I’m Selfish and I Know It

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Back in the day, people manually retweeted each other, used hashtags to create conversation, and enjoyed their special community of being outside the Facebook bubble. Today, you see madness like hashtagging on Facebook for absolutely no reason, Twitter’s adoption of the Facebook cover, and Facebook’s infamous mini-feed. Basically, the digital world changes every day, and retweeting has changed with it. I think Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter, by danah boyd, Scott Golder, and Gilad Lotan, needs to be updated in light of the changes that have occurred on Twitter since the article was published. The authors studied the practice of retweeting as a way in which Twitter users can connect in a conversation, in different ways for different reasons. While this was a popular subject back in 2010, Twitter has released the Retweet Button feature and cut the work in half for participants, thereby significantly changing the discourse of retweeting.

boyd, Golder and Lotan suggest that “The prototypical way of retweeting is to copy the message, precede it with RT and address the original author with @” (3). This may seem simple enough, but the authors found that users would incorporate their own comments, delete parts of the original tweet, or do all kinds of things which would make retweeting inconsistent, and spread misleading content in many cases. Even looking back at one of my RTs from a few days ago, it’s clear that I altered the original tweet with my own commentary. In their analysis, the authors collected retweets that contained similar phrases and observed what content users retweeted, how they did so, and what their reasons for retweeting were.

The RT button eliminated many of the difficulties that arose when retweeting became popular in the Twitter community. With the RT button, users no longer have the option of altering the original message, adding personal commentary, or taking credit for it. In my opinion, the act of retweeting has become more consistent and more reliable than ever before. boyd, Golder and Lotan’s analysis, in which “the text and meaning of messages often change as they are retweeted and the inconsistent syntax makes it difficult to track” would need to be expanded to include how the RT button has changed the discourse in the community (3). For example, Ann Smarty (yep, I’d agree she’s a smarty) recently noted that “Twitter retweets are one of the most effective ways of increasing visibility and gaining a wider number of loyal followers,” in her article 6 Tips to Get Retweeted More Often. It seems to me that the questions have shifted from what, why and how users retweet, to how to get retweeted with the availability of the RT button. The what and why answers may have remained the same, but the how is no longer relevant to the conversation. More often than not, Twitter users ask their followers to RT them, and let’s face it, we’d all get excited if a celebrity retweeted us. Smarty suggests that the ego boost is what has “so many people asking about how to increase their number of retweets.” Simply put, people like compliments, and the RT button has made it easier for them to gain more recognition, to a larger audience, in a fast and efficient way. This “slightly childish ego” that Smarty calls us out on (come on, who doesn’t like to be retweeted?), seems to have heightened after the RT button was established, and changes the way people converse through retweeting.

In 2010 there may not have been as much incentive to be retweeted, as boyd, Golder and Lotan pointed out, “Retweeting attribution adds a new twist to the death of the author,” yet today in 2012, authors are compiling “tips to get your content retweeted more often, no matter what your reasons are” in an almost desperate attempt (Smarty). I believe it would be beneficial to update the old study to include users’ motivations for being retweeted as well as retweeting others, and how this has changed the nature of the retweet discussion. boyd, Golder and Lotan stated, “When participants choose to retweet messages…there may be an overlap between their potential audience and the potential audience of the originator, but the retweeter is unlikely to know what that overlap might be.” Today, the retweeter can easily obtain such information with the help of the RT button and social analytics sites like Simply Measured, which could add much insight and research to the discourse.

The RT button may have been a dramatic change to Twitter’s new look at the time, but boyd, Golder and Lotan have made helpful remarks about retweeting that still hold true. The authors maintain, “the intended audience plays a role in shaping what some people retweet” (7). I think this statement will always remain true. Similar to Baym’s discourse on social shaping, people will always affect how technology is being used, and vice versa. The Twitter community developed a unique discourse through the @replies and manual retweets, however, in her article Friends Don’t Let Friends “Retweet” #FF Shoutouts, Bridget Willard emphasized that “A few years ago, Twitter took what was an organic movement, the retweet (RT), and made a button. Buttons don’t always make things easy.” She reiterated when she thought it would be appropriate to RT someone, and when it would just be plain ridiculous (like in the case of randomly retweeting #FF, or follow-Fridays, that you weren’t even mentioned in). In such cases, boyd, Golder and Lotan’s research would be useful in understanding the engagement people created using their own retweets, versus the perhaps inauthentic engagement they created with the ready-made RT button.

Additionally, the authors mentioned, “By retweeting, she brings her audience into a conversation, helping them understand the context…before adding her own commentary” (boyd, Golder, Lotan 9). While they note that this is an ego retweet, it still builds conversation and discussion within the Twitter community. The RT button however, does not allow users to add personal commentary and can be much more limiting in determining the nature and motivation of the participants. Willard agrees, “It isn’t about your feelings. It’s about how to communicate with others. Social media is social.” On the one hand, I appreciate the simplicity of the RT button, but I find myself using the old-school RT style more often, simply to engage with users and build a conversation. Isn’t that what Twitter’s all about? The 2010 study is relatable because the backbone of the conversation is still relevant, regardless of new features that will continue to appear every day.

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One comment

  1. This discussion makes me think of a statement/disclaimer/bio that has become increasingly prevalent on Twitter: “retweets do not equal endorsements.” Retweeting, as you say, is an important form of communication on Twitter. It provides an efficient way to communicate to share with your followers the thoughts of others. But do you, the retweeter, necessarily agree with those thoughts? It seems to be more complicated than that. Personally, I believe that retweets absolutely do not have to be endorsements (when I retweet 50 Cent complaining about still having to take out the trash at his grandma’s house, it’s definitely to point out the silliness and general hilarity of that sentiment; I don’t really agree that it’s ludicrous for 50 Cent to be doing household chores). Retweeting brings your followers “into a conversation,” but does that mean your retweet is supposed to a proliferation of your own beliefs? Is there a way to standardize the meaning of a retweet?

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