Forbes Digital Plaza is every bit as mysterious as it is flashy.
The square’s meagerly lit screens, oddly placed Top 40 hits coming from nowhere and seemingly defunct, blank screens — despite opening last November — is a target for pointing fingers as a waste of money. The absurdity of the situation is golden material for @NihilistOakland, a Twitter account with more than 1,000 followers and a knack for poking fun at the neighborhood’s quirks:
“Differences between u and the screens at Forbes Digital Plaza: they only appear broken most of the time. U, however, are actually broken.”
With 62 retweets and 75 favorites, the Jan. 14, post depicts the tragic rhetoric that @NihilistOakland’s followers can’t seem to get enough of.
While only a circle of close friends know his true identity, @NihilistOakland said in an email that he is a current senior computer science major at Pitt, having ditched a philosophy minor some time along the way. The mysterious tweeter said his darkly comical observations wouldn’t have the same effect if read with his personal account’s voice, which makes his tweets “edgier.”
“Anonymity is not something I am trying to hide behind, but I do think associating my identity with the account publicly, on Twitter, would only serve as a distraction from the content,” he said.
In a series of attacks against the plaza, @NihilistOakland has tweeted bleak images like, “In the distance, a vagrant urinates under the harsh glare of an ostensibly malfunctioning Forbes Digital Plaza sign.”
Under the telling username, the account owner sporadically tweets out 140 characters of cynical humor at Oakland’s expense. Each dark post garners anywhere from 10 to 61 retweets — and the account, born last August, isn’t even a year old.
“The goal of the account is to capture Oakland through a nihilist lens,” he said. “In other words, take a proverbial Snapchat of Oakland with the black and white filter.”
Rite Aid, Antoon’s Pizza and Hillman Library have all fallen prey to @NihilistOakland’s unforgiving eyes. Nothing you’d see during a typical day on campus is safe from the observant nihilist — not even his fellow students’ mental health.
A 2008 study by the Associated Press and mtvU concluded that “eight in 10 college students say they have sometimes or frequently experienced stress in their daily lives over the past three months.”
With so many students stressed out and in need of comfort, @NihilistOakland provides followers with a humorous outlook on their own dilemmas by turning them into comical nuances.
Riley Weber, a sophomore biology major and one of @NihilistOakland’s followers, relates to the tweets for their ability to make personal problems appeal to the masses.
“I think [the tweets] capture the sense of existential anxiety that a lot of college students are going through,” he said. “It makes me feel like my life isn’t so much of a meaningless pit.”
Comparing students’ consistent feelings of hopelessness and despair to any vulnerable Pitt commodity is practically a @NihilistOakland trademark. The account’s quick rise in popularity can also be attributed to how well the content resonates with students.
Sophomore psychology and communication major Ana Del Prete said she follows @NihilistOakland for its party culture parodies.
“@NihilistOakland has a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward college life and the filthy, but fun things we all do,” she said.
A tweet from August paints a picture of first-year students straggling through the streets of South Oakland looking for a place to let loose: “Our search for fulfillment is not unlike a [first-year’s] search for parties. Wander aimlessly, throw $5 and ultimately be disappointed.”
The now-notorious Twitter account actually began as a social experiment, but not one @NihilistOakland could carry out on his own profile.
“I started thinking of some dark, Oakland-themed tweets … however, I didn’t want to send my friends and followers the wrong message by tweeting them from my personal account,” @NihilistOakland said in an email.
It occurred to him that an anonymous Twitter account emitting a consistent stream of dark, absurd material might produce interesting results from his fellow students. From that moment on, in the beginning of this year’s fall semester, @NihilistOakland became a venture worth noting.
What began as a test is now a commodity that has gained the attention of other popular Twitter accounts on campus. @NihilistOakland lists @CommonPittGirl as another account that has boosted his own fanbase. CPG, a similarly anonymous Twitter handle that a Pitt female student runs, has just under 2,000 followers and lists itself as an @NihilistOakland fan. CPG shares the same love of poking fun at collegiate life, but at the expense of female Pitt students in addition to Oakland jabs.
“Eventually, some of the larger Pitt-related accounts like @CommonPittGirl and @Souf_Oaklin threw me a bit of love, which gave the account a nice boost,” @NihilistOakland said. “It grew organically from there.”
CPG followed @NihilistOakland soon after it began for its thought-provoking comedy and distinct personality.
“I initially followed [@NihilistOakland] because their style isn’t something you see on Twitter very often, especially when it comes to Pitt parody accounts,” CPG said in an email. “It’s a very refreshing yet dark sense of humor that I think requires a lot of creativity.”
Like @NihilistOakland, CPG chooses to remain anonymous for the purpose of staying in character.
“[Followers] may read [my tweets] as my own words as opposed to the anonymous voice of Common Pitt Girl,” she said. “There’s a mysterious component to having a parody account that makes it way more fun for both sides.”
The student behind @NihilistOakland often pulls from sources other than his own mind for inspiration.
When the ideas for derisive tweets don’t flow, the anonymous creator looks to outside sources like email submissions from his email — firstname.lastname@example.org — and from friends.
The owner writes most of the tweets, but cites “verbatim submissions or brilliant suggestions” as the sources behind some of the account’s most popular 140-character posts.
As @NihilistOakland’s time as a college student comes to a close, he asks only one favor of the student body — a person to whom he can pass the torch. All aspiring Oakland nihilists have to do is direct message or email @NihilistOakland and plead their case.
Until graduation in May, however, the Oakland nihilist will continue to expose Pitt’s inner turmoil the way only he can.
“I never anticipated the account getting over 1,000 followers, and I think that is a testament to the fact that people can relate to a lot of the material,” @NihilisticOakland said. “Sure, there are plenty of exaggerations, but I think a lot of the tweets ring true to people on some level.”