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The Tragedy of Twitter
tragedy n. the story of a hero brought down by a fatal flaw
Twitter started with two unique features:
Thoughts without titles. A blog post has to have a title. This not only a requirement of blogging software, which would be easy to remove, but also of feed readers and link aggregators. A thought doesn’t naturally come with a title.
Asymmetric relationships. On twitter you can follow someone, and they can follow you back or not. On facebook you have to send a friend request. This makes the platform impotent, in the sense that it can only replicate real world relationships but not create its own. There would be no friendships if one had to send a friendship request before talking to someone.
Twitters users developed conventions, like the RT, the hashtag and the @mention and twitter adapted to these conventions.
Twitter added replies. Today, every social media platform has replies, but twitter implemented them differently and better:
Replies are just tweets. They can be liked and retweeted like other tweets.
Replies can be infinitely nested, and this with a flat interface that works on mobile.
When you reply to a tweet, the reply is only shown to people who follow both you and the person you’re replying to, so that you naturally write for an audience that is sympathetic to both of you. This also means that replying to a tweet doesn’t give additional attention to the tweet, the reply is only seen by people who have seen the tweet, so that there’s no point in trolling for replies.
There was one thing many twitter users did that was almost too simple to be called a convention, and that is to link to images. Twitter adapted to this too, embedding images into the app.
Soon, people started tweeting screenshots of tweets, rather then retweeting them. This had two advantages:
It was a way to “steal” the tweet, to ensure that any following retweets “belonged” to you rather then original tweeter. (When you see a retweet, you only see the person who retweeted it into your timeline and the person who originally tweeted it, but not the intermediary steps it took for the tweet to reach you.)
It allowed you to add a comment, usually either some stupid expression of approval, to not make the “steal” motivation too obvious, or some stupid expression of disapproval, of outrage and anger. (There’s an asymmetry here, which is that the approving screenshot comes off as a steal, whereas the disapproving screenshot comes off as smart, as not giving attention to the person you disapprove of.)
Seeing that people were now mainly using images for screenshots of tweets, twitter should have dropped the embed feature. Instead they invented the quote RT.
The quote RT differed from the screenshot tweet in two ways:
People could click on the quoted tweet and follow the author, so that trolling people into quote RTing became a way of getting followers.
Quote RTing is so much easier then screenshotting, and almost as easy as repying. And while a reply is shown only to people who follow both you and the person you reply to, the quote RT is shown to all of your followers, giving you a homefield advantage. Thus quote RTs quickly became the main mode of engagement for people with enough followers.
Together, these two things created a kind of bootlegger-and-baptist relationship between between outrageous tweets and outraged quote retweets.