In her September 7 article in the New York Times, Courtney Rubin described what is currently my favorite new internet phenomenon: making a wedding trend on Twitter. She writes about couples, such as Aaron and Jamie in Los Angeles, or Burt Herman (founder of internet-story-amalgamation-and-summarizing service Storify) and his wife, who all have one thing in common: awesome friends. Rubin spoke with best men and other friends of these couples, who created hashtags for their friends’ weddings and got them trending for the day on their local twitter feeds.
In 2010, researchers dannah boyd, Scott Golder, and Gilad Lotan published their study Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter. In this paper, boyd, Golder and Lotan studied the ways in which users “retweet using different styles and for diverse reasons … [mapping] out retweeting as a conversational practice.” The group used “case studies to look more closely at specific conversational practices” and to highlight the different motives and methods of retweeting.
At the time of publication, according to the paper, Twitter had announced plans to work the retweet function in to the structure (at the time it was a user-generated action), as they had already “done for @replies and #hashtags.” The paper concluded with a number of reasons for which the retweet is done: “to amplify or spread tweets to new audiences… to entertain or inform a specific audience… to comment on someone’s tweet by retweeting and adding… to make one’s presence as a listener visible… to publicly agree with someone… to validate others’ thoughts… as an act of friendship, loyalty, or homage by drawing attention… to recognize or refer to less popular people… to gain followers… [and] to save tweets for future personal access.”
These are all reasons to retweet that existed then – before the retweet function even had a button on Twitter – and still exist today. However, times change some aspects of technology, and though nothing has been made obsolete, there are new reasons for which people retweet.
Now that the RT function has been absorbed into Twitter users’ everyday life, and affordances such as RT and trending have interacted in many ways, the layout of the Twitterverse has been reshaped and new retweeting practices have emerged. Though aspects of this new trend-tweeting practices can be folded neatly into the category of being done to pay homage or “as an act of friendship”, I believe there is also a separate and unique motivating factor that was not addressed – quite possibly because it did not yet exist as a cultural phenomenon – in boyd, Golder and Lotan’s paper. As Twitter users have responded to the growing population on the site, and have learned about and experimented with the site’s ever-changing and ever-multiplying affordances, retweeting in order to set a personal hashtag trending has become the new – well, trend.
Trending topics have been a source for creative fuel for tweeters since they were introduced to the site, and are usually a good and fun way to pass the time online. Every once in a while, though, a brave tweeter ventures to start a trend themselves. Jason Burt is one of these brave Twitter users. After a lot of hard work pulling together guests and friends, Burt was able to set trending not just one but two hashtags for his friends’ wedding. This story is a strong example of how Twitter users are currently using the RT and trending hashtag functions. Though Rubin attributes this to a desire to buy friends a gift that “can’t be registered for, much less bough”, I think that – though more subtly – this practice is also a meditation on a more thrill-seeking desire. The thrill of the hunt, so to speak; people like challenge, especially when the challenge can be publicly defeated. This adventure thirst, I believe is what is fueling the practice of trending personal hashtags, and is a new reason for which people retweet.
In short, friends retweet friends retweet friends retweet themselves – oftentimes, now, to win the prize of local stardom; not because of the outcome (being an online trend for an hour in Detroit is really not so spectacular), but for the excitement of organizing the number of people needed to make it happen, and for beating the odds and making it happen. If boyd, Golder and Lotan were to do their study again today, I think they would need to take hashtags and trends into account when discussing the frequency and practice of retweets.