Chapter 2

THE WASHINGTON HERALD

 

Two Weeks into Twitter Jujitsu

“What else do you have for me?” the managing editor asked.

A silent second passed before one of the meeting attendees, a reporter, responded. “Has anybody heard of Twitter Jujitsu?”

The eight other journalists in the cramped room were unresponsive. This meeting was ready to be over.

The speaker was the Herald’s senior technology reporter, currently doing double duty as the section editor while her boss was out on maternity leave. When she first discovered the Twitter Jujitsu challenge a couple of days before, she laughed out loud, considered entering, then wisely dismissed the impulse. Since then, the contest continued to tickle both her journalistic instincts and her funny bone. Checking in on the hashtag minutes before this meeting, momentum was unmistakably building. The prospect that the president might already be aware of the contest was almost too much to bear.

“Let’s hear it,” the managing editor said. “Quickly, please.”

The reporter had been invited to editorial meetings before, primarily to provide updates on stories she had been assigned—always in and out in a few minutes or less. This would be her first pitch, and she was acutely aware it could be her last. Too late to back down now. She would find a way to bail herself out if nobody else judged the story worthwhile.

After a pause to gather her wits, to remind herself to breathe, she explained that Twitter Jujitsu was a simple contest. The goal was to coax the president to insult you as quickly and as obnoxiously as possible on Twitter. To qualify, contestants were required to start a new Twitter handle with zero followers. Their first tweet would mention the contest mastermind, @SYPlify, declaring their entry using the #Twijitsu hashtag. To win, they would include @SYPlify in a retweet of the president’s insult. A few minutes of rules-compliance verification would seal the deal.

She finished her one-minute summary with a hopeful enticement. “My research indicates this contest is starting to take off.”

The managing editor looked unimpressed. “Sounds childish. What’s the prize?”

“For now, Twitter status and a few laughs. Later, maybe some press recognition and fifteen minutes of fame. I’m interested in people’s motivation to participate, and I’m intrigued by their creativity. It’s not like the president will insult anybody. Prospective winners must become both noteworthy and irritating enough to matter. No insignificant feat considering contestants aren’t allowed to use existing social media followings to build up their new Twitter handle. For example, the first lady wouldn’t be allowed to start a new handle and then ask her ten million @FLOTUS followers to jump on board. People have no choice but to be inventive.”

“For example?” asked the managing editor, missing the joke entirely. It was subtle but, nonetheless, the reporter had practiced the delivery a few times, hoping it would break the ice. Instead, it flew over everybody’s head—if, in fact, anybody was listening.

“That would be funny,” said the entertainment editor without emotion.

The reporter smiled at the entertainment editor, who smiled back. At least somebody was paying attention.

Addressing the managing editor’s question, the reporter said, “First off, the new Twitter handles are pretty clever. They tend to honor the movement instead of the individual.” She paused to look at her notes. “Some are really catchy. My favorites are based on inspirational jujitsu concepts, like @LittleBeBig, @WeWinOrWeLrn, @FightHisMoves, @FloWiDaGo, and @IfUThinkUrL8. Each one captures the essence of the challenge. Other handles anticipate what the winning tweet will look like. It’s like they hope that when the president does finally choose a winner, his insult will backfire.”

A few of the reporter’s previously disinterested—or purposefully dismissive—senior colleagues were now leaning forward, elbows propped on the meeting room table. When she had started her pitch, all eight of them had been reclining just shy of the point where their well-worn chairs would tip less-practiced occupants onto the floor. Now, even those still recumbent had noticeably perked up. As lights flickered on in her colleagues’ distracted minds, glimmers of creative energy lit the room. No more stifled yawns. Droopy body language gave way to interaction, if only in the form of raised eyebrows and inquisitive eye contact. The reporter wondered what more ingenious minds were cooking up in collaborative gatherings around the globe.

The politics editor, always on an impossible deadline and famously contemptuous of all editorial gatherings, demanded clarification: “Does somebody have to ask you for an example every time?”

Retaining her composure, the reporter said, “So far, @disCOCfosho is my favorite.” She tried not to laugh as she attempted to speak urban slang. The handle sounded like “at dis cock fo sho.”

A few knowing chuckles acknowledged the joke.

“You’re going to have to explain that to me,” the managing editor said, setting off a burst of laughter from the group. Nobody was reclining now.

“DisCOC is derogatory slang for POTUS. It’s short for ‘this commander in chief’ but quite clearly carries a double meaning. ‘Fosho’ means ‘for sure.’”

“Got that last part myself,” the managing editor said, inspiring a few more laughs.

“If the president were to insult @disCOCfosho, it would read something like, ‘@disCOCfosho is an overrated slob.’ If he walked into that trap, social media would go berserk.”

“As would we,” the politics editor said, eliciting yet another eruption of laughter. Minutes before, this group was as close to taking a communal nap as was professionally permissible. Now their eyes sparkled as each seemed to privately brainstorm clever handles and the resultant winning tweet. Even the managing editor smirked in appreciation of the possibilities.

The reporter’s confidence surged. Taking the risk to make this pitch was going to pay off. She was no longer nervous. Instead, she was fighting off an eager giddiness. Again, she purposefully calmed her mind and reminded herself to breathe. “Those handles represent a small fraction of the creativity people are devoting to this contest. I assume the vast majority of contestants aren’t really focused on winning. They just want to play along. The webiverse loves the opportunity to flaunt its ingenuity, and each new entry grows the popularity of the hashtag. On the other hand, some contestants are giving it their all. While it isn’t necessary to win, everybody knows the president won’t bother insulting someone who doesn’t have a large following. Those with winning potential must become popular, important, influential. And they must tie their success back to the new Twitter handle. Eventually, the president must know where to find them.”

