From the 2018 Winter Solstice to the 2019 Summer Solstice, I performed a stunt on Twitter:
The first word of each of @dmkoelle’s public tweets between December 21, 2018 and June 21, 2019, when read from June back to December, form the lyrics to DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s 1991 hit, “Summertime.”
TL, DR: As with most stunts, don’t do this at home, kids. This long journey limited my participation in interesting and useful online discourse. That said, I discovered that there were positive points and interesting moments of serendipity, which I describe below.
Why did I do this?
That’s a great question that I asked myself several times during this endeavor!
Where does 11 years go? That is apparently how long I’ve had a Twitter account. My use of Twitter has always been more as a consumer than a producer — I follow a lot of interesting people and I learn something new every time I check my timeline, but I generally don’t post much and my account has never attracted a large number of followers.
Considering that I wasn’t posting much anyway, I thought it would be an interesting challenge if I could do something unique and attention-grabbing that also encouraged me to post meaningful material more frequently.
Around October 2018, I was inspired by a couple of “the first word of each tweet” threads. They all had an interesting idea but they also only went back by, say, a month or so. Could I do something even more extravagant? And could I maintain a high quality of tweets? Because some of the “first word” threads that I’ve seen really bail on tweet quality. Why can’t we have nice things?
I started planning for this stunt in October 2018. At first, I wasn’t sure it would be feasible. Like I said, I’m not a heavy Twitter poster; at the time, in the 10.5 years that I had my account, I had made about 4000 posts total— about 400 tweets per year, many of which were replies to other people. This stunt would require about 500 tweets in half a year, not counting replies, and I wasn’t sure whether my time or patience would be up for the task.
The lyrics, which I obtained from Genius (https://genius.com/Dj-jazzy-jeff-and-the-fresh-prince-summertime-lyrics), consisted of around 500 words. I separated the lyrics into individual words, and put them in reverse order (Yes, fans of Missy Elliot: I put my thing down, flipped it, and reversed it). I decided to tweet the words to the hook only once, towards the end of the time period, and to refer to it the second time it was used. I divided my 500 words into groups of 6, with the intention of posting 6 tweets per day, except for weekends, with plenty of room for slippage (the days I didn’t post anything — I anticipated that there would be a lot of those).
If I worked through the list too slowly, I would never meet my June 21 deadline. But if I worked too quickly, I’d end up with weeks or more of silence. The stunt had to end on June 21. I really wanted that Dec 21 — Jun 21 symmetry.
I also considered the ethical implications this stunt. Despite my low number of tweets, I’ve usually kept my account pretty topical: programming, puzzles, interesting things happening in the world, and (more as a function of necessity rather than desire) outrage at the American political system after the election of 2016. Would my tweets during this period really be genuine? Would I be forced off-topic by the words? Would my followers hate me? I had about 858 followers at the start, and I wondered whether my increased rate of posts would grow my follower count during the stunt.
I also wondered whether some of the words would reveal my stunt. How do I successfully use “maxin’” to start a sentence? Who starts a sentence with the word “reunion”? How many times could I bring myself to start a sentence with “of” or “groove”? It’s off-brand for me to start a sentence with “ain’t.” And there are several uses of the word “summertime” itself that could be revealing.
Now that the stunt is over, here’s what I found.
Doing the Stunt
First, my idea of posting 6 tweets per day was blown out of the water almost immediately, given a vacation between Christmas and New Year’s that I hadn’t originally planned for. By the time January 1, 2019 rolled around, I was already about 20 tweets behind where I had expected to be! Add in other late-planned time away in February, March, and April, plus weekends (when I tend not to tweet), busy work days, and days I just didn’t feel like it, and the odds were against me. I was not through the full third verse at the end of February 2019, and at that point I wasn’t sure I would ever finish this. (The third verse had the most words, though. Verse 1: 109 words + 9 words in the chorus; Verse 2: 144 words; Verse 3: 237 words. Add in a few more words overall for syntactics like “[Hook]” and “[Verse X]”.)
While my primary goal was to tweet for 6 months with the lyrics of “Summertime” as the first words, I had an important caveat to that goal: I had to do this without compromising the quality of my account. As I review the past six months of tweets, I believe I was successful in this.
