There’s a question people keep asking me. Every time a friend of mine pulls me aside in a bar and asks me this question, I feel a tingly sensation and get at least a tenth of an inch taller. There is always a sense of confusion, embarrassment, and maybe even a hint of terror in their voices — a sense that they’ve missed something obvious and are about to be exposed as Not In On the Joke. The question is phrased something like this: “What the hell are #boatfacts?”
Recent paleontological research has suggested that prehistoric boats were actually covered in feathers, not scales! #boatfacts
— Raul Chamgerlain (@BillCoberly) April 11, 2017
This question (“What the hell are #boatfacts?”) is actually at least two separate questions.
First, there’s this question: “Why are you posting a bunch of facts about boats that are demonstrably not real facts about boats?” The real answer is: because I think they’re funny, and a few of my friends agree with me.
But then there’s a second, longer question: “How did you come to a place in your life where you post nonsense facts about boats on Twitter and Facebook and everyone just sort of nods along as though this is a perfectly normal thing to do?” This second question is more interesting. The short answer is “because the Internet is Weird.” The longer answer requires some history, so if you’re curious, here it is.
Whoa! Most boats can survive for up to two weeks without oxygen! #boatfacts
— Raul Chamgerlain (@BillCoberly) April 19, 2017
Cast your mind back through the mists of time to about 2012 — President Obama was about to be re-elected to a second term, Game of Thrones was on its second season, and nobody really knew who Milo Yiannopoulos was. This was the heyday of Weird Twitter, that loose confederation of people who use Twitter not to express opinions about things or yell at celebrities, but rather to make bizarre, hilarious, iconoclastic outsider art featuring equal parts nihilistic horror, “creative” spelling, and highly specific pop culture references. (They also yell at celebrities, but usually in extremely strange ways, rather than just to be horrible).
In 2012 I was living in Savannah, GA, working from home as a transcriber while Erin went to grad school. Transcription work entails spending a lot of time sitting in front of your computer, often waiting for work to come in, so I had a lot of opportunity to get intimately acquainted with Twitter and the Internet. When I wasn’t transcribing, I was mostly trying to write about videogames on the Internet. In 2012 (and still to some extent today), writing about videogames on the Internet pretty much required you to have some sort of Twitter presence. The corner of games-writing I found myself in was particularly fond of Twitter, which served as kind of a communal water cooler for all the weirdos like me writing about videogames through the lenses of stuff like philosophy, literary criticism, or queer theory. Sites like The Ontological Geek, Nightmare Mode, Pixels or Death and Medium Difficulty were springing up like wildflowers, and all of us spent part of our time in this loose community, telling goofy jokes, sharing articles, talking about games and, of course, bickering wildly. It was a weird time, but it was fun. I made a lot of friends doing this, many of whom I have yet to meet in person even though I still talk to them every week.
This was also a time of ridiculous social media startups. These still exist, and probably always will, but I feel like there were 1000% more of those in 2011-2013 than there are now. One of these ridiculous startups was a service called Klout, which purported to sort through your Twitter and Facebook feeds to determine what you were “influential” about, so that you could then tailor your content accordingly. Klout also intended to rank Twitter accounts by “influence,” and would partner you with various brands that would give you free or cheap stuff if you were sufficiently “influential,” on the theory that you would then talk that stuff up to your followers. Nobody I knew took Klout seriously, although one heard rumors of practices in far-off and hellish places like San Francisco and Manhattan where people would look at your Klout score before hiring you for any kind of PR job. I have no idea if or how often that actually happened. Even so, a lot of us signed up to see what Klout made of our Twitter accounts.
It’s hard to say exactly how Klout worked, but it seemed to measure your “influence” by measuring the number of RTs and favs (now inexplicably rebranded as “likes”) your tweets got, and then trying to parse out the subject matter of your most popular tweets. Now, this might have been meaningful or useful to people who had many thousands of followers, and whose every tweet received some number of interactions. But for people like me, who had maybe 200 followers, and whose tweets were largely ignored by the world at large, this meant that Klout didn’t have a statistically significant sample size of information from which to draw conclusions. This meant that a single, one-off tweet that got five RTs might be given a lot of weight by Klout’s influence-parsing algorithm. Accordingly, if that one tweet was a Weird Twitter joke that riffed on, say, bears, Klout might decide that you were “influential” about bears, since your one tweet about bears got infinitely more attention than your 2000 other tweets about mundane topics.
