At 12 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, I logged onto Twitter through the Tweetdeck app and opened two columns: one for the hashtag #TeaProudly and one for #CraftBeerHair, and settled in. For the next hour, my attention bounced between surprisingly similar expressions of enthusiasm for tea (“the Lemon and Echinacea must make it easy to enjoy #TeaProudly”) and shampoo made with beer (“Beer makes your hair clean and shiny & caffeine wakes your hair up #CRAFTBEERHAIR #sweepstakes”). I noticed other people who were taking part in both conversations, including one woman who posted about 100 messages to each. But from the start, I struggled to keep up.
In a representative exchange, @MomsMeet, the organizer of the #CraftBeerHair discussion, asked, “Have you ever used a can of beer to wash your hair? #CRAFTBEERHAIR #sweepstakes.” One woman responded, “No, but now that I know it's good for hair I kinda want too 🙂🍺 #CRAFTBEERHAIR #sweepstakes.” Another posted a gif of Homer Simpson pouring beer on his head. I wrote, “never #CRAFTBEERHAIR #Sweepstakes.”
When the parties abruptly ended at 1 p.m. (“Did you enjoy today's @bigelowtea twitter party? #TeaProudly” and “Our party’s coming to an end. Let’s all thank @BROO for hosting our #TwitterParty today! #CRAFTBEERHAIR”) I was relieved. How do people do this multiple times a week?
These rapid-fire demonstrations of product zealotry are called “Twitter parties.” Twitter parties are marketing events that use sweepstakes-style giveaways to incentivize participants to engage with brand-focused content, usually for an hour at a time. Twitter parties typically employ a popular blogger as a “host” who promotes the party and facilitates discussion by asking questions, posting animated gifs, and giving away products to supposedly randomly selected participants. There are usually around eight to 10 of these a week, and there seems to be no equivalent on Facebook or Instagram. They are almost entirely aimed at stay-at-home moms who find out about the events through blogger’s announcements and Twitter party calendars.
At one point, two people even recognized each from past parties: “Hey how u been? along time since our last party together lol :) #NatureMadeFamily.”
To write this article, I attended nine Twitter parties for brands, including Bigelow Tea (#TeaProudly); BRÖÖ, a brand of shampoo made from craft beer that’s sold at Walmart and Target (#CRAFTBEERHAIR); Milk Bones dog treats (#DogsAreMore); the vitamin brand Nature Made (#NatureMadeFamily), and the movie A Bad Moms Christmas (#BadMomsXmas).
Taking part in a Twitter party feels like standing in a strange digital nowhere listening to hundreds of excited strangers yell at each other. On a practical level, you’re just following a hashtag. Hosts ask questions (“TRUE or FALSE: @CCakeSurprise dolls come with a hairbrush for added hair play! #CupcakeSurprise”), and participants throw out responses (“TRUE! no @CCakeSurprise doll would want to be caught w/ messy hair! #CupcakeSurprise”). Between questions and responses, hosts occasionally describe product features, and participants generally express their fervor for dog treats and tea in ways that border on parody. “Wow it has so many attributes,” one user wrote about BRÖÖ shampoo. User @kalismomlacey at one point posted, within two minutes, “excited to party #canfitpro,” “hell yeah #canfitpro,” “party time wooo #canfitpro,” and “I love party time #canfitpro.”
A sample of gifs that were posted during the #NatureMadeFamily Twitter party.
It’s important to understand how fast all this is happening. The #CraftBeerHair party averaged 36 tweets per minute, which was actually pretty low. #NatureMadeFamily clocked in at 110 tweets per minute, and the excitement around #BadMomsXmas generated 124 tweets per minute. On my laptop’s screen, tweets usually appear about an inch high, meaning the #NatureMadeFamily conversation was scrolling down my screen at roughly nine feet of text per minute. (Now remember that some people participate in multiple parties at the same time.)
