Welcome To Nemesis Twitter, Where Phantom Beefs Run Wild And Free

Roxane Gay is the queen of nemesis Twitter. But she's not the only one aching to indulge her petty side.
Could Roxane Gay's nemeses include any of these celebrities?
Could Roxane Gay's nemeses include any of these celebrities?
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost Photos: Getty

It’s Beef Week at HuffPost Culture. Fight us.

Roxane Gay has a list of nemeses. There are six, and the acclaimed author and critic keeps the list in her phone’s Notes app.

The names are secret, but the existence of her nemeses isn’t. If you’re one of Gay’s half-million Twitter followers, you almost certainly know about her nemeses, because she tweets about them frequently.

Once she posted a screencap of the note, the names censored by a solid black box. Another time, she posted a list of descriptions of her nemeses: A Scrabble competition foe, a famous writer, a celebrity. The celebrity is the one she tweets about most often; she grumbles about this nemesis’ perpetual smile, cutesy persona and clear skin.

She’s landed on these nemeses for various vague reasons; they are typically people “whose very existence troubles your soul,” as she recently explained to me over email. Now that they’re on the list, she wishes for fantastical triumphs over them. She imagines doing karate on them, or fantasizes about her friends hating them too. Instead, she tweets ― and, occasionally, casts a curse.

These nemesis tweets are like phantom beef: We can smell it cooking, but the dish never seems to arrive at the table. Who are these nemeses? Where is the beef?

When I reached out to Gay to learn more about her nemeses, she was extremely forthright ― except, of course, about their identities. “I may be petty,” she wrote, “but I am a kind person and would never want to escalate something like this into anything more than what it is.”

So what is… it?

“Having a nemesis is emotional catharsis,” explained Gay. “I don’t really want bad things to befall them beyond say, papercuts and abject failure.”

And it must be great catharsis, because nemesis Twitter is, it seems, infectious. Gay denied any claim to having created the nemesis craze, but admitted, “I do see other people discussing their nemeses more openly now, and if I had something to do with that, that’s fine.”

Recently NPR critic Linda Holmes tweeted about hers.

So did New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner. (Rosner and Holmes did not respond to interview requests.)

Others on Twitter, big fish and small, have followed in Gay’s footsteps:

Is the nemesis tweet, with its more openly playful attitude toward internet feuding, the new subtweet?

In its exasperating obscurity, nemesis Twitter does resemble subtweet Twitter. A subtweet is a tweet that addresses a person while attempting to evade detection by that person ― by not tagging them, or by not naming them to avoid text search.

A classic subtweet will be legible to an in-the-know subset of the audience, or can be untangled with a little sleuthing. In a 2015 article, Ian Bogost, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the Ivan Allen College distinguished chair in media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, described a subtweet as “a private whisper shrouded in ‘I didn’t say anything’ innocence.” He notes that this draws attention toward the subtweeter ― knowing faves from those who believe they understand, as well as anxious questions about what they’re referring to.

As Gay has found, a nemesis tweet also invites speculation ― bottomless speculation, because it offers almost no hope of a solution. The offense that prompted the tweet exists only to the author, and therefore it’s not even really relevant to other people.

So is a nemesis tweet just a subtweet? I asked Bogost, who responded via email, “I think it’s more like what we used to call ‘vaguebooking?’ … You know, when you post something but leave out so many details that basically nobody can know what it means.”

The vaguebook fits more snugly with the nemesis tweet profile. But nemesis tweets seem to be an evolution beyond both subtweets and vaguebooks.

Where vaguebooks (“Ugh, you really can’t trust anyone, can you?”) seem lab-engineered to attract a barrage of sympathetic questions (“oh no, what happened??”), nemesis tweets are pleasingly self-sufficient. Followers may be curious, but they’re not being implicated in the task of helping or comforting the tweeter, nor do they have any basis to feel that the tweeter’s nemesis has any bearing on their own lives.

Unlike a subtweet, there isn’t even an in-group that can understand the nemesis tweet, except for the author and, possibly, a very small circle of personal intimates, and it’s exceedingly unlikely that it will get back to the subject. The nemesis tweet is an act of aggression with no tangible target, like a wild punch at the air while envisioning your enemy’s face.

It’s Twitter drama stripped of its interpersonal violence: all petty, no pain.

Indeed, it smacks more of entertainment than real, human conflict. I asked Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, why the word nemesis carries such a cinematic punch, and she pointed to its origin as the name of the Greek goddess of retribution.

Later, we see ‘nemesis’ used more and more in the world of comic books to refer to an enduring or very difficult opponent ― every superhero had a nemesis,” she told me. “I think that history gives ‘nemesis’ a weight that ‘enemy’ or ‘opponent’ doesn’t have ― it puts your struggles into a mythological or heroic frame, even if that’s a jokey one.”

That epic quality,” writer Mallika Rao, a former HuffPost colleague who has bravely spelunked into Twitter dynamics in the past, theorized in an email, “bestows this mode of tweet a stagey, formal quality, a kind of performative aspect that moves it into the realm of make believe.”

“The nemesis tweet is an act of aggression with no tangible target, like a wild punch at the air while envisioning your enemy’s face.”

For those who wish to untangle the true identity of a secret nemesis, the quest is most akin to corkboarding an epic “Game of Thrones” fan theory about Jon Snow’s parentage. It’s a journey undertaken through love of puzzles, not through fear of being left out of an important conversation, like who is being wrong about identity politics on Twitter today.