The entertainment editor raised her hand and let it droop, like a flag on a windless day. The reporter noticed the gesture and, again, the two of them shared a playful moment missed by the others in the room. The reporter repressed a giggle and nodded at the entertainment editor, who asked, “Why would anyone who’s already invested in Twitter start from scratch?”

 

“Good question,” said the reporter. “Part of the contest rationale is to start with a level playing field. Give the little guys a chance. Without parity, most people wouldn’t try. Their entries have already been crucial to jump-starting the movement. To them, I imagine it’s like joining a half-serious, half-farcical anti-bullying protest. That’s why I first became interested. Like me, plenty of people will love the idea but can’t or won’t enter the contest. They can show their support by following @SYPlify, tweeting the #Twijitsu hashtag, and retweeting their favorite contest entries and updates. And you can bet the Twitter community is inventing many other techniques to help out.”

The entertainment editor studied her phone, scrolling every few seconds. “Yeah, I see what you mean.”

The business editor leaned in for a look. “Care to share?”

“This is primed to go stratospheric,” said the entertainment editor, not with excitement but with an air of observational expertise. “Check this out—” She turned the screen so that everybody could see it.

“We can’t read it,” the politics editor said from across the room.

The entertainment editor put her phone on the table, continuing to tap and scroll. “I’m looking at the celebrities I follow. A few have tweets pinned to the top of their profiles indexing their top ten favorite Twitter Jujitsu participants by name alongside their new handles, some of which are, indeed, clever. Most, however, are ‘TJJ’ variants of their already well-known handles. I’m guessing these folks with pinned tweets are also participants, but they can’t say so directly without running afoul of the rules. Instead, they’re pointing out each other’s new handles. Smart.”

“Silicon Valley luminaries are using the same tactic,” said the business editor, also checking his phone and scrolling rapidly. “Top threes and fives here, but that will probably change overnight.” He continued to scroll. “Whoa! Listen to this! Tweeted less than an hour ago from the CEO of Twitter.” He read aloud. “@SYPlify #Twijitsu allows ANY and ALL to align for progress, to refocus in preference of the positive, to put our attention on what’s working. We commit to the cause, in service to civility, eager to improve knowledge and discourse.”

Unable to resist, the reporter grabbed her phone and navigated to @SYPlify’s Twitter profile. “Looks like that set off a flurry of new entries. @SYPlify’s Twitter feed has blown up since I last checked a couple of minutes before coming in here.”

The business editor interrupted, reading tweet excerpts from @SYPlify’s profile. He spoke rapidly, an index finger hovering over the screen of his phone, intermittently scrolling. “A lot of these are TJJ handles with a simple message like ‘@SYPlify Count me in #Twijitsu.’ It really doesn’t take much creativity to join in, just to lend support. Quite a few are thinking outside the box, though. Here’s one. ‘Where can we find #Twijitsu training? Easy to learn, a lifetime to master? Will give it much thought. Follow along if u want to learn with me. @SYPlify, I’ll let you know when I win.’”

"Cocky," said the entertainment editor. "I like that." She shared another smile with the reporter.

The business editor flicked down his screen a couple times then halted the scrolling with a quick tap. “Here’s another good one. ‘@SYPlify My #Twijitsu cross-country hike starts next week. 100 days CHI to LA. Raising $ for book bank that puts kids lit into low-income homes. It works! Reading readiness leads to better education outcomes. Pls follow and fund.’”

Eager to regain control, the reporter reinserted herself into the discussion. “Yep, those are good ones. More and more often, much like that last guy, people are attaching meaningful projects to Twitter Jujitsu. For anybody determined to win, this contest is like big-wave surfing. Great surfers are selective about which swells they ride. Twitter Jujitsu already feels like the perfect wave with a deep source of power. I believe the movement is likely to last a while and will continue to develop until it’s huge. Then it’s going to be the ride of a lifetime, especially for the winner. Many will do whatever it takes to catch this wave.”

“I don’t understand—why would the president participate?” The question came from the politics editor who still bristled with skepticism but no longer seemed disinterested or impatient.

“His participation is intended to be inadvertent, an action that occurs as a normal part of his day. Someone challenges him, he lashes out. Again, not just anybody can garner the president’s attention. One must do so from a lofty platform like a major awards speech, a championship trophy presentation, or maybe a fantastic piece of investigative journalism.” While alluding to the possibility of entering the contest herself, she gave the managing editor an intentionally flippant and mildly flirtatious glance.

The managing editor frowned. “Let’s stick to the job.”

“Sorry,” she said, realizing she needed to maintain her professionalism. Momentum was on her side, though, and terse corrections from the managing editor were commonplace. Mentally, she shook it off. “One last clarification: once you have your Twitter account and your fame, you need to challenge the president. The confrontation can occur in any forum. Doesn’t have to be Twitter. Contest rules state your challenge cannot be derogatory. You cannot blatantly insult the president. It’s a bit blurry, maybe intentionally, but the rules say you must ‘confront the president with a plausible campaign for meaningful improvement.’ Obviously, this allows for quite a bit of latitude. The intent is to be constructive, not to create a globe full of presidential trolls.”

“We get it,” said the managing editor. “What’s your pitch?”

“I want to track down the contest originator, interview him or her, understand the true motives. Then I want to cover the contest until somebody wins.”

“Anybody else covering this?”

“Not that I know of, but I’m sure that will change. I found it on Reddit a couple days ago.”

“Okay, one week, and I want an update before you leave the office each night.”

>>> Chapter 3 >>>

 

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