This velocity is made even more dizzying by the number of animated gifs that partiers are throwing around — about one per minute for most of the parties I observed, except for the #BadMomsXmas party, which somehow spurred participants to post eight animated gifs per minute — mostly wine jokes, clips from the movie, and promos of the cast playing giant Jenga or touching animals in a box. This gif of barechested soap star Justin Hartley making a heart with his hands while wearing a Santa hat was posted 27 times in the hour.
The most surprising thing about Twitter parties is that, in the middle of this careening circus car of gifs and product love, there are actually moments of meaningful social interaction. When the #CraftBeerHair host asked partiers to post a picture of themselves, one woman told another that she was “stunningly quirky and beautiful! :)” During the #DogsAreMore party, two participants talked for several minutes about fostering dogs. At one point, two people even recognized each from past parties: “Hey how u been? along time since our last party together lol :) #NatureMadeFamily.”
People do not attend Twitter parties to make friends, however. They show up because they want to win prizes. Exactly how tweets are converted into sweepstakes entries can be a little vague. Some parties seem to imply that the more you tweet the more entries you get, while others limit each participant to one entry. Others, like the party for subscription snack box company Love with Food, just say they pick their favorite responses to questions. The prizes given out are fairly modest: five participants at the #NatureMadeFamily party won $100 Target gift cards; ten at the #CraftBeerHair party won prize packs of BRÖÖ products worth about $20 each.
But as soon as the winners are drawn, the participants’ tweets start to disappear, deleted by people who wrote them primarily to enter sweepstakes. Two days after the #BadMomsXmas party, I looked up how many tweets were still there and found that 65 percent had been deleted.
Marketers have been using the concept of “parties” to get their products into homes since at least the 1920s. In early incarnations, salespeople offered a “hostess” a free product in exchange for gathering a group of friends in her home for an evening of product demonstrations. Alison J. Clarke, in Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America, charts the growth of the marketing party from Depression-era gatherings to a format uniquely suited to the growing post-war suburbs. As families moved away from cities, Clarke argues, women became isolated in their homes, surrounded by strangers and expected to perform tasks like keeping the house clean and making school lunches that might previously have been left to housekeepers and nannies. Tupperware parties provided social interaction and an opportunity to take better care of the home by purchasing new products.
For suburban housewives in the 1950s, buying Tupperware was a signal that you were modern — that you were an educated consumer and that the wealth your family enjoyed was being put to smart use. Hosting these parties was also a way to directly participate in the otherwise male-dominated game of business and entrepreneurship. Clarke, for example, tells the story of Brownie Wise, a divorced mother from Detroit who managed a team of in-home marketers, produced a newsletter called the Go-Getter and was eventually hired by Tupperware to lead their development of a national hostess party plan.
The spirit of suburban Tupperware parties is still with us
In many ways, Twitter parties reveal the extent to which the spirit of suburban Tupperware parties is still with us. Twitter party-goers seem genuinely curious and excited to learn about new products, and, like Wise, they aspire to be more than just consumers. I compiled the bios of the people who participated in the Twitter parties I attended. Fifteen percent described themselves using at least one of the following terms: blogger, influencer, social media consultants. One marketing agency that organizes Twitter parties, CLEVER, refers in promotional materials to “activating” its network of “influencer-moms.” Twitter party participants often seem like they are auditioning for a role in the sales department, tossing out tweets that read less like party conversation and more like slogans:
“The NEW BREW for hair!!! #CRAFTBEERHAIR #sweepstakes”
“I need @BROO to TAME THE MANE!!!! #CRAFTBEERHAIR #sweepstakes THIS sounds like it will PEP up the hair and give it life!”
“I am going to "HOP' over and use these products! They look amazing! My hair will thank me! #craftbeerhair #sweepstakes”
Twitter parties hint at how close we are to a past that often feels very distant. Yes, the scale and velocity of the conversation is far greater. Social media platforms have replaced living rooms, and strangers from across the country have replaced neighbors from down the street. But beneath the technology, people are still searching for an escape from isolation, for better living through consumption and for a chance to take part in the capitalist games taking place outside their homes — and marketers are still quick to attach their hashtags to these feelings.