So, I signed up for Klout to see what it would see. I gave it permission to sift through the tea leaves and entrails of my erratic and aimless Twitter feed. As a quick aside, it was ridiculous to call me “influential” about anything then, and it would be ridiculous now. No one outside of people I have physically met and a very small circle of niche-within-a-niche-within-a-niche Internet People had (or has) any idea who I am. But Klout wanted to make you feel good about yourself — wanted to make you feel important and powerful even though you had only convinced 100 strangers to follow you on Twitter (and half of those were porn-peddling robots). So rather than saying “Hey, a few people seem to like it when you tweet about videogames,” Klout would say “Hey! You are influential about videogames!”
When I ran my Twitter account (then @WombatofDoom42) through Klout, it decided that I was primarily influential about three things: “videogames” (again, it’s not meaningful to call me “influential,” but I did write about them a lot, so I guess that makes sense); “politics” (goodness, I wish); and “boats.”
Klout thought I was influential about boats.
To this day, I have no idea what nonsense thing I tweeted at 4:00 AM caused Klout to think I was influential about boats. I grew up in Colorado, which is not a state famous for its waterways. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been on a watercraft of any kind. In no possible universe was I (or am I) influential about boats.
For that matter, what the hell would “influential about boats” even mean? Would that mean people came to me for my advice on boat purchases? Would I be a historian of aquatic travel? And why “boats,” specifically? Wouldn’t a person who is influential about boats also be influential about ships? Submarines? Fishing? Why just boats?
Who knows. Klout was that special kind of dumb that only Silicon Valley startups can be. (Klout still exists, actually – out of curiosity, I signed in today for the first time in some years, and Klout proudly told me I was influential about “Bare-Knuckle Boxing,” “Oprah Winfrey,” and “Same-Sex Marriage.”)
Anyway, I decided that who was I to argue with Klout, and figured that I should treat its haruspicy as aspirational rather than descriptive. In other words, it was now my sacred duty to become influential about boats.
So I started to post daily #boatfacts. These started as actual facts about watercraft, often with links for further reading, like so:
From 1895 to 1898, Joshua Slocum sailed around the world in a 36’9” boat called Spray. #boatfacts http://t.co/xwdtDpvu
— Raul Chamgerlain (@BillCoberly) March 26, 2012
A very few people thought these were funny, so I kept doing it, but eventually, I started to run out of actual facts about boats, particularly given that I didn’t (and don’t) know very much about boats. About this time, my friend Ken (whom I have only met in person once, because we are Internet Friends, which definitely still counts as actual friends, but is a little odd anyway) started to come up with #shipquips as a competing brand. I think #shipquips also started as actual facts about watercraft, but then #shipquips and #boatfacts turned into more of a sectarian conflict about the relative merits of ships and boats. In short: my friend and I were goofing around on Twitter in that weird sort of talking-to-each-other-while-also-screaming-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-at-a-party-that-is-comprised-only-of-other-people-who-are-also-screaming-at-the-top-of-their-lungs way that you do on Twitter. So we got stuff like this:
Ships are frequently decadent, tacky places. When was the last time you heard of a cruiseboat? #boatfacts #shipquips
— Raul Chamgerlain (@BillCoberly) April 24, 2012
This in turn meant that whenever we posted #boatfacts or #shipquips by themselves, they had less and less to do with actual facts about watercraft, and generally looked more like this:
Boats will not leave you or run off with your sister. Boats are steadfast lovers. #boatfacts
— Raul Chamgerlain (@BillCoberly) April 15, 2012
This was fun. I don’t think more than five people really paid attention to what we were doing, but I enjoyed it. But here’s an important zag that you might not be expecting: #boatfacts got me my very first paid gig for an online publication.
See, Ken and I were Internet Friends before the great #boatfacts/#shipquips debacle, but that running gag made us much better friends than we had been before. And so while Ken and I were talking about various things on Twitter (more than just #boatfacts), I started to get drawn into talking with some of Ken’s other friends on Twitter. One of these people was a guy named Alan. Ken decided that the three of us should make a podcast. That didn’t happen. But those few conversations where we thought about making a podcast eventually turned into discussions about an idea Alan had for a web magazine about videogames. If you’re aware of the niche-within-a-niche games-criticism circle, you may have already guessed that the magazine in question became Five Out of Ten Magazine, which just issued its 20th and final issue a few weeks ago. Five Out of Ten put out some of the best games-criticism in the scene over its five years, and I got to be a small part of it from the very beginning because of the conversations I had with Alan and Ken about a nonexistent podcast. Those conversations themselves would probably not have happened without #boatfacts.
To be clear: I’m not suggesting that without #boatfacts, Five Out of Ten wouldn’t have existed. I am pretty sure Alan (along with Craig Wilson, and others) would have put together that magazine even if I had never been born. What I contributed to the first issue of Five Out of Ten was two articles and about five seconds of research about how PayPal worked. But I probably wouldn’t have written for it (at least not right away) without #boatfacts.
