When Butch Jones took the Tennessee job in January of 2013 he knew one of the perks of the new gig would be an almost bottomless pool of resources and advantages that come with a prestigious program like Tennessee: state-of-the-art practice facilities, deep-pocketed boosters, and, of course, hundreds of thousands of fans to cheer for and adore him.
What Jones probably didn’t anticipate was the emergence of a small, but comically vocal minority, known as “Vol Twitter” that would do his bidding whether he wanted it or not.
Fans being idiots about their favorite college football team on Twitter isn’t news, or at least interesting news, but somewhere along the way Vol Twitter evolved into a sentient being, independent of the team or the school. Despite the vastness and anonymity of Twitter, Vol Twitter is (somehow) well organized behind the leadership of a few, with dozens if not hundreds of keyboard warriors prepared to flank enemies from all directions. The arsenal of offensive weapons for Vol Twitter includes, but is certainly not limited to: direct trolling, indirect trolling, “long con trolling,” .gifs, memes, independent research and subsequent commentary about a victims personal life or family, or garden-variety shit talking.
The origin of the movement is probably impossible to pinpoint, and very few of the main characters use their real names. These sorts of groups have existed for decades, operating in real life before the internet was mainstream, or via message boards like the Rivals.com “Mainboard” (the message board combining every fan bases rival page for one big mosh pit of football fans) to pass the time by talking trash to other fanbases.
Having spent close to a decade somewhat immersed in Vol culture, I personally credit former Knoxville sports radio host Alex Anderson as being one of the pioneers of the movement. Anderson laid down many of the greatest hits (assassinations of other teams’ fans) Vol fans ever saw on the Rivals Mainboard before taking his talents to Twitter. Before long there were other highly-skilled trolls who created chaos with a few simple keystrokes, then sat back like Tyler Durden and watched the world burn from the comfort of their couch.
Twitter is a constant cycle of burning effigies, and typically the more skilled (and followed) users have cut their teeth in other media avenues – sportswriters, TV personalities, ex-players and coaches who have the intelligence and wherewithal to navigate the sea of vitriol that is Twitter. A class system based on followers is in fact one of the few structural foundations in place for the entire platform.
Every SEC fanbase is littered with lunatics who type in all caps, but Vol Twitter has risen to a more distinct prominence because of its organizational chart. Behind the leadership of its generals – @Popcorn Sutton and others – the less qualified trollers have clear direction of where and how to attack. To the untrained eye, the concept of a Twitter army organized by rank is dubious at best, but in reality this is some “Risk the Board Game” level of strategy that happened almost by chance. Don’t believe me? Just check out the kill count.
Vol Twitter refers to itself as “The Undefeated,” and for good reason. When opposing fans try to mix it up with Vol Twitter, they quickly learn no matter what fact they’re bringing to the table, they can’t possibly win. Tennessee fans had to adapt during the down years in the program, and while most of their online opponents can point to their teams’ recent dominance over the Vols, Vol Twitter can change the subject at the drop of a dime. Yes, this army was forged in the fires of disappointment and pain, and they play recklessly with very little to lose in anonymity.
SEC Nation sign pic.twitter.com/EryaojtVro
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) September 26, 2015
It’s easy to make the argument that the entire concept of Vol Twitter is sophomoric, if not reprehensible. A Northwestern beat writer recently felt himself up to the challenge to exchange banter with Vol Twitter, only to waive the white flag days later after his girlfriend was called out for being unattractive. Eli Gold (Alabama’s version of John Ward) was put on blast for attempting to slide in the DMs of a female member of Vol Twitter (@Stefsaysgovols) who made the messages public. Myron Medcalf, a college basketball writer for ESPN published a (in my opinion largely incorrect) piece before the season about Cuonzo Martin’s experience with racial prejudice in Knoxville. Medcalf now deals with a sewer system in his mentions every time Martin’s Cal team loses a game.
In many instances, Vol Twitter can and does go too far, but the whole experiment has created a bizarre sense of community among beleaguered Vol fans on social media. Each time an overly confident, unsuspecting victim stumbles into the Volunteer corridor of Twitter, someone sends a warning; You do NOT want to do this, bro. Tennessee fans do not want you anywhere near their lawn, so enter at your own risk.
Vol Twitter prides itself on being a pack of rabid attack dogs, so you won’t find a warning sign in the yard, but instead one that reads You mad bro?