I had several tweets planned far in advance. In fact, I wrote the last four tweets, which I planned to publish on June 21 (and I did), weeks before December 21. I had also pre-populated several other tweets, like the Norm MacDonald one, before I started the stunt.
Using the lyric’s words as writing prompts encouraged me to post more things, some of which (“dance”, “romance”) caused me to spread my wings a bit.
I was surprised that I almost always seemed to find something topical to write about:
- On the day I had the word “hangout,” news about Google Hangout’s demise was released.
- On the day I had the word “girls” (“all the boys messin’ round with the girls, playing double dutch”), which happened to be Valentine’s Day, I retweeted someone mentioning that their dad and boyfriend had donated to Girls Who Code as a Valentine’s gift. I loved that, and it was totally on-brand.
- LEGO (also on-brand for me) had just revealed their Hidden Side augmented reality sets, which I thought “double”d the fun of the sets.
- Later on the same day, I had the word “round,” and that evening, CNN ran an article about a new analysis showing that glyphosate (RoundUp) increases cancer risk (I’m usually very keyed-in to text styling when it comes to brand names, but in this case I gave myself permission to mis-stylize it as “Round Up”).
- Days earlier, the Patriots just had their 6th Super Bowl win when I had to use the word “six”…
- …and @PuzzlerEric had just posted a puzzle where two pairs of blanks would be filled by the same letters (C _ _ D _ _ E → CONDONE) when I had to clue _ ‘ _ L _ _ K.
- My Twitter friend Heidi N Moore happened to tweet that “Ayurveda recognizes onions as an aphrodisiac” a mere 4 hours before I needed to start a Tweet with the word “aphrodisiac,” which was going to be a hard word to start a tweet with. Having cooked with garlic over the past weekend, the smell still lingering on my hands, I pondered whether garlic might also have aphrodisiac effects.
Bottom line: There was serendipity almost everywhere I looked.
I never relied on a simple retweet to serve as one of my words. I knew the author could delete their tweet, and then I’d be left with a hole in a project that required six months of commitment. Every time I retweeted, I added my own comment so I would be sure of no gaps. (Looking back, there were moments that people retracted tweets that I retweeted, so I’m glad I did that!)
Frontin’ and Maxin’, Chillin’ and Waxin’
Sometimes, I really had my work cut out for me. “Every moment frontin’ and maxin’, chillin’ in the car they spent all day waxin’, leanin’ to the side…” — that was a tough sequence. Of course, since I was doing this in reverse, my sequence was “side the to leanin’ waxin’ day all spent they car the in chillin’ maxin’ and frontin’ moment every.” I was pretty sure the quick succession of leanin’, waxin’, chillin’, maxin’, and frontin’ would give up the stunt, but I managed to pull it off without getting noticed.
- Leanin’ became #LeanIn and retweeted statistics about #womenintheworkplace.
- Waxin’ became the first word of a freestyle rap I invented about the 2019 moon phases (“waxin’ and wanin’”) that was legitimately inspired by the cadence of will.i.am.
- Chillin’ was a gif of a squirrel in the snow.
- Maxin’… well, I cheated on this one and made it look like I had inadvertently pasted some code into Twitter: maxIn > maxOut ? “Filtered out “+(maxIn-maxOut)+” max’s” : “maxOut is greater”;. (I didn’t get any likes on that tweet.)
- “Frontin’ Trump” was lying about invaders at the southern border — I did get a like (and I think a follow) on that one.
It was fun to come up with homonyms or other parts of speech for words. “DJ’s” became the Benicio Del Toro character in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” “Ya” became “YA” for Young Adult novelists. “Norm” became Norm MacDonald. I tried making “bass” be about fish, but I found a cool video with a bass saxophone (they’re huge!). “Sake” became the Japanese alcohol.
“Benzos” was a weird word to start with (In 1991, Will Smith meant it as a Mercedes Benz), and I had no idea what to do for “Lorenzos” (a street in LA). Fortunately — and this is one of my favorite group of tweets during this exercise — a bit earlier, I had commented on the “Philly Taco” (for the word “Philly”), which is a slice of pizza wrapping a Philly cheesesteak, and it turns out there’s a pizza place called Lorenzo’s that is one of the purveyors of these Philly tacos.
