Roy Lichtenstein Girl in Mirror (1964)
What false modesty gains from a new medium
By Matt Pearce
On Twitter, he calls himself Totes McGotes. He’s got a job in San Diego that probably involves real estate. I’m not entirely sure.
Mr. McGotes’s (or is it Totes’s?) avatar is a obscured cell-phone photo—presumably of himself ]—shirtless in the mirror. Obviously, he’s in good shape. He seldom goes longer than an hour between updates, in which he muses about work, the Kia Optima, smokers, “omg,” future travel plans, “Booty booty booty!”, and the pseudopolitical: “I’m invoicing the shit out of people tonight…feels good. Trying to break out of this 99% status. #OccupySD” He announces he’s going paddleboarding after breakfast. Core strength, baby.
Beyond all this—or perhaps despite it—Totes McGotes seems like a decent guy who means well. His problem is that a deep humility has become something akin to an appendix, like a lingering Jurassic-era vestigial organ that has long lost any purpose beyond becoming pointlessly inflamed:
I just realized I’ve only showered in ONE of my FIVE showers since I’ve moved in here. This must change #totesproblems
Omg so tired. Long day ahead but I know as soon as I’m on the boat my happiness level will increase 90%…hope to spot some killer whales!
Preparing my accountant for my office changing from a few hundred sq ft to several thousand. And boat expenses as third home. #plsdontaudit
When Totes tweets these, they aren’t brags: They’re what we now know as humblebrags. Totes McGotes, who in another era and on some other medium would have gone unnoticed, may be one of the humblebraggiest guys alive, and his messages actually end up saying more about America today than you’d think.
Humblebrags have probably existed for a while, but we know to call them that only because of Harris Wittels.
Wittels, a comedian, writes for beloved NBC comedy Parks and Recreation and is the Wizard of Oz tucked behind the @Humblebrag kimono. The @Humblebrag account has more than 120,000 followers but follows no one, taking submissions from an eponymous Gmail account and retweeting humblebrags without further comment.
Wittels’s coinage has evolved into a sociological achievement: It bridges the gap between bragging and false modesty. “A Humblebrag is basically a specific type of bragging which masks the brag in a faux-humble guise,” Wittels explains in an inaugural Humblebrag power ranking for Grantland, in which he identifies Totes McGotes as his all-time top humblebraggart. “The false humility allows the offender to boast their ‘achievements’ without any sense of shame or guilt. Unfortunately/fortunately, Humblebragging is very commonly used in our society, and for some reason Twitter seems to be the perfect forum for people to do it.”
There exist several varieties of humblebrags. Some are materialistic, like this gem from @OfficialMsTila: “I hate my lambo! Police is ALWAYS pulling me over just cuz its a lambo so they always think I’m speeding but I’m not!! Then they let me go!” There’s the celebrity encounter: @oprah: “OMG! Just had a SURPRISE date with Jackie Jackson. My teen idol hearthrob. Tried not to talk too much or eat too much. Succeeded at neither!”
Particularly popular are the 15-minutes-of-fame variety, like @ReallyVirtual’s “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it,” and the public-sexiness genre, which @thecourtneykerr completely nailed when she tweeted, “Just got ‘are you a model?’ in my elevator. Dude I’m wearing jorts and Toms. #areyoudrunk.”
The humblebrag is even real enough to crop up in fiction. In Tom Rachman’s novel The Imperfectionists, a cub reporter picks up an egomaniacal older journalist, Snyder, at a Cairo airport:
“Wicked to be back in the Mideast,” Snyder says. “I am so exhausted, you have no idea. Just got back from the AIDS conf.” “The AIDS what?” “The AIDS conference in Bucharest. It’s so dumb—I hate getting awards. And journalism is not a competition. It’s not about that, you know. But whatever.”
Many, many journalists follow @Humblebrag in real life.
Once or twice a week, @Humblebrag calls out roughly half-a-dozen offenders. It has a consistent, snotty aesthetic that makes it difficult to sympathize with the strangers who are tossed into Twitter’s bonfire of vanities without the slightest indication of context.
