The Retweet Will Ruin Us All

• May 2, 2017 11:54 am


Michael Brendan Dougherty, in his final column for The Week before heading to National Review, concludes his run by asking us all to stop sharing his work:

If this is a culture of disconnection, anxiety, and flashes of blinding hatred, I must have fed into it somehow. Maybe more so, because I try to describe it and tame it with my words. I don't know how to get us through it, that feeling of losing and precarity that stalks us on the internet.

But I can grant you permission to stop consuming "content" wherever possible. Just resist its pull. Stop reading my column if you must. After all, this is how you got Trump. Thanks Obama. Over and out.

Alan Jacobs follows up on this by pinpointing the retweet as the ignitor of our more toxic hatefests:

I have decided that of all the bad elements of Twitter, the very worst, the catastrophic bug masquerading as a feature, is the RT. Retweeting is how "dumbass news events" go viral, which is to say, it’s how outrage gets perpetuated and amplified. … Sharing is not caring, people. If you want to be caring, you’ll stop all the sharing. And if you insist on broadcasting what annoys the hell out of you, then, whether you know it or not, you’re singing along with this song.

This feels more or less right. The retweet and its cousin, the quote tweet, are the means by which most of the more vile harassment and angsty outrage on the Internet spread. Twitter doesn't drive as much traffic as Facebook or Reddit or other sites, but I'd guess that it drives a disproportionate amount of the outrage—in large part* because it's so easy to share stuff. With the click of a button I can instantly share a story that I may or may not have read—hey, I got the gist of it from the headline, right?—to 25,000-plus people without any of the tricky algorithmic games played by Facebook. The network effects of a decently angry tweet are astounding; millions can see something that hasn't been vetted in any real way within minutes.

The quote tweet is less effective as a tool for virality than the retweet but in some ways more vicious, as it turns Twitter into a constant battle for one-liner supremacy. Making the snarkiest, smarmiest joke in the quickest time ensures that your own tweet is retweeted. The dings, the pings, the bells, the buzzers: it all sets us to salivating, Pavlov vindicated. It's why Twitter is so damn addictive—and nothing addictive is good for you.

I'd say that we should try to be more positive in our retweeting—share jokes or funny pictures or essays your friends have written about the masterworks of Zack Snyder instead of That Thing Today That Is So Dumb It Makes Me Want To Puke**—but I know it's futile. So instead, all I'll ask is that when I'm finally dragged by Twitter for making a joke that is horribly misinterpreted by all you humorless jackals out there, light a candle for me.

Don't worry: I'll light one for you when your time comes.

*I'd guess Twitter also drives a disproportionate amount of the outrage because a disproportionate number of journalists are Kind Of A Big Deal On Twitter and they write stories about the daily outrages for their outlets and then share those stories with their broader networks of readers and then soon everyone is angry about everything. 

**"But Sonny, essays about Zack Snyder make me want to puke lololol." There, I saved you a hateful tweet! You can thank me later.