Photographs: Courtesy of A24 Films/AP
BY ALEX DE VRIES
May 1, 2022
Y’all wanna hear a story about how me & this bitch here took over Twitter?
“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out????? It’s kinda long but it’s full of suspense.” That’s the tweet that started it all. A’ziah King’s now famous tweet set the internet on fire in 2015 as it developed into a twisting tale of sex trafficking, violence and hustle, in a digital world primed for the next viral sensation. I’m almost certain literary scholars have dissected this contemporary epic poem to death - how, from the outset, it builds tension, and establishes a clear writer’s voice. King’s story is written in a language familiar to the reader, unpretentious.
The layers of tension are clear, and the character development through action is profound. Everyone in this story is a villain, and we come to learn that through the audience surrogate, Zola, discovering that actions never align with words, and appearances never align with reality. King’s series of tweets was later picked up by indie distribution house turned bonafide artisanal production company A24, spawning the film Zola (2020), directed by Janicza Bravo. If there are any Gen Z markers of success, it’s having your story turned into an A24 film, so a lot can be learned from King’s viral trajectory.
Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in the 1960s, at a time when technology was advancing at a quickening pace. While he is often lauded for predicting the arrival of the internet 30 years prior to its invention, his famous phrase is perhaps a useful lens through which we can evaluate King’s story.
Twitter, as a medium, is restrictive in its character limit, but unrestrictive in its capacity to push viral tweets across the
entire platform through the use of its cleverly designed algorithm. Text based tweets are usually short quips posted into the ether where literally everyone considers themselves a comedian, whether it garners engagement or not. Every day, new tweets go viral, and force their way onto unsuspecting timelines, sometimes hilarious, sometimes confusing, sometimes infuriating, but easily shared and retweeted. Virality may seem completely random, but it usually comes down to one thing - gaming the elusive algorithm.
Riley Keough and Taylor Paige in Zola. Photograph: Courtesy of A24 Films/AP
So how did a chain of 148 tweets rise to the top of the ever increasing heap of viral hits when it seems antithetical to the medium of Twitter itself? Language has a lot to do with King’s tweets becoming internet canon.
The entire thread is written in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) which is a pioneering force in the creative economy of the internet, so much so that it is constantly (and wrongfully) co-opted by non-African Americans in order to communicate realness and comedy. From the first tweet we know who King is, we compare her language to the four accompanying photographs, taken with the main antagonist, showing a friendship that once existed, and we finally see the laugh-cry emoji, signifying that this story is going to be a comedy of sorts.
The character limit means King can’t tell us any more than that, and we have to scroll onto her next tweet to read more. The constant use of enjambment means we are halfway through a sentence before the tweet ends, and we have to scroll onto the next one to finish that thought. King is gaming the algorithm, but also gaming the medium altogether. We are hooked, and we keep reading, and 148 tweets later we are shaken by where we ended up. We have learned why Zola and “this bitch here” fell out, and it’s not what we were expecting in the slightest.
Nicholas Braun, Riley Keough, Taylor Paige and Colman Domingo in Zola. Photograph: Courtesy of A24 Films/AP
In the film, Twitter becomes a character unto itself, with lines taken directly from King’s tweets, including, most importantly, the opening line. Tension escalates as situations go from bad to worse, and every time Zola attempts to reclaim her agency and take control of the situation, she is forced into more compromising positions. Zola is a masterclass in building tension, but it doesn’t get there without giving credit to its source material.
Zola is an example of why good stories need to be told, and why we shouldn’t confine ourselves to traditional storytelling media to tell those stories. A’ziah King told a true story, admittedly with some embellishments, on a medium that was never designed as a storytelling platform. Yet, through utilising the confines of Twitter and by being a talented storyteller in her own right, King had the Twittersphere hooked, and now her story can be enjoyed by an even broader audience, in all of its painful hilarity, through the medium of film.