On the afternoon of October 19, @Humblebrag retweeted a fairly common “X-is-weird” humblebrag from @BatfishLD: “It’s weird when Google advertises my own gigs at me.”
A few strangers retweeted the comment and replied. @maggibee snarked, “So weird… right? It’s also weird when everyone tells me how great I am.”
@BatfishLD shot back at @Humblebrag: “Yeah, I work in show business, it’s true. I’m a *stagehand* for chrissakes. Whatever.” She added, to no one in particular: “Whoa. People are pricks about assuming things.”
Renee McDowell (@ReneeMcDowell) was also retweeted. She works in philanthropy and, on a longish post on her blog from early October, she said she sometimes works 20-hour days. “There are many nights where I sit & cry because I want so badly to make a difference,” she wrote. “I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to actually raise money to find cures & support those less fortunate.”
On October 19, she was tweeting things like “Wish I had thousands of dollars lying around so when I get approached about fundraising projects, I can just give them the money they need,” and “I am really in need of a bunch of big bear hugs today. #Stressed #Flustered #TooMuchOnMyPlate.”
An hour later, as part of its roundup, @Humblebrag retweeted a comment she made the day before: “I don’t know much about politics except that most of it is BS. Not sure why I get all these invites for politician dinners & events…”
@dwcowell, a stranger, tweeted at Renee: “I’m not sure why you do either. You look kinda dumb.” Renee’s avatar is a photo of a woman.
The only comment in @dwcowell’s self-description reads, “anger is a gift.”
The @Humblebrag dump that day also had its share of decidedly unsympathetic violators. Olympic speed-skater Apolo Ohno tweeted about how “hilarious” it was to get emails from people saying they were dressing as him for Halloween. Xeni Jardin, an editor at Boing Boing, posted a screen grab of herself asking her iPhone’s Siri, “What is love?” with Siri responding, “You have two contacts named Courtney Love. Tap the phone number of the one you’d like to see.” “Siri,” Jardin tweeted, “isn’t really helping me with the big questions.”
If you made a Venn diagram of self-promotion, the phenomenon of humblebragging sits in the overlap of two distinctly American pathologies—where manipulative self-consciousness meets our maniacal desire to succeed. What feels better than an ego boost? An ego boost everyone knows about. You did something great (met a celebrity, got some kind of compliment, became temporarily important) and wanted to tell the world about your brief moment of advantage, but you recognized, at least subconsciously, that doing so in any up-front way might be boastful or obnoxious. So you do it anyway—what the hell, you can’t help yourself—but you adjust your aim a bit lower before letting loose. And thus, a humblebrag is born.
When I reached Totes McGotes, he didn’t want to give out his name and he ducked a phone interview. But regarding the attention from @Humblebrag, he told me this in an email: “It’s all in good fun I suppose and yeah, it’s funny the difference in followers that ONLY ‘know’ me through humblebrags when for every 1 brag there are 100s of genuine posts and people get to know me or know the real me.” He has almost 4,000 followers, many of whom tweet with him regularly. He didn’t seem too bothered by the @Humblebrag death ray.
If there is anything uplifting about @Humblebrag, it’s that Wittels’s victims exemplify the vestiges of American social and professional mobility. Yes, it’s annoying that Oprah’s a billionaire and pretends to be a dork in front of other celebrities, but there was a time when she was a sexually abused teenage runaway. She would have killed to meet Jackie Jackson, then. You can hate The Fray, but I can’t think of any aspiring musicians who at some point in their career haven’t wondered whether they’ll ever get major radio airplay. In what other country can we rise so fast? Humblebragging is a small symptom of the happier American malady of success.
Still, if humblebrags are a by-product of mobility, the popularity of @Humblebrag’s disdain also underscores how rare and impossible that mobility frequently is. A lot of us want to have what Oprah does but won’t. A lot of us have been in bands, but few of us will make it on the radio. @Humblebrag floggings can read like envious reprimands: You’re bragging about something you don’t deserve in a manner unbecoming someone deserving it. But they can also be a memento mori. You’re bragging about something that probably won’t last and likely already hasn’t.