On December 29, the Twitter account @itsrealTED tweeted, “I’m pretty sure that if Walt Disney watched Disney Channel today, he would cry.” Never mind that Disney died in 1966, 17 years before his eponymous channel was launched in 1983: that truism is worthless in isolation, except for the nearly 1,000 retweets and nearly 400 favorites it’s received. Stack those gaudy stats next to those racked up by other messages sent from @itsrealTED and hundreds of other popular parody Twitter accounts, though, and a clearer, if seedier, picture emerges.
As of this writing, @itsrealTED, a parody of the talking teddy bear voiced by Seth MacFarlane in his live-action directorial debut Ted, has more than 800,000 followers. A minute’s search for other Ted-aping accounts finds several with far more followers than the official account (@WhatTedSaid, which has 650,000). @QuotingJokes, for example, has more than 1.3 million people subscribed to its missives. It’s not too much of a stretch to think a sizeable number of people following one of the phony Teds has no idea they’re chuckling at a parody.
What they are doing is rewarding a small cadre of internet denizens with followers, retweets, and favorites—and perpetuating a vicious yet lucrative cycle. Parody accounts tweet “in character,” which often means spewing banalities; a simple thought gets hundreds of retweets once the foundation for that character is built (“we’re gonna get twitter fucking poppin tonight” merited more than 600 rebroadcasts for @itsrealTED). There’s no penalty for being stupid if the character being parodied already is; on the flip side, good jokes or sincere thoughts are often out of the question, since they might interrupt the stream of “content” and cause people to unfollow the account.
And maintaining that number of followers is crucial. Parody accounts of this ilk are dependent on advertising for their income, and the most effective placement comes from slipping an ad into an otherwise cluttered timeline. [...]