Twitter + Cryptograms

Crack Open This Summer’s Brainiest (and Funniest) Beach Read

Just when you thought social media couldn’t get any easier, someone comes along and makes it much, much harder. On purpose.

At least that’s the idea behind the newly released book, Twitterati Cryptograms: 350 Snarky Ciphers for Social Media Junkies. It’s a clever mashup of old-school word puzzles with mainstream social media. Crack the code to unleash the laughs, courtesy of your favorite Twitter comics, like Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal, Rob Delaney, and Megan Amram. No bad puns or forced wordplay here — these jokes are legitimately funny (and peppered with a bit of profanity for good measure).

I sat down with Twitterati author @codeSparrow (actually, he made me climb up into some bushes for the interview) and we talked about social media, word games, and whether brain size really matters.

Okay, so explain what a cryptogram is?

A cryptogram is just a fancy word for cipher or secret code. Each letter stands for another letter, but a letter never stands for itself. Historically, these ciphers were used for military encryption to transmit sensitive information across enemy territory. This dates back to the Roman Empire. But the problem was that the codes could be broken, in sometimes spectacular fashion. What made them so unreliable for covert communication is exactly what makes them so much fun to solve when national security isn’t on the line. They seem impossible to crack at first, but, little by little, using clues like single-letter words, punctuation, letter patterns, and good, old-fashioned intuition, you decipher one letter at a time until you have enough clues to figure out the whole message.

Sounds a little like Wheel of Fortune.

It’s a lot like Wheel of Fortune! Minus the wheel, of course. And the fortune.

What made you think of turning tweets into puzzles?

Twitter has some of the funniest short-form comedy out there. That’s why so many TV shows mine Twitter for writers. Professional and amateur comedians use Twitter to promote their unique brands of humor, so there’s a comic for every taste (or lack thereof). The material is constantly refreshing and reinventing itself. Also, 140-characters just happens to be the perfect length for cryptograms.

So let me get this straight. You’re taking jokes I can read instantly on Twitter for free and making them incomprehensible?

Yes! This book isn’t meant to replace your Twitter feed — it’s meant to celebrate and supplement it. I know everyone loves to talk about how lazy and entitled people have become, but I don’t buy it. Humans love to figure stuff out, especially when there’s a reward at the end. You can enjoy these puzzles at the doctor’s office, on the beach, on a plane, in a tent in the pouring rain. It makes a great gift. Will everyone appreciate this book? No, but there are millions of young people who do crossword puzzles and Sudoku — not just the elderly. Frankly, most cryptograms are too boring to engage a younger generation. These are different.

Who’s featured in the book?

Comedians Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman from Bob’s Burgers, Catastrophe star Rob Delaney, as well as 74-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings. We have TV writers from Family Guy, Parks and Recreation, Conan, Community, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, and Late Night with Seth Meyers. We have authors and writers from The Onion and McSweeney’s. But most of the contributors are people you’ve probably never heard of. They’re regular people with a great sense of humor sharing jokes on Twitter.

I’m on Twitter and I’m funny. How come I’m not in the book?

There were so many funny people to choose from, but once we topped 100 contributors, it started to become unmanageable. But I’m already collecting tweets for a second book. To be considered, follow @codeSparrow on Twitter.

Cryptograms v. crossword puzzles. What would win?

No question, crosswords enjoy more mainstream popularity.

Why do you think that is?

Well, for one thing, crossword puzzles are easier to start. They’re often hard to finish, but you can almost always figure out a few clues right off the bat and that makes it easier to progress. Psychologically, you feel like you’re doing well. With cryptograms, it’s the opposite. The hardest part is starting, but then they get easier as you go along. You have to be tenacious. There’s plenty of room for both types of puzzles. They’re both classics.

Cryptograms v. Sudoku?

Now that’s a battle I want to see. Number people versus word people. Actually, the puzzles are very similar.

In what way?

They share a lot of the same logic principles. For example, both are basically an extended process of elimination. You rule out possibilities based on what’s already been used and where. Placement is important. In Sudoku, you’re checking the horizontal and vertical rows, the defined boxes. For cryptograms, letter placement follows the rules of the English language. Think about which letters can stand alone and which often go together. The boundaries are defined differently for the two games, but otherwise they’re surprisingly similar. Of course, cryptograms have an advantage over Sudoku?

What’s that?

When you finally solve the puzzle, you get a joke as your reward. There are no jokes in Sudoku.

Bonus! OK, so how do you solve these things?

The first thing I do is look for single-letter words. Those can only be A or I in a typical scenario. And since we’re talking about social media where people love to talk about themselves, the letter “I” has the advantage, especially when it’s at the beginning of a sentence. Next, size up the punctuation. Are there apostrophes? Think about all the different combinations of letters that would make sense for contractions (or possessives) and see if any seem to work. Are there serial commas? When listing things off, we tend to use “and” or “or” before the last item. Are there question marks? What sorts of words are used to form questions (What, Where, Who, Why, How, Which)?

The most common three-letter words in the English language are: the, and, for, are, but, not. Other clues to look for: double letters, common word endings (-ing, -tion, -tive), common letter combinations (th, ch, sh, wh, ph, gh), and the ratio of vowels to consonants. There’s a quick tutorial in the front of the book to help you start. And if you get stuck, there are two sets of hints for each puzzle in the back.

Is the average person really smart enough to solve these?

Absolutely. Even I can solve them, with my tiny bird brain. If you can read, you can learn how to solve these puzzles. Everything you need to know is already stored in the recesses of your mind. Like anything, you get better with practice. You develop your own strategies. Plus, puzzles like these are really good for your brain. Studies have shown that cognitively stimulating activities — ones that really engage your brain and make you think — are associated with lower risks of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Plus, you know what they say about laughter being the best medicine. So these puzzles are not only fun, but also good for you!

Twitterati Cryptograms: 350 Snarky Ciphers for Social Media Junkies is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, and, quite possibly, your local indie bookstore.