Finding out who Gay’s nemeses are has become a Twitter pastime. In her mentions, people respond with volleys of guesses: Retta? Mindy Kaling? Reese Witherspoon? (Personally, I am at least 30 percent convinced her primary nemesis is Reese Witherspoon.) Occasionally she’ll deny it, with a succinct “nope” ― each time adding another brick to the scant existing nemesis canon ― but other times she ignores the guesses.

With little hope of finding the truth, I tried to suss out what I could from Gay.

Several of her nemeses are writers, she informed me: “a reviewer who said something petty and diminishing about me in a review of one of my books,” as well as one who “talks a lot of fallacious trash about me and dislikes my writing around fatness.” Based on these particulars, I had a guess or two, especially for the former ― like Lauren Oyler, who wrote a scathing review of Bad Feminist for the now-defunct Bookslut ― but nothing conclusive. There’s also a writer she’s “jealous of”; this failed to narrow the field, as I imagine there are many writers of whom even a very successful author such as Gay might be jealous.

Gay described another as “a handsome musician with long hair.” (I noticed at this point that unless her upstairs neighbor is a handsome musician with long hair, at least one entry on the list had likely changed. Then again, is her upstairs neighbor Harry Styles, or perhaps Jared Leto?)

Her primary foe, Gay explained, “is someone my person has a crush on and so I must destroy them because they smile too much and aren’t that attractive and just because they are famous doesn’t mean I can’t take them in a fight.” Now we’re on steady ground: I still feel like this could be Reese Witherspoon, if not one of literally hundreds of other famous people.

But whatever the identify of this smiling foe, this celebrity Joker, the deadpan glee in Gay’s hatred is the real show here. The slightness of her grudge, juxtaposed with her belligerent rhetoric, feels familiar. In the depths of our meaty heart muscles, we have all nurtured an aching rage at someone who has done absolutely nothing to us.

“I think the performative quality of the nemesis tweet and Twitter in general softens the isolating effect of anger,” Rao mused. Twitter allows us to commiserate, if not about the specifics, at least about the general feeling.

Gay’s nemesis tweets hold their appeal, Bogost told me, because “[p]eople are just looking for a way in, something to see in themselves in others, and in others in themselves.”

Where subtweets can seem snide, gossipy and cowardly ― a 2016 study found that subtweets were perceived more negatively overall than direct tweets ― the nemesis tweet seems relatable, down-to-earth and honest, with a tinge of campy drama that serves to make our own petty impulses feel heroically larger-than-life.

Since Gay started tweeting about her nemeses, I’ve noticed more and more people on Twitter simply swooning with jealousy: They, too, want a nemesis. Many of them note that they haven’t had one since childhood, or perhaps high school ― apparently the optimal time for acquiring a nemesis.

I asked some Twitter regulars why they found a grown-up nemesis so appealing.

“It would be a nice relief from being my own nemesis, you know?” said writer Talia Lavin, another former colleague.

Directing recrimination and blame outward, at an archetypal opponent, might offer a way to siphon off anxious thought patterns. Lavin, in particular, spends a lot of time tweeting and writing about hateful political groups and dealing with harassment in response ― a miserable conflict that offers little of the epic scope of a superhero movie or Greek tragedy.

“Right now,” she told me, “I just have trifling little Pepe Nazis in my mentions and none of them have the juice to go toe-to-toe with me. I crush them with one stubby finger. It’s dull.”

Dull, and also, for many, emotionally and psychologically draining. Conflict is gripping because it drives narrative, but the astonishing speed of online debate has collapsed any narrative tension. Instead, Twitter conflict has spiraled into an endless, mind-numbing roar of vicious threats, trolling and doxing; no great battles are won or lost, but the sniping and cruelty are constant, especially for people in marginalized groups.

A nemesis offers the mythological hope of one great opponent, one climactic battle, and maybe, in the end, someone vanquished. It’s a fantasy not of a life without conflict, but a life with conflict that’s both more intellectually stimulating and more logistically feasible.

But Gay’s nemeses aren’t there for her to joust with ― they don’t even know they’re involved in a feud. It’s a gentler iteration of the Internet Beef, a concession, perhaps, to the punishing pace of conflict online. In a nemesis tweet, we can perform our grudges and gripes for a highly amused audience without risking blowback or a demoralizing back-and-forth.

It’s not that this wasn’t happening before the internet. People have always talked behind each other’s backs; it’s just never required so much creativity to pull off. Social media, like open-floor office plans, first threw all our private conversations into a public space, then forced us to communicate more quietly (in subtweets, for example) to shield each other from our human messiness. We still need to vent and talk shit about each other ― we don’t live more harmoniously just because we don’t have walls between us ― but we have to hide in real and metaphorical corners to do so. We gossip over Slack instead of at each other’s desks; we subtweet instead of posting “@RWitherspoon i hate your shiny hair.”

(I mean, yes, some of us do that too.)

It can be maddening to do so much of our talking in venues where we have to be on our best behavior. What a simple, pure joy, then, to go all-in on a beef that will never come back to bite you ― or even, for that matter, your enemy. Fostering and tweeting about the nemesis is practically self-care, in fact; the loathed enemy barely factors into it at all.

“Pettiness,” Gay wrote, “is a healthy outlet.”

And maybe, in a sea of Pepe Nazis and MRA trolls, an anonymous nemesis is the most worthy opponent, and the best self-care, a woman on Twitter can have.

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