This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
We all like to have good, clean, safe fun on twitter dot com, and the best, cleanest, and most safe fun we can have is by following parody accounts. @Queen_UK talking about gin, that sort of thing. Who doesn't love a #whitegirlproblem! They're always falling in love and texting on their phones!
And, of course, there's Twitter account turned toad-human Piers Morgan, the parody that went too far and turned sentient, a set of jowls that grew a face. He loves Arsenal, but hates the loony left! Watch out, Alan Sugar—there's some fucking banter coming your way, son, and it's coming in the shape of a man slowly turning into a rectangle in front of our very eyes! Spurs are shit!
I want to die.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan)September 2, 2012
But who is behind our favorite parody Twitter accounts? Sometimes it's just one person. Sometimes it's a shadow-y caliphate of shared social network accounts, connected together to form a group that team together to promote content, telling you to download apps or listen to songs. Prime example: have you noticed that many parody accounts have been posting jokes about the ASOS 20 percent off sale this week? Why do you think that is? Open your eyes, sheeple!
It's a new, sort of horse-before-the-cart model of advertising, basically: you follow a Twitter account, you share and retweet the hilarious, hilarious jokes, and then—hold on, TheLADBible wants me to download a new dating app? Whatever you say, TheLADBible. And lo, you are on the hook, here for the jokes but staying for the ads, and before you know it you have a load of apps on your phone that are like Tinder but are not actually Tinder, and a very real addiction to a Candy Crush clone, and a lot of clothes from ASOS.
20% off at ASOS Shut up and take my galleons
— Hogwarts Logic (@HogwartsLogic)March 26, 2015
Why revise when you can spend hours on ASOS buying clothes you probably can't afford?
— Student Problems (@ProblemsAtUni)March 26, 2015
Is this OK, I ask the founder of The Social Chain, the shadow-y social media caliphate behind @MedievalReacts, the latest blazingly hot twitter dot com phenomenon. Is this cool? "From my experience, our commercial pages are very seamless," Michael Heaven Jr. tells me. "We'll speak within the tone of the page, we'll speak as if the page is discovering it for themselves as each of the pages has a personality. So, the things that we mention will be relevant to our target audience."
Essentially: when an @student_problems or an @big_mad_sporting_banter Twitter account suddenly changes lanes and mentions an app, it's calculated to hit the target audience square in the middle of the Venn diagram. Marketing without being marketing. That sort of thing.
"We're an influential marketing agency," Michael tells me. "We provide a lot of the creative ideas as well, so we create a lot of media and we work with a variety of brands on an influencer basis. We have over 200 pages in our total network, then we've got agreements in place to activate, and we can reach up to 150 million audiences in our network across our pages. So rather than traditional media, we work on social media and distribute content that way."
I spoke to Cathal Berragan, the 19-year-old mind behind @MedievalReacts, the latest viral addition to The Social Chain's stable of #blazing #hot #content #creators, fully expecting some nerdy kid who is just crazy about medieval iconography. Instead, I found a world-ruling social media manager in waiting and asked him what it's like going from zero to 200,000 followers in a flat week, and what the best reaction so far is. Then we talked about copyright for a bit because everyone who painted all the pictures he uses are dead.
VICE: Hey. So who are you?
Cathal Berragan: I'm Cathal. I'm a 19-year-old student who sort of runs Twitter accounts as a hobby.
This whole thing came about just a couple of weeks ago, right? Can you give me a sort of vague timeline?
Yeah, it was about two weeks ago. I just noticed a few of these classic pictures being used and started to gather content, put some more online, trawled the web for various blogs that had these medieval pictures on, sort of wrote the content… and yeah, started the account on Tuesday, and it just snowballed from there.
How did it first start getting big?
Well, I'm part of an influencer marketing company called The Social Chain. Basically, there's quite a lot of these Twitter accounts and there's no real way of monetizing them. So some people came up with the idea of gathering as many as we can into a network, and what this network does is grow each others' pages and come up with new ideas together. In the past year or so we've accumulated a number of followers from this. The account I made was just one of those—I didn't expect it to be that big at all, really.
You were saying that the idea came to you—I've seen a couple of tweets like it before. It's quite a well-worn format that Buzzfeed and the like tend to use.