And that’s weird, right? Like, on the one hand, #boatfacts was just some friends goofing around, and that’s often where great ideas come from or business partnerships start. If Alan and Ken and I had been hanging out in a bar and then Alan asked me to write for a magazine, nobody would be surprised about that. But this all happened on the Internet, and the initial relationship was catalyzed not exactly by a shared interest, or a lengthy conversation about Important Things, but by an obtuse joke about social media algorithms, useless Silicon Valley startups, and boats.
And it’s for this reason that I kept making #boatfacts jokes every so often over the next several years, even after #shipquips had mostly stopped and Ken got busy with work and then I got busy with first work and then law school such that we don’t talk to each other as much as we used to.
“I like big boats and I cannot l-” *consumed by the Earth herself, unable to bear this tired joke any longer* #boatfacts
— Raul Chamgerlain (@BillCoberly) December 17, 2013
When I threw a temper tantrum and then briefly quit Twitter in early 2015, I closed my grouchy list of Reasons Why I Was Done with yet another #boatfact: (I stayed away for about three months, and then came back, chastised and feeling more than a bit ridiculous)
Finally, remember: boats are happy to help when you need to get away from it all and just sail out to sea and look at the sunset. #boatfacts
— Raul Chamgerlain (@BillCoberly) January 26, 2015
But until about a month ago, I probably posted only one #boatfact every few months as a kind of personal callback. (I don’t know why I started doing them more regularly a month ago. Probably because more people were liking them on Facebook than I was expecting, and I am always a sucker for positive feedback on social media.) Nobody really paid any attention to them. But every so often, somebody would send me a link to some news article that had something to do with boats. (I got a lot when the Boaty McBoatFace thing happened). My wife’s cousin told her that she loved #boatfacts and wished they would come back. People remembered the silly joke I used to make on Twitter, and associated it with me. When I recently made a joke about what my social media #brand was, I didn’t mention #boatfacts, and more than one person corrected me.
One of the most bizarre things about the Internet is the way it has completely distorted the concepts of fame and celebrity. People can become incredibly famous (or infamous) to relatively large groups of people while somehow still remaining completely invisible to most of the rest of the world. This isn’t exactly new: people have always been famous within subcultures — how many people outside of geekery know who Gary Gygax is — but there’s a way in which the Internet can catapult somebody from total obscurity into fame with a suddenness and an irrationality that feels like it would have been harder back in the day.
As an example: On April 5th, a Nevada teenager named Carter Wilkinson tweeted a silly joke at the official Wendy’s Twitter account, asking how many retweets he would need to receive to get free chicken nuggets for a year. Wendy’s social media people responded: 18 million, well more more than the most-RT’d tweet of all time: Ellen DeGeneres’s big famous selfie at the Oscar’s a while back (3.4 million). Normally, this would have been ignored by the Internet, but some strange confluence of factors propelled Carter’s tweet into the stratosphere — it’s probably not going to break DeGeneres’s record, but it’s above 3.2 million RTs as of this writing. Carter went from having 150 Twitter followers to around 88,000. He went on the Ellen show recently. He has a website where you can buy t-shirts with his name on them. He is going to spend the rest of his life being known as “that nuggets guy.” It will come up in job interviews, on dates, and in college applications. Carter Wilkinson changed his life with a silly tweet at a branded Twitter account.
To be clear, #boatfacts is unlikely to have the same sort of effect. #boatfacts are just jokes between me and some friends — I don’t think anybody who doesn’t personally know me knows what #boatfacts are. I don’t get very many RTs when I tweet them (though they do pretty well on Facebook, weirdly). I am not a celebrity, even by Internet standards, and #boatfacts is unlikely to make me one. I suspect the sum total of people who know what #boatfacts are is measured in two digits.
But every so often, one of my law school peers whom I don’t know very well will come up to me at a bar and ask me, in a hushed voice, “what the hell are #boatfacts?”, and I start to realize exactly how suddenly Internet Fame could happen to you. Or somebody I haven’t spoken to in years will message me to say how much they love #boatfacts, and I begin to understand how a silly Internet thing could really get away from a person. #boatfacts did kind of change my life, after all, by helping me make connections with cool people. I wrote some of my best stuff for Five Out of Ten, and I honestly think that opportunity would not have arrived without that silly hashtag.
So, friends, what the hell are #boatfacts? #boatfacts are silly jokes that don’t matter at all, and serve mostly to confuse my relatives on Facebook. #boatfacts are an in-joke between me and several other people, all of whom live thousands of miles away from each other. #boatfacts are a microcosm of the obtuse unpredictability of Twitter.
#boatfacts, in short, are the Internet.