@dril: Weird Twitter’s Enigmatic Icon

In a dark corner of Twitter exists a community of comedians, satirists, and genuine oddballs responsible for some of the best tweets to appear on your timeline. It’s a broadly defined section of Twitter called “Weird Twitter” is difficult to narrow down. According to Jacob Silverman’s 2015 book “Terms of Service”, Weird Twitter features “bizarre jokes, non-sequiturs, intentionally crappy graphic design, meta-commentary on the medium itself, chaotic spelling, and capitalization, and a general sense that these people, if not quite insane, are doing an admirable job of mimicking insanity”.

Here you will find accounts with names like @fart and @BAKKOON telling crude jokes and talking with each other about current politics, television, and other everyday things — only with a defined absurdist bend. It’s a bizarre community that marinates in its own irony and self-loathing and produces some of the best 140-character jokes you’ll find. Among the most infamous of accounts is wint, @dril. His grainy grinning Jack Nicholson avatar has been replicated on dozen of tribute accounts like @parliawint, and @EveryoneisDril, an account that retweets tweets that are “dril-esque”

“dril-esque”, a difficult term to describe because dril is shrouded in mystery. The most important part of dril lore is that no one knows who dril is. Judging by the content of their tweets, we can infer that dril is intended to be a “he” but even their gender can’t be empirically confirmed. The audience is intended to perceive him as his avatar, an extremely low-resolution image of Jack Nicholson. A grinning Jack Nicholson with severe persecution and self-esteem issues, poor physical health, and a bizarre love/hate relationship with cops. In spite of all this, he’s one of the most popular accounts of Weird Twitter. So popular in fact, he launched a Patreon, a crowdfunding platform where fans can donate monthly to creators. What are dril’s fans paying him to make exactly? “hell” he says.

Speaking personally, dril’s Patreon launch was a surprise. I wondered how his Patreon would affect his relationship with his fans who celebrate his anonymity. Patreon is, by design, a platform that is used to better connect creators with fans. I had always (perhaps naively) imagined dril to be a force of nature that appeared on Twitter one day and would disappear just as quickly, not caring about money, recognition, or fan engagement. Mysterious Weird Twitter accounts have a history of doing just that. @UtilityLimb’s identity remains an enigma, as does why they stopped tweeting right before their 666th tweet.

@UtilityLimb’s 663rd and Final Tweet

UtilityLimb and accounts like it are able to disappear back into the material world without any real repercussions because most of the followers didn’t know who they were. Interactions with these accounts are limited, and distant the rare times they would occur. Their disappearance from the Twitter-sphere was felt by their fans but received little attention outside the responses to their respective final tweets, typically asking when they were going to post again.

Sometimes these mystery Weird Twitter accounts will catch the eye of the public, as was the case of @Horse_ebooks. The strangely poetic spambot attracted attention in late 2011, seeing articles on Buzzfeed, Daily Dot, and other blog sites before being the subject of two separate investigations; one conducted by Splitsider and another by Gawker. In September 2013, Horse_ebooks came out as Jacob Bakkila, @agentlebrees, a Buzzfeed creative strategist (and a popular Weird Twitter account himself) who had purchased the account from a Russian web mogul in late 2011 after the account had started to gain traction.

Upon purchasing the account, Bakilla, and his best friend Thomas Bender, remade the account, from a regular spambot into a creative art piece that, unbeknownst to all his followers, was all leading up to an exhibit at the FitzRoy Gallery in New York City. The reveal that Horse_ebooks was human and not an algorithm as many believed divided fans. Some, like the New Yorker’s Susan Orlean, lauded Horse_ebooks as an innovative piece of performance art for the digital age. Others, like culture-tech journalist Fruzsina Eördögh, expressed disappointment, feeling that the appeal of Horse_ebooks had been achieved through deceit making it worthless as art. It had been one of the first Weird Twitter accounts to hit it big and the reveal that it was all a performance art piece was disheartening to many followers.

Weird Twitter has no definitive history, only some points that are normally agreed upon. Weird Twitter: An Oral Story, a 2013 Buzzfeed article, gives details on famous members of Weird Twitter, revealing that some of the original Weird Twitter collective, like @leyawn and @cheesegod69, were members of the FYAD (Fuck You and Die) subforum on SomethingAwful, a message board popular in the early-mid 2000s that still enjoys a small cult following. Having more in common with a frat than 4chan, FYAD was infamous for its offensive sense of humor, sardonic flame wars, and hazing of new members. The members knew and liked each other for the most part and when members started to migrate to Twitter, many followed.

