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How a tweet about a chicken and a hair dryer got its own news cycle

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The life cycle of ‘hair dryer chicken’ proves nothing is safe from the content vortex

helen-rosner-chicken Image: Helen Rosner

On March 21st, New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner tweeted a photo of her pointing a Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer at a raw chicken. She was trying to remove moisture and maximize the crispiness of the chicken skin before roasting it, and she wanted to share her snow day plans with her followers.

But this story is not about chicken. Well, it’s kind of about chicken. It’s also about Twitter and digital media and misogyny and The Daily Mail. "Hair dryer chicken” is in the midst of its own internet life cycle, and Rosner doesn’t really have anything to do with it anymore.

After the first tweet, most of Rosner’s 50,000 Twitter followers were enthusiastic about her chicken-themed ingenuity. They expressed joy and disbelief and asked for specifics about things like oven temperature and whether or not the hair dryer model will affect the chicken’s resulting crispiness. The next day, Rosner’s tweet was featured as a Twitter Moment. That’s where it started.

“I actually had a feeling it had been turned into a Moment before I saw that it had,” Rosner tells The Verge. “I’ve had tweets highlighted in Moments before, and the biggest thing that happens is that suddenly a flood of people are quote-tweeting you, usually while misunderstanding what your tweet actually says.”

The tweet gained about 1,600 likes in its first week, with 100-plus responses, including one from the official Dyson Twitter account. (Is any brand capable of passing up an opportunity for self-promotion?) It’s now been covered by outlets like Fox News, The Today Show, the New York Post, Lifehacker, Allure, USA Today, Bustle, and The Kitchn. The Root declared it “the Whitest Thing on the Internet” in 2018, three months into the year. Rosner’s own New Yorker article about the hack was turned into a YouTube video by the content farm EnterTV, which interspersed Rosner’s writing with stock images of chicken and set it all to a Latin soundtrack.

As Rosner points out in her New Yorker piece, the method of using dryers to suck moisture from chicken skin has been used for years by barbecue pit masters, Japanese chefs, and countless other people who cook chicken. It’s far from a new technique, but now it is very online.

The hair dryer chicken tweet is not as surreal a phenomenon as Tide Pods or as ubiquitous as Flat Earth conspiracy theories, but it has followed a similar trajectory: a single, unremarkable idea gains outsized traction; that response warrants a blog post, which begets more blog posts; and, finally, the absurdity of the overreaction inspires jokes and parodies. Also sucked into that life cycle are internet trolls, oven-only chicken purists, people who think hair-drying a chicken is just another way to “demoralize non-human beings,” and at least one “kill yourself!”

A few key elements prepped this tweet for its online tour. First, Rosner is already well-known in the food world and has a sizable Twitter following. Second, the Dyson Supersonic is a $400 hair dryer, and it’s easy to offend the people of the internet by spending your money in a way others wouldn’t spend their own — especially if it’s perceived as feminine or frivolous. (That’s why the phrase “$400 hair dryer” is headline-writer candy.) Thirdly, Rosner’s engagement with the tweet after the fact — retweeting joke responses, recipe attempts, and replies from particularly outraged men — keeps it alive.

That’s another thing: Rosner’s a woman, and she says that makes it easier for strangers to assume she doesn’t know what she’s doing. “I do absolutely think that if this had been a Kenji López-Alt tweet or an Alton Brown tweet, the response would have been different — and, I think, smaller,” Rosner says. “There would’ve been raptures on Twitter, and then maybe one or two food sites would pick it up. But I think The Daily Mail, the [New York] Post, and others — there’s something to the way they framed it that presumed my stupidity instead of my competence.”

Despite never actually being “news” in the first place, Rosner’s chicken tweet quickly became news anyway, thanks to misconceptions or misrepresentations of what Rosner was actually doing. She was largely removed from the story in headlines that described her as a woman cooking chicken with her hair dryer. Yahoo’s headline, a top Google search result, takes it one step further: “Woman uses hair dryer to cook her meals.” Rosner says many of her Twitter replies have come from men instructing her to use an oven.

“Look, I get how the headline business works — I’ve spent a decade writing headlines,” says Rosner, who changed her Twitter name to “Woman” when the many content-mill headlines began rolling in. “Saying ‘woman’ or ‘man’ in a headline is a choice. It says something very specific to your readers, something very different from ‘food writer’ or ‘chicken lover’ or ‘heroic genius.’ It’s pretty much shorthand for, ‘Can you believe this idiot?’”

Tweets like Rosner’s put a spotlight on the dreary, tail-eating nature of digital publishing. With dozens of publications fighting for the same readers on a minute-to-minute basis, many will cover almost anything popular, regardless of whether it’s substantive. If the phrase “hair dryer chicken” is trending on Google or on social platforms, editors and writers at digital publications will rush to get a share of whatever traffic they can, often not even bothering to reach out for comment. (In Rosner’s case, only Allure contacted her.)

crowd-tangle-chicken-hairdryer
hairdryer-chicken

“My Google alerts started dinging every hour or so with another food or news website covering it, usually linking to my New Yorker piece and then quoting the Allure story,” Rosner said. “Most didn’t add anything. A few either really thought I was cooking the chicken with the dryer, or intentionally obscured [the reality] to make the story more sensational.”

This is how we got to the point where a food critic decides to roast a chicken on a snow day, and we ended up talking about it for a month. As more websites cover the trend of “hair dryer chicken,” it starts to feel like it’s something worth covering or that it’s actually part of a new culinary moment, when, really, like the many digital simulacra that have come before it, there’s almost nothing there. I am now guilty of extending the life cycle because this is my job, but you’re also guilty because you clicked.

“Like any red-blooded Twitter addict, I’m recreationally obsessed with media echo chambers and meme proliferation and all that fun stuff, so I’m mostly watching it all unfold around me with fascination and delight,” Rosner says.

Once you put something on the internet, it’s nearly impossible to control or retain ownership of it. Maybe today you’ll see people tweeting photos of their own joke hair dryer hacks, like how to get a dry martini or a dry... United States Constitution. It doesn’t have to make sense — we’ll be stuck here watching regardless.