If the Genius lyrics are to be believed, Will Smith used a lot of -ing words and dropped the final g. It’s not really my style to say somethin’, dressin’, checkin’, sittin’, huntin’, doin’, honkin’, beepin’, startin’, sittin’, growin’, playin’, messin’, spinnin’, wipin’, lookin’, frontin’, maxin’, chillin’, waxin’, or leanin’. Somehow, according to Genius, a single instance each of “riding” and “playing” were immune from the g-drop. I started sentences with all of those words. Nobody ever complained.
I don’t know how accurate the lyrics were. I assume the Genius lyrics are a pretty good basis for ground truth; I suppose liner notes would have been more accurate, but I didn’t think about that until June 19, 2019. I only made a few modifications to the Genius lyrics. When “the temperature’s about 88,” I said “eighty-eight” and split it into two words. There were some cases where I thought the lyrics might be incorrect (“Here it is, the groove slightly transformed” — I’m pretty sure it’s a groove, not the groove) but I went with it. “What about the groove that soothes that moves romance” — again, I’m pretty sure it’s “a groove” here as well, and “and moves romance.” (Maybe Genius is purposefully putting in wrong words to track whether Google or AZLyrics is grabbing their data!)
Then June 1 Rolls Around…
By the time June 1 came, I was very behind. I still had a lot words to go! I really needed to ramp up the number of posts I was making if I were to have a chance of getting were I needed to be by June 21. Even still, I had busy days where I would skip posting. I had to hit about 10–13 posts a day at this point. Some words were easier than others, and sometimes I found that I got into a groove; on the other hand, some words caused me to stall for quite a while (how to you start a sentence with “gotten”?!). The big thing that kept me going was the inertia of having five months of posts behind me that would all be for naught if I missed that self-imposed June 21 deadline.
What did I miss out on?
My biggest frustration during this whole thing is that I wouldn’t allow myself to publicly post or share anything that didn’t start with the next word in the lyrics. There were a fair number of important social issues and news items that happened during this time period, as well as people’s personal successes that I would have liked to share, but I had self-constrained myself. At times, I was concerned that I would come off as tone-deaf. We’re witnessing some of the greatest atrocities that we’ve seen in this country in my lifetime (e.g., border crisis), but here I am sending links about summertime and Katy Perry’s “Dressin’” (not on-brand for me). Nevertheless, looking back it seems like I did a decent job at sharing my outrage, sharing interesting trivia and factoids, and sharing interesting and meaningful ideas.
How did my followers change?
My follower count stayed pretty much exactly where it was, but my engagement with each tweet was far beyond what I had been seeing earlier. Many of my tweets were liked by at least one person. I was fortunate to gain follows from people who I enjoy having as followers. While my follower count remained static, I have definitely attracted and retained quality users, while other users seem to have disappeared through rounds of bot removal — so the fact that I’m at 861 users as I write this (versus 858 when I started) is a coincidence, and my low point during these six months was 852. Many bad followers went away, many great followers came in.
I have four primary thoughts as I conclude this endeavor. The first is the downside of doing this: for six months, I was not at liberty to post whatever I wanted. To get around this, in lieu of posting my own thoughts given this constraint, I would reply to other people’s posts — but I’m not sure that carried the same impact.
On the other hand, I posted much more frequently than I would have if I weren’t doing this stunt, and based on the likes and responses I received from others, most of my tweets were rather well received!
Third, I feel that in the end, this will have been an effort with very little upside. Only over the next few days will I learn whether this six-month endeavor is followed by a trail of quality followers and introductions. Before long at all, like every other post on Twitter no matter how compelling, this extensive effort will waft away in the breeze of time. I’ve seen it said, “Being Twitter famous is like being rich in Monopoly” — and I don’t even expect to become Twitter famous from this stunt. At the end of the day — or, at the end of six months — the big question I’ll ask myself is, “was this a wasted effort?”
Finally, I appreciate Twitter for its ability to bring people together — people who would otherwise never have met, but upon meeting through Twitter, they find that they have much in common and can positively influence and inspire and grow each other and their communities (right, Anna Gát?!). To that end, I’m glad this effort led me to interact in ways that I might not have without it, and I furthermore hope to connect with and learn from you, should you find the content of my tweets or my commitment to this task to be interesting. Please follow me on Twitter and I promise more interesting material to come (but no longer prompted by a song’s lyrics).
Now lay back, cause this is summertime. Time to sit back and unwind.