle meant to make you think the accounts actually belong to fictional characters. That Eastbound and Down’s Kenny Powers (@ImDannyMcBride), Deadpool (@SorryImDeadPool), and Seth MacFarlane’s Ted (@HilariousTed) are all spending their free time composing pithy 140-character missives for the fans lucky enough to find them. These accounts are like cover bands: recognizable pieces of pop culture reinterpreted in an open-source format.

recognizable pieces of pop culture reinterpreted in an open-source format

But unlike cover bands, these parody accounts seem to have no real desire to pay homage to the characters who inspired them. You might imagine a Ron Swanson parody account would include jokes about steak and taxes, and a Leslie Knope account would need to mention waffles and Joe Biden. In fact, very few parody accounts on Twitter ever seem to accurately mimic (or even try to mimic) the voice of the fictional characters they claim to pay tribute to. @HilariousTed recently tweeted a meme about Knicks player Derrick Williams’s hair. One of @SorryImDeadPool’s most recent tweets is "So fucking tired lmao." @HilariousTed has more than 360,000 followers; @ImDeadPool has more than 10,000. It’s unclear how many of these followers are bots, people with inactive accounts, or users who have taken a wrong turn somewhere. (@SorryImDeadPool may have 10,000 followers, but his tweets rarely get any likes).

These relatively high follower counts might indicate to the unfamiliar Twitter user that these accounts have something to offer. It’s not originality: Not only is the entire premise of a parody account based on someone else’s character, but the most high-traffic parody account tweets usually consist of little more than a shitpic sourced from some untraceable place, supplemented with an ‘LMAO’ or a ‘My life!  ' (Even the term "parody account" might be a misnomer, because very few tweets here might constitute parody, but that’s usually how the account-holders describe what they do). It’s similar to the idea of freebooting, where popular memes and videos appear on various content mill Facebook pages, posted without credit so as to give the impression the content is original. @RonTheAnchorman, a Ron Burgundy parody account with nearly 297,000 followers, is almost entirely spam. Alongside retweets of a Hitler parody account (which appears to be owned by the same user or users), word-for-word stolen tweets, and an uncredited tweet of something Kim Kardashian once said, the page is full of retweets of @HealthAdsForMen. "HOW TO NATURALLY LOSE MAN BOOBS WITHOUT USING ANY PILLS." "3 Special Forces SECRETS to Develop an Alpha Male Body." The almost 300,000 people served these tweets either don’t care or don’t use Twitter often enough to notice.

If you don’t follow any parody accounts on Twitter, you might not recognize them, or their consistent style. But chances are, if you follow even just one parody account, several more have shown up in your timeline. That’s because the world of Twitter parody accounts is a tangled, incestuous one, where fictional characters constantly retweet other fictional characters — even ones decidedly outside their own universe. Recently, @HilariousTed retweeted @ItsWillyFerrell, who was asking his fans to follow @BeowulfESQ (yes, a Beowulf parody account). It was a Russian nesting doll of promotion, one parody account tucked within the next, each one benefitting from the others’ massive follower counts. This probably isn’t due to a tight-knit, supportive community of parody tweeters than so much as a single Twitter parody account kingpin promoting all of his products at once. (The guy who runs @HilariousTed confirmed to me that he runs several parody accounts, but he wouldn’t say which ones).

Twitter's lowest common denominator

Twitter parody accounts are the average sum of Twitter itself, and its lowest common denominator. A stream of vaguely offensive jokes and throwaway thoughts, overused memes and overblown photos, tweets that are largely voiceless and indistinguishable from one another. Parody tweets are comfortable content for anyone floundering in obscurity on Twitter, which is most of Twitter’s user base. A parody account complains about work and being tired, just like you. Their memes are approachable; they say something about your life. Parody accounts aren’t esoteric or smart, and they’re not run by celebrities. But if you don’t have any friends on Twitter, and you enjoyed the Anchorman movies, their appeal is a no-brainer: they provide relatable anonymity with a famous face.

These accounts give their followers the illusion of having taste, without requiring the freedom of thought that usually precipitates knowing what your tastes are. When you follow a parody account on Twitter — almost any parody account — you’ll know, within a few degrees of accuracy, what you’re going to get. On a platform known for indecision and snap judgements, parody accounts provide no surprises, and for some people, that’s a relief.