What did it mean? It didn’t matter. According to Twitter statistics website Favstar.fm, the tweet was quickly noticed and retweeted by a cross-section of New York-D.C. media professionals and a segment of users known as Weird Twitter. The following morning, in Gawker’s internal chat room, editor Max Read (a traveler in both spheres) marveled at the tweet:
“I THINK—not positive—that [First Look Media’s Alex] Pareene noticed that tweet, possibly because the woman was tweeting at him and he went through her history,” Read told me when I asked where he’d seen it first.
Pareene clarified: “I think some peripheral weird twitter people who antagonize TCOT [“Top Conservatives on Twitter,” a right-wing Twitter hashtag community] people saw it first ... I retweeted it from someone else but I don’t remember who.”
The tweet has since entered the pantheon of media-weird Twitter memes. It has inspired hundreds of parodies. Its simple model—an acrostic that doesn’t have to mean anything—enabled effortless imitation:
B utts E normous butts N o for real big butts G argantuan butts H uge (butts) A sses Z zzz unless butts I like big butts & cannot lie
— Erin Gloria Ryan (@morninggloria) October 18, 2013
The news-explainer website Vox, writing six months after the original tweet, described tweets of this strand as a “persistent liberal meme” which “grew out of a particularly amusing tweet that turned Benghazi into a conspiratorial acrostic.” And while the meme’s endurance is uniquely difficult to assess—they’re next-to-impossible to search for—it continues to appear in unlikely places. Last month, for example:
— New York Magazine (@NYMag) September 17, 2014
This accounts for the tweet’s legacy. But what about its origins? Why tweet an inane acrostic? What purpose does it serve?
Contemporary American politics relies in part on memes or messages whose power and influence depends upon their constant, unthinking repetition. The slogans of the past fifteen years—that we will never forget, that we are waging a “war on terror,” the entire corpus of 9/11 trutherism—were as hollow as SpreadButter’s acrostic. The only difference is that her attempt at sloganeering spread (almost?) entirely as a joke, not a sincere expression of American patriotism or some other belief.
Still, though: Didn’t SpreadButter see how crazy her tweet looked?
Benghazi acrostics scholars will note that SpreadButter’s October 17 tweet was not, in fact, her original Benghazi acrostic. Or even the first on Twitter. Two days prior, on October 15, she published a slightly different one, which was retweeted only 4 times:
H is @HillaryClinton
— SpreadButter (@SpreadButter) October 16, 2013
SpreadButter followed up, seven minutes later, with something that looked like another acrostic but was really just an oddly-formatted tweet mentioning Benghazi (and, presumably to push it into the feeds of liberals following Midwestern labor politics, a hashtag associated with Wisconsin unions):
B e n g h a z i H I L L A R Y C L I N T O N
— SpreadButter (@SpreadButter) October 16, 2013
What the tweets had in common besides their awesome vacuity is their size: Each had been deliberately formatted to occupy an unusually large portion of a follower’s personal feed. (Many smartphone screens cannot render some of these tweets without scrolling.) They are designed to be seen, to take up space, to literally force an issue. It’s not that the message was subverted by an inane format: The inane format was the message.
It’s unclear who invented this tactic, but it was in some narrow use even before Spreadbutter’s now-famous tweet. If you go back through SpreadButter’s timeline, you could take an educated guess at determining where SpreadButter picked it up, and for what purpose.
On June 23, for instance, SpreadButter retweeted a tweet, seen below, by Mad_Rebel, another Twitter used fixated on Benghazi. (After this article was published, Twitter suspended Mad_Rebel’s account, hence the odd formatting.)
Mad_Rebel subsequently corresponded with other users (including SpreadButter, who manually retweeted the same tweet three more times):
These users believed that the four Americans who were killed in Benghazi died in vain, and that the U.S. government had successfully distracted many of its citizens from recognizing this fact by coming up with other scandals. They also believed that tweets could be powerful weapons of dissent and resistance against these perceived injustices.
But tweets are just links and text, maybe a photo or two. Within Twitter proper, very few individual things are properly distracting or especially noticeable—which is what you want your message to be, if you want your message to spread. One rare exception, however, is a tweet formatted to take up much, much more space than a typical one.
If you sincerely believed that the American government was trying to make people forget about Benghazi, tweeting extremely distracting tweets that seem to be about Benghazi, even if they’re not about anything, isn’t the worst possible response. As this very article demonstrates, it actually kind of worked.
SpreadButter did not return a request for comment. When I reached out to her on Twitter yesterday, she tweeted back:
— SpreadButter (@SpreadButter) October 16, 2014