Nobody likes a show off: The excruciating rise of the 'humblebrag'

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Chatted up at the garage? Hanging out with a president? Then don't take to Twitter to downplay your success with some faux self-deprecation, unless you want to be taken down by the sharp-eyed Humblebrag feed, says Will Dean

My editor asked me to write a cover story for The Independent! She doesn't even realise that I'm a crummy writer....

Hang on, let's try again.

Wow, I can't believe a national newspaper asked little old me to write a big story for it!

Say hello to the humblebrag. As in those two sentences, the humblebrag is when someone, possibly unconsciously, manages to show off about something while simultaneously couching it in terms of self deprecation – at least enough to give the impression that the author doesn't believe the hype. (Incidentally, there's actually a good humblebrag in the song "Don't Believe the Hype", when Public Enemy's Chuck D raps: "Some claim that I'm a smuggler, some say 'I never heard of ya'.")

The ubiquity of Facebook-status updates and – particularly – Twitter messages have made the humblebrag the de facto method of choice for those wanting to share their achievements with as many people as possible, often in lieu of having anything else to say.

Indeed, the worst offenders tend to be celebrities followed by tens of thousands of people on Twitter, who have a lot to brag about but maintain enough self-awareness not to wantonly show off about the luck that has befallen them. (There are exceptions. See: West, Kanye.) Outright showing off is much harder to do online than in real life. Without the nuance that body language affords, a post about how wonderful of a time you had at the gifting area of the Emmy awards is likely to attract a considerable amount of opprobrium, rather than conspiratorial giggling.

So, adding a rejoinder about how you're in the gifting room in your sweaty gym shorts, or without make-up, or despite not being able to string a sentence together due to tooth surgery, will hopefully give an impression of awareness of the superficiality of such a situation. Here's a particular clanger from the US writer John Moe: "The fact that Wikipedia lists me as a notable alumnus of my college speaks of the reliability of crowd-sourced information."

That said, it's not just celebrities minor to major filling up bandwidth with humblebrags – we're all prone to it. Being able to instantly publish and share can tempt even the most modest to fire off a message such as "I can't believe it's three years since I graduated from Harvard" or "considering I didn't learn to cook until six months ago, this lasagne is DEE-LICIOUS" without thinking too much about how it looks.

The man making sure that the most egregious humblebrags are shared with the world is the US comedy writer Harris Wittels. Wittels works on cult comedy hits Parks and Recreation and Eastbound and Down but has devoted hours of his spare time making sure that no backhanded self-deprecation can pass unmarked.

Wittels set up the @humblebrag Twitter account (and an email address for people to grass humblebraggers up on) in the summer of 2010, to snare humblebrags and, hopefully, remind users of the social network that it's perhaps best used as a forum for sharing news, ideas and analysis, rather than the fact that Brett Davern (who?) got "recognised at the grocery store in the same T-shirt I wore at the VMAs".

The Humblebrag feed, which simply retweets any glaring humblebrags, has since accumulated more than 100,000 followers and earned Wittels a monthly column with the ESPN-owned brainy sports and culture web magazine Grantland, in which he ranks the greatest Humblebraggers.

Wittels himself defined the phenomenon in the first Humblebrag Power List back in June: "A humblebrag is basically a specific type of bragging which masks the brag in a faux-humble guise. 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."

As well as celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Tila Tequila, the winner of three of the four Humblebrag Power Lists so far is the decidedly non-famous Totes McGotes (not his real name, it's a line from the movie I Love You, Man), a man who lives in southern California, seems to have a fairly successful business and is clearly the greatest humblebragger on the internet. Here are some of the examples that Wittels listed at Grantland: "I love that my non-college attending, growing-up-ghetto ass is talking $2.4m (£1.5m) ad budgets with a client today. #NoExcuses."

"I just realised I've only showered in ONE of my FIVE showers since I've moved in here. This must change #totesproblems."

"Told the cpl renting my house in the Midwest, who both lost their jobs last month, not to worry about Nov/Dec rent. They have a little boy."