Very few details of this Twittersphere are concrete. @mattytalks offers the closest thing to a historical consensus; “ I think what is now being referred to as “weird” twitter obviously has it’s origins in the FYAD twetcrew guys” and @fart (a fellow FYAD member), sees a connection between FYAD’s focus on brevity and the appeal of Twitter. The article contains a lengthy discussion between members of whether or not Weird Twitter still exists, if it ever existed at all. Some users found it as a way for people to impose a brand upon them, others believed that there really wasn’t a strong enough community to warrant being considered an independent section of Twitter. Most users grouped under the label share a dislike of the name “Weird Twitter” but agree that there is a “shared” something between the different users. One of those other nebulous shared things that Weird Twitter has is dril.

dril’s account started in September 2008, tweeted “no”, went radio silent for nine months before returning with this:

Since June 23rd 2009, dril has tweeted regularly for eight years although his rise is difficult to document accurately. The earliest Internet Archive capture of his account page was on December 7th 2011, a year and half after he began to tweet regularly. Additionally, it’s difficult to track exactly how or when a tweet “blew up” as Twitter’s public statistics only track current stats. Google Trends offers us way to view dril’s rise through search terms. Since April 2010, the search term “dril twitter” has seen various peaks and valleys in exposure. Through the data, we can see searches for “dril twitter” spiking noticeably as early as March 2012, hitting its inflection point in September 2014, soaring to peak exposure in December 2015 where he has remained steady ever since.

At the time of writing, dril has 567k followers, more than most other Weird Twitter accounts. Maybe a handful of those followers know who is behind the grinning Jack Nicholson head. His anonymity is the key behind his brand. We don’t know what he looks like but his tweets describe himself in exaggeratedly grotesque detail. His followers include big names like Patton Oswalt, Kumail Nanjiani, and Lin Manuel Miranda but even they haven’t even seen dril’s face or heard his voice. We’re given so much personal detail and we still wouldn’t be able to recognize this person on the street.

The strangest bit about dril’s anonymity is how open he is. His location, although unconfirmed, is likely Delaware based on all available data, and that’s listed right in his Twitter bio. One would imagine that in the interest of keeping yourself private, they would sparsely use other social media. And while dril seemingly stays off Facebook and Instagram, he has a Youtube channel, a Twitch account, and his own website, wint.co. This website features a home page where dril talks about his future art and writing projects, as well as an online store where you can buy dril merchandise. In fact, it would seem as if dril is trying to create a brand for himself.

dril separates himself further from other mystery accounts by actually interacting with other users on Twitter. From confusing Larry the Cable Guy on 9/11 to following other Weird Twitter accounts like @rad_milk and @TriciaLockwood, dril doesn’t detach himself from the social world. Instead he hovers outside its orbit, shouting from afar. His interactions with others are effectively noise — an undecipherable alien language-that his followers are picking up and translating on Twitter. Weird Twitter: An Oral History contains an entire section discussing dril’s identity, asking other Weird Twitter accounts who they think dril may be. @fart hypothesizes that he’s “a computer algorithm from the future”, @leyawn says “You can build a whole character on Twitter.” @robdelaney doesn’t spectate but comments on dril’s overwhelming popularity in the community as early as 2013.

dril is even asked to say a few words about himself.

The interview comes as a surprise as dril is notoriously reclusive and had previously never been interviewed. dril clarifies that he’s not “in character” for the interview saying “ People seem to have the idea that I’m this really ‘wacky’ guy who behaves rather similarly to his offbeat twitter persona in real life, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Please allow me to dispel some of the myths out there and let people know what I’m all about.” According to dril, accounts like @pepsi were pioneers in ironic, subversive posting and serve as one of the most profound influences on dril’s comedy. dril then drops the charade entirely, begs readers to donate money to a PO Box located in “Crimetown, NJ” and leaves. Alas, even the exclusive interview with dril was a fake-out. Once again, the audience has come close to dril but his identity has been obscured, pixelated.

The central mystery behind these accounts have all been the same. Who are they?

Much has been said about the internet and privacy over the years and since the popularization of social media, the rules of privacy have changed in a scant few years. The earliest social media was insistent on usernames. Message boards and chat rooms were filled with people hiding behind names that gave others something to refer to them by. In dril’s interview, he refers to @dril as “an offbeat Twitter persona”, “persona” being an accurate word to describe how online accounts actually work.

Our online presence projects a persona, a mask for our true selves. In Sherry Turkle’s 1995 book, “Life on the Screen”, she discusses the adoption of personas by players in MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon/Multi-User Domain). The characters created in MUDs are referred to as “personae”. Turkle writes, “The anonymity of MUDs provides ample opportunities for individuals to express unexplored parts of themselves. A twenty-six year old interviewee says that she feels “more like herself when MUDding” believing that each part of her is better expressed through the persona in her MUDs than in real life. Turkle, one of the foremost researchers in internet psychology, sees this woman’s creation of different online personas to be an example of self-expression and that this woman, as well as many others, are happier when hidden behind a mask.

Facebook has since rewritten the rules of internet privacy. Your name, face, and location are ways for you to “connect” rather than things to hide. Curiously, Twitter has continued to occupy a middle ground between pre-Facebook privacy traditions and post-Facebook openness. It’s a reckless approach, and one that has made it difficult for Twitter to find financial success to the displeasure of its investors. Recently, Twitter was forced to retire its infamous default “egg” avatar because the egg had become synonymous with hateful trolling. The egg, although only an avatar, gave power to those who used it to harass other users with impunity.

