John Mannheimer first fell in love with stupendously badly designed T-shirts while he was living in Vietnam.
The 28-year-old Los Angeles–based writer, who self-published a 2015 sci-fi novel called The Teleporter, moved to Hanoi, Vietnam in 2019. There he worked as an “essay consultant” for Vietnamese high schoolers looking to apply to U.S. colleges. (In reality, he was writing large parts of the essays for them.)
In his off time, he’d walk through markets and stalls seeing schlocky T-shirts with badly printed, mistranslated slogans emblazoned on them. “I began to take notice of all these T-shirts that didn’t make a ton of sense,” he says. “And I began to document them.”
He uploaded his photos of the garments to an Instagram account, Good Shirts, which became popular. By August 2021, Mannheimer was planning to move back to the U.S., and decided to branch out to Twitter. There, his account — which he called Shirts That Go Hard — had a simple premise. He’d post pictures of kitschy and ironic T-shirts that “go hard.”
Early examples include a shirt explaining that “Head Ain’t Cheating” and one bearing an image of “Lemon Manuel Miranda.” Every so often, he’d post a photo of a shirt he designed himself and link back to his own online store.
The account languished at around 300 followers until April 27, when a post featuring a T-shirt reading “Mess With Me, You Mess With the Whole Psych Ward” hit it big. “We had a few early viral tweets,” says Mannheimer, “and then we had some tweets that were supercharged algorithmically.” Today the account has 660,000 followers.
But in recent weeks, some Twitter users had started to rally against gimmick accounts like Shirts That Go Hard and No Context Brits, whose content was flooding people’s feeds due to an apparent shift in Twitter’s algorithm. Mannheimer did, as would be expected, frequent vanity searches for “Shirts That Go Hard” on Twitter and had noticed this rising discontent.
Among the tweets Mannheimer saw was this July 26 post, whose author — comedian, director, and photographer Sandy Honig — did not respond to Input’s request for comment:
“It became very clear to us that people on Twitter were being overserved our content, which was something of a problem,” says Mannheimer, “but also it was a good thing. We wanted our content to go as viral as possible.”
Three days after Honig’s tweet, Angela Wise, senior director of product management at Twitter, warned that this cornerstone of the internet content ecosystem — which also includes accounts like Animals Going Goblin Mode and Women Posting Their L’s Online — would find it more difficult to survive on her platform in the future:
Wise’s Twitter thread concerned Mannheimer, who at the time was midway through hiring a good friend of his to come aboard as a business partner. “That was the first time I was notified we were stepping on anyone’s toes over at Twitter,” he says.
Though the Twitter thread specifically citing his profile was unusual, Mannheimer knew he was building his business on shaky foundations. “I am acutely aware of the whimsical nature of social media platforms,” he says. Good Shirts had previously been kicked off Instagram because of what he calls “a clerical error.”
He recalls what happened to Good Shirts being “a pretty devastating blow.” “It’s daunting to live your life, or run your business, on a big tech platform that holds all the cards,” he says. “If you’re trying to fight against them, you’re trying to box the ocean or something.”
Yet being singled out by Wise in the tweet was a compliment. “It’s neat that we somehow had such a profound impact that we might have had to force Twitter to shift its algorithm,” Mannheimer says.
That good feeling ended days later, when Mannheimer found himself locked out of the account and four other novelty T-shirts accounts that he runs, including Shirts With Threatening Auras and Boomer Core. “Our accounts were suspended, without so much as a warning, and that was very scary, because I sell T-shirts,” he says. “That’s my business, as well as my life.”
Twitter claimed that Mannheimer was trying to artificially goose his numbers by having his accounts like or retweet each other. Doing so increased the likelihood that his accounts’ tweets would be picked up by the algorithm and pushed into more people’s feeds.
Mannheimer admits that, yes, he was technically in violation of Twitter’s rules. But as he explained in writing when appealing the account bans, he wasn’t part of what Wise deemed “viral spam.”
“I wasn’t trying to create a system that would outsmart their algorithm,” Mannheimer says. “I was really more fascinated with the content itself, curating it and categorizing it and creating these separate accounts that were focused on the subgenres of T-shirts that I found.”
“It felt like we were living in La La Land for a second there, where things were too good to be true.”
He sent off the appeal against the bans last week and kept his fingers crossed. Ultimately, Twitter decided to lift the blocks, with a proviso — that the accounts cannot cross-promote each other’s content.
“It’s difficult to tell whether or not they thought we were part of the spamming problem,” says Mannheimer, adding that he’s not spoken directly to anyone at Twitter. “The power of the algorithms that run these platforms feels like an impenetrable wall sometimes.”
When approached by Input for comment, the social network pointed to Wise’s Twitter thread and this post by the company’s head of safety and integrity, which says that since 2020 more than 600,000 viral spam accounts have been removed.
Today, Mannheimer is seeing far less engagement for his tweets, which has an effect on the business behind it. “We’re doing okay now,” he says. “It felt like we were living in La La Land for a second there, where things were too good to be true.”
Many people may laugh at the idea that Shirts That Go Hard now goes a little less hard. But that misses the point, according to Mannheimer, who cites the profound impact Twitter has on those who rely on it for their income or as a creative or artistic outlet. “People dismiss [Twitter] as not real life,” he says, “but for a lot of people it is.”