Amazing. Wittels' commentary makes McGotes even funnier: "He is a bottomless pit of humblebragging, and I love him for it. A lot of people talk trash to Totes on Twitter for his humblebraggery, but I say leave him alone. I want to see him in his natural habitat, like an animal in the wild – not tampered with by man."

The whole idea of the humblebrag is obviously just a bit of fun, a light-hearted poke at the commonly held perception of social media and Twitter, in particular, as being devices solely for narcissist twaddling.

But the humblebrag betrays a serious point. Studies and books written over the last few years – including The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and W Keith Campbell – have made strong arguments for social media facilitating a growth in narcissism through the mechanics of the sites. Humblebragging is the outlier on a spectrum that ranges from people tweeting about their day to posting pictures of their new clothes. Wittels' humblebrag device is a minor, if very funny, check on why we're sharing in the way that we're sharing.

That said, most people who use Twitter acknowledge its genuine ability to act as a tool for social change (among other things).

And by highlighting the lack of humility, accidental or not among Twitter users, it reminds all of us that what we're saying is not necessarily being read in the way we intended it – and that no one likes a show-off. Even a humble one.

Classic humblebrags

It's really weird being friends with famous people. You hardly ever get to see them and you have to schedule times to hang-out a week ahead.

Argh! just seen someone sitting opposite me on train is reading my book. Quite embarrassed. Watching for signs of enjoyment. He's frowning.

Got told I look like Jessica Alba today? #Iamsoconfused #yeahright #iwish #thanksforloweringmyselfesteem

#Thatawkwardmomentwhen the lady in the gas station compliments your abs then asks to touch them.......

In NYC in my bum clothes, and I've honestly never been hit on by so many guys in 1 day. I must be ovulating, or something.

Owning a house...not a condo...is ALOT of work. mom and dad...i have so much more respect for what u did raising us in a home now. Damn

Remember when limos were cool? Now they're pretty lame!! Every time I ride in one I feel corny... Glad it's 3:30 am

Need to head to the golf course. Stressed about invite to Justin Timberlake's Charity Golf event

My cab driver just asked me if I am a famous actress. Guess that means I look half decent for this early on a Sunday.

Ha. My billboard in times square. Crazy how I worked here 15 years ago and now I have a billboard. So cool

Just gave 100 dollars to the homeless man I see every day here in Vancouver. Irrational kindness does feel really really good

The most hilarious question I get in email: "what is your speaking fee?" I should be paying *you* to listen to me

It's always weird when u driving in a car – and they Shout u out randomly on the radio...especially in another city

I am the Cate Blanchett of saying one line in my friends' movies and TV shows.

When I wake up I gotta text back 30 different people!!

Signing photos of myself never ceases being a strange & awkward experience.

It's flattering that when I feel like I look my absolute worst, I get asked out at the farmers market. #Irony

A patient grabbed my bicep today and made some comment about muscles. It was a little awkward.

If you could ask a US president a question in confidence, what would it be? (Don't be a dummy like me and ask for his tie!)

Wow, honoured: @FastCompany's 50 most influential designers in America includes ME for some reason.

After the Humblebrag: Other Twitter etiquette to consider

If you're going to show off, don't fudge it as a humblebrag. Follow Kanye West's lead and do things like taking pictures of all your gold jewellery while going through airport security.

Don't retweet praise, especially if you're famous, unless it's coated in a thick layer of irony. This is easier said than done.

Take care when Tweeting that it's your birthday. There's a fine line between spreading the joy and looking a bit needy.

Don't take pictures of your kids doing silly things. They haven't given you permission. And imagine what they'll be able to do you on Facebook in 2046.

Give credit where credit's due; if someone posts a great link, acknowledge it with a HT for hat-tip (of course, so slippery is Twitter discourse that original posters often slip out of the online chain).

Non-celebrities! Don't spend your day sending @ replies to celebrities' tweets. That's not really the point.

Celebrities! Don't just follow the five co-stars of your last film. If you're on Twitter to promote your work you need to engage with the crowd. Or else, make your profile a private one.

Don't send tweets that are better served by email – no one else cares if your housemate wants a cup of tea.

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