This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar and Mediaite on November 23, 2009.
When Twitter decided to slowly roll out a new, official retweeting feature, people waited in anticipation. When they let their users know what it might look like, people debated whether that was the right way to deploy it. When it actually became available, people almost universally disliked it.
But my post is about why I love the new Twitter retweet feature, without ever having to think about it. The reason is that official retweeting represents the new-new arms race for authority among power users. The new-new arms race, you say? Yes, because the new arms race was to get on as many lists as possible, with the most-followed lists having a special significance.
The new-new arms race is the race to get officially retweeted the most. The idea is that in a sea of boring or useless or narrow-topic tweets, people who have “authority” will get retweeted the most. And finally, Twitter has built its own system for keeping track of that – officially. Think of that silly “RT” thing that users generated as a wristwatch at a track meet; Twitter operates the official Rolex timeclock.
Getting officially retweeted has two huge benefits for users that disproportionately benefit the already popular. One, the already popular gain even more authority that will enable their profiles or tweets to be featured, for example, higher in Google and Bing search results. Two, their profile link, photo, and original tweet appear in other people’s tweet streams, even if those people don’t follow the already very popular person.
Both of these have the potential to drive a tremendous amount of traffic to a person’s Twitter account, and the people with the most official retweets will become recommended-users-list version 2.0, I believe (see the ninth paragraph of this story). With all the hub-bub about advertising within one’s Twitter stream, driving traffiic is becoming more important to more users than ever before. Who isn’t tempted to sign up to push one ad a day and make $30,000 per month in bonus cash?
But not everyone will make $30,000 or $3,000 or even $300 a month. The official retweet system tends to disproportionately favor the already-massively popular. Their authority, already very high, will only become higher relative to that of the average user. To modify the common saying, the common person will watch the retweeted will get retweeted-er.
Not sure if you are part of the retweeted-er class? It’s easy to find out. Go to your account on Twitter.com, click the “Retweets” tab, then click on the “Your tweets, retweeted” tab. Is almost every single one of your original tweets in there? Didn’t even realize that was happening? Welcome to the club.
Of course, it’s not really the fault of the massively popular Twitter users (I don’t think Twitter consulted many of them before creating this feature), so don’t blame them for trading in on their fame. The petit-bourgeois wealth of authority no doubt creates opportunities for the working-class Twitter users, under the theory of trickle-down tweetonomics. The real question is, will Twitter’s proletariat class stand by and watch this happen, or form an uprising?
Addendum: Shortly after I wrote this I came across a Valleywag post with a similar theme.
Dr. Mark Drapeau is a columnist for Mediaite. As a scientist, he studies the behavior of insects when they decide to get social with each other. As a consultant, he advises organizations on how to innovatively communicate using social media tools. As a writer, he writes for True/Slant, Federal Computer Week, and other publications on social behavior at the intersection of science, technology, government, politics, and society. Reprinted from O’Reilly Radar.