David Mandl on Tue, 9 Nov 2010 12:21:27 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> It's Not What You Tweet, It's Who You Tweet. A Short Introduction to the Retweet Economy

It's Not What You Tweet, It's Who You Tweet
A Short Introduction to the Retweet Economy
by Dave Mandl

As much of an online paradise as Twitter is, it's not *completely*
free of the kinds of annoying behavior we see in the real world. High
on the list are the sorts of adolescent posturing that social media in
general make so easy--preening, name-dropping, ass-kissing, pandering,
cliquishness, slavish trend-following. Yes, a tweet is usually just
a tweet, but sometimes it's as conspicuously coded as the brand of
jeans a high-school girl wears or the seating plan at the White House
Correspondents' Dinner.

While--of course!--most people's motives on Twitter are pure and
selfless, it's impossible to spend even a few days there without
becoming aware of the medium's subtle measures of status, namely
followers and retweets. It's hardly necessary to discuss why someone's
follower-count can be seen as a reflection of his or her popularity,
but there's much more nuance to the ecology, or economy, of retweets.
On the surface, a retweet is a way of saying, "Hey, So-And-So tweeted
this, and I think it's so smart/hilarious/fascinating that I just
had to share it with all my own followers." Simple. Dig a layer or
two down, though, and things can get more complicated. Like "label
queens" who will only consider wearing clothes by certain designers,
there are Twitter users who only seem to retweet people we might
call "Names"--celebrities or other figures who have a certain status
or standing in their particular circle. That figure might be, oh,
a Silicon Valley uber-geek, an editor at the New Yorker, a music
journalist of impeccably hip taste, or a powerful new-media figure.
Retweeting a Name is a way of showing how well-read you are, how up
on current events you are, how correct your politics are, or who you
(sort of) know. While it's hard to define exactly what defines a Name,
since the criteria can vary among groups based on socioeconomic level,
education, or variety of cultural consumption, one almost universal
criterion is the number of followers the person has: Any Name is
likely to have a large-to-tremendous number of them, made up of people
in his or her interest group. This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,
since someone retweeted by an important enough person (or a Name)
can quickly become a Name him- or herself due to pack behavior (see

In addition to being a form of name- or cultural-reference-dropping,
retweeting can also be a way of pandering. Retweeting something from
a Name you want to impress is akin to kissing up to the boss. In fact
there are people who will retweet the most mundane crap imaginable
if it came from a Name--the Twitter equivalent of the tried-and-true
career strategy of laughing at your manager's unfunny jokes. Yes,
it's conceivable that in some cases the retweeter genuinely found
the unamusing, uninsightful tweet amusing or insightful, but in
a chicken-and-egg way this may itself be due to an unconscious
identification with the Name, a kind of celebrity Stockholm Syndrome.
Regardless, retweets are an easy way to gain cultural cred among the
people who matter to you, and if you're very very lucky they may also
gain you followers from among the people you desperately want to rub
elbows with.

If there are people who will, for reasons of snobbishness or
social-climbing, only retweet Names, it goes without saying that there
are also people--often the same ones, and for the same reasons--who
will never retweet non-Names. I once worked for a company where a
haughty executive with a lavish Greenwich Village townhouse RSVP'd
to the office receptionist's wedding, and then simply failed to show
up. I could only guess that he had a last-minute revelation about the
wisdom of attending a lower-middle-class function in Queens, filled
with unattractive people wearing poorly made off-the-rack clothing.
There were low-ranking people in our office with whom this exec had
never exchanged two words, and I imagine that if he's on Twitter today
he's *very* careful about whom he'll deign to dignify with a retweet.
To give a more direct corporate-political analogy, I once heard an
ambitious young manager remark at an office Christmas party, "Don't
think that the senior execs don't take note of who you're talking to
here!" For the snobbish or ultra-aspirational, there's no benefit
whatsoever to retweeting somebody who's a nobody (if they'd even come
across such a person's tweets to begin with), and it's a foolish waste
of social capital to boot.

Retweet behavior can also exhibit ambition's trusty sidekick,
insecurity. As with any other kind of cultural trend (or "meme," if
you prefer), a person's retweets can constitute pure bandwagon-jumping
or groupthink. It sometimes seems that there's no utterance by a Name
or celebrity that's too trivial to warrant instant retweeting by
dozens or hundreds of followers. (Yes, you could make the argument
that the more followers someone has the more retweets they'll get, but
it's clear that there's often more than mathematics at work here. I've
seen people ignore an interesting link tweeted by a relative nobody
and then retweet that same link just a few minutes later when it was
tweeted by a Name.) Like a shitty band whose popularity suddenly takes
off when it gets the nod from a hipster tastemaker, a link or tweet
can go viral for no other reason than that it came from a Name. If
it were possible to retweet pure air, we'd probably see that too:
There are Names who have Twitter accounts that they've never used but
still have hordes of followers--like @beyonce, who has never tweeted
once but as of this writing is followed by eight hundred thousand
very patient people. The day she gets around to tweeting "Hello," the
resulting retweets will probably bring down Twitter's entire server

Finally, retweeting someone can serve the same mutual-backscratching
purposes as blurbing a book. Just as glowing praise that comes from
an author's friends is all but meaningless--no one's going to say no
when a buddy asks for a blurb regardless of how good or bad the book
actually is, and there's the unstated expectation that the buddy will
reciprocate when called upon--a retweet can be little more than a show
of blind support for a pal. This is in fact a lot more innocent than a
disingenuous book blurb (where what seems like a raving recommendation
from a respected author is actually nothing of the kind, and could
cause you to shell out $25 for a piece of junk), but it still borders
on dishonesty. Even more self-serving is the tendency of some people
to retweet praise that they themselves have received via Twitter. Not
content to reply directly and semi-privately to an "@ message" telling
them that, say, an article they've published is brilliant, some
people will reply with a "Thank you!" to the sender *via a retweet*,
ensuring that all their followers see the compliment they've just
received, while effectively adding nothing to the original message.
Some praise-retweets add *literally* nothing to the original, simply
echoing it to all a person's followers without even an added "thank
you," in a kind of digital victory lap. The silver lining here is
that these retweeters are easy marks. Want your name blasted all over
Twitter? Simple: (1) Locate an egomaniacal nut with ten thousand
followers who retweets every tweet that mentions his name, and (2)
mention his name.

Dave Mandl
Web: http://www.wfmu.org/~davem
Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmandl

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