Yeah, exactly. I saw a couple and I googled medieval pictures and there were already pictures flying around on the internet, but the real hard part was writing the captions. That took about a week because there were no captions there, and that changed in a short while as I was running the account. I noticed that the most engagement came from tweets dedicated to nights out, so I changed my angle halfway through and made them related to drinking. And then it sort of took off.
That's interesting in itself because, in a way, it all sounds quite calculated. Can you tell me more about what sort of stuff you've done before?
Well, two years ago I started an account called @examproblems, which gained about 50,000 followers in three weeks, and another guy I work closely with now set up @problemsatuni, which gained 100,000 in a few weeks. We got in contact and we figured that, because we had these big accounts, we could grow other accounts if we helped out and retweeted each other. In the course of two years we developed quite a big network of student-based accounts—every time we come up with an idea we have hundreds of existing accounts that can quickly help them grow.
So when you guys have a new idea do you put it up to a brain trust?
Not really—we're pretty free. If we think of a good idea we'll just go for it and we'll tweet it on a few accounts, and if it does well then it should grow organically by itself from there.
This is similar to how stuff like TheLADBible essentially started out—they figured out how to get shared a lot, then turned into a website from there. Are there plans in the works for you guys to figure out your best account, turn it into a website people can click on and make money from there?
We've never opened any website. The way we monetize at the moment is that apps—or whatever, really—will come to us, and we can get them trending within an hour or so by mentioning them across multiple accounts. We've got multiple apps to number one on the apps list doing that.
A lot of people are still trying to figure out social media; it's not even a cottage industry at the moment. Is that where you see yourself going now?
I plan on working full time on this, yeah. Not only do we use these parody accounts on Twitter, but we get in contact with bloggers, YouTubers, people with huge Instagram followings. Because these people have a huge amount of followers but no way of monetizing it, we figured we could create a huge network, get clients who want us advertising for them and grow from there.
You said you didn't quite expect the reaction.
Yeah, Medieval was a big surprise. I've never seen anything grow quite that quickly.
What's it like to watch something explode like that?
Very exciting. You end up becoming quite addicted to watching the numbers going up and up. But, at the same time, when you see the numbers grow, that motivates you to create more content constantly. You're never satisfied. Even if this hit stupid numbers, I'd always want more. So while it's super exciting, once you hit past 50,000, you think, Oh, I wish I was at 100,000, then once you hit 100,000 you wish you were at 200,000, and so on.
It's not quite on the same scale as what you're doing, but if I write something good, ever, and it gets a lot of hits, I find it impossible to look away from my computer.
Exactly. Especially with what people say and how they engage with it. I love reading what people have to say about it. I understand that the hype will die eventually and the account will peak, but it's going from strength-to-strength at the moment.
Do you feel much pressure? As some of your tweets have 12,000 retweets and then maybe one later it'll be 3,000.
Yeah, the way I measure my tweets is after a minute. If it's got 100 then it'll be good. In my past accounts, 30 in a minute was good, but right now my standard is higher, so I'll panic if I don't get 100 in a minute. I'll think, Oh god, I better delete this. It's going to be embarrassing. You do put a lot of pressure on yourself, yeah.
It's quite a strange situation to be in.
It's extraordinary, yeah. But what you don't quite appreciate is how many people are seeing it. It's coming up to tens of millions now, but you don't really fully appreciate that because it's only a tweet. If it was a TV show or a radio show it'd be a bigger deal.
It must be cool to write a joke that people enjoy so much.
Indeed. You're completely right. You sit back and think, People are sharing this with their friends. I get messages on my personal account saying, "This made me laugh." That's why we did this in the first place. That's why we start a Twitter account. You just fancy making people laugh, really.
There have been a fair few copycat accounts springing up, even in this short amount of time. What do you make of them?
In my opinion, I think if you put something on Twitter you've got to be accepting that it's going to be copied. The more successful it is, the more times it's going to be copied. People do get very angry when they have great ideas and they're copied, but I sort of think it's fair game. If you're putting it out on the internet to tens of thousands of people, you can't expect people not to save it and redistribute it. It's not how it works. The internet is just like that. The only way to get around it is to make sure you keep on top of yours and make sure it keeps getting bigger.
I guess it's hard to get too precious about stealing a 500-year-old painting and putting a funny joke on it.
Exactly. There's no point about getting upset about it. It happens pretty much all the time. I'm lucky to be part of a network that means I'm ahead of the game.