Anonymity and its links to cyberbullying and harassment have always been among the most troubling and perplexing issues as we navigate the Internet. Turkle’s point from before about MUDs and anonymity remains salient, especially on Twitter. Anonymity serves as a way for people to cut loose and discover themselves. As with anything, anonymity is a power that must be wielded responsibly. Racists and trolls use their power negatively, to spread malice and discontent throughout Twitter hiding behind eggs, anime girls, and sad frogs.

Of course, anonymity can be a boon for how it removes the inhibiting factor, look at the many musicians who perform in masks. French electronic-music duo, Daft Punk, are most famous for their flashy robot helmets that cover their rarely-seen faces. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, the known but unseen, men behind the masks initially thought of the helmets as a sort of homage to 70s era glam rock, but now appreciate how their anonymity has helped create a mythos for Daft Punk. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bangalter says “ We’re not performers, we’re not models — it would not be enjoyable for humanity to see our features — but the robots are exciting to people.” In obfuscating their own identity, Daft Punk has made their art their primary product and created an enduring question about their basic identity to entice fans and first-time listeners. Bangalter celebrates the freedom his anonymity gives him, saying about Daft Punk, “They’re anonymous icons. One thing I like about the masks is that I don’t have people constantly coming up to me and reminding me what I do.

With dril, we can see a similar philosophy emerge. His total anonymity may stem from a desire not to be recognized. In his Buzzfeed interview, he notes that his tweets gain more favorites when “they are particularly miserable or profane.” Although most of the interview is tongue-in-cheek, that part checks out. Without his anonymity, would dril become less bizarre and profane?

Since 2008, there has been no evolution of dril’s moral character. Within the community, there has been noticeable personal growth as people have moved, graduated college, married, and yet dril remains static, stuck in time. And he’s celebrated for it. His commitment to the character is seen as an achievement. In Weird Twitter: An Oral History, @rare_basement offers praise towards dril’s response towards Penn State alumni defending the University during its 2012 sex abuse scandal, saying “ Dril is actually fantastic at trolling…always on the right side of the issue, but super funny and subtle about it.

@rare_basement’s belief that dril is on the right side of the issue would turn out to be a point of contention when a controversy broke out in June 2016 over his usage of “echoes”, a white supremacist practice in three brackets are placed around the names of Jewish people, marking them for targeted online harassment campaigns. In this case, dril had bracketed the Keebler Elves.

For many, this tweet was another random joke. Others caught wind of what they perceived to be dog-whistling towards Neo-Nazis. Some expressed disbelief, others called for a boycott, the alt-right thought they had one in their court. This tweet is likely the cause for the spike in “dril twitter” searches from the Google Trends data. In the following days, his timeline would be filled with him passively dismissing people who called him a Nazi or sarcastically compromising to be “less racist”. A Daily Dot article by Jay Hathaway, a former Gawker staff writer, suggests that dril, who has a long history of playing to his most ironic fans, played into the controversy for the hell of it. Those who condemn dril’s joke say that satire isn’t a defense, one user saying “IRONIC RACISM IS STILL RACISM

dril’s refusal to clarify his political views, even in the face of being called a Nazi, speaks to his confidence in his own privacy. In dril’s mind, @dril doesn’t have to establish his political views because @dril isn’t a person, @dril is a persona. Still, careers have been destroyed on less and the joke was tone-deaf, maybe intentionally so. Almost ten months later and dril is still as popular as ever. The Keebler Elves controversy had no detrimental effect on his account, relegated to a reactionary footnote in “dril history.”

His refusal to clarify his views speaks to his trust in his audience to “get” his jokes. dril knows enough people will be in on the joke so that he doesn’t have to explain the satire. Likewise, his audience trusts him to make pointed satire that crosses boundaries but is never hateful. The joke is always on himself or an entrenched elite, dril never punches down. This mutual bond of trust is the core of dril’s cult following. It’s why fans will donate to his Patreon despite no discernible rewards, it’s why he can be unrelentingly vulgar, and it’s why dril’s identity has remained a secret for close to a decade. Even if fans were given the chance to unmask dril, it’s unlikely to happen. For many fans, the persona is the appeal.

When dril was asked in a private Patreon Q&A about how he felt about breaking character, he respondedi am an almost 30 year old man and i could not really care less about the platform i use to convey dick jokes.” The most fascinating thing about dril isn’t necessarily that he’s stayed “hidden” for years, but that his identity has remained a secret without really trying. In a sense, I was right that dril didn’t care much about money, recognition, or fan engagement. All dril wants to do is make dick jokes, the rest just sort of appeared. Likewise, his fans don’t care about his identity. His fans want the persona, the content, the Brand.