Excessive RTs: what’s the problem and why do they happen?

This morning I shared a cranky rant on twitter that looked like this:

Screenshot 2013-12-03 14.31.10

I’ve linked it back to the original tweet so you can see some of the responses it received. I’ve been musing on it ever since, not least because I’ve been questioning why overwhelmingly people who responded didn’t seem to experience the same thing as me, or didn’t seem to experience it problematically as I did. In an attempt to understand I also did some digging into the psychology literature that I’ve been playing with for a while. I hope that this blog might be of interest to more people than just me as I think it highlights some interesting ideas about our online behaviour!

I’ve been around on twitter since 2008 and during that time I think I’ve observed many changes in behaviour and how people use the platform. To some extent this is to be expected, it’s not new anymore, there are a greater number of people using it and mostly I’m delighted that social care is finally catching up and joining the conversation. However I think I’m craving what twitter used to represent for me; it was a place where I came across new ideas, new inspirations and new people; it was about divergence more than convergence, a place where my mind and possibilities were stretched and grown. Perhaps simply due to necessity my twitterstream wasn’t full of social care types because there weren’t actually that many around on the platform at that time.

On the plus side, since twitter has become more mainstream and more well known in social care circles, it has became a brilliant platform for meeting new people with a shared interest. Personally it has connected me to people, and pulled me into circles I wouldn’t have accessed before. In fact twitter has proven to be a great platform for convergent thinking and coming together to discuss collective ideas and have conversations, on occasion it has even led to action, but I feel that the challenge and critique that was around in the early days is missing. I feel like groupthink is taking over.

So, what’s the problem?
My rant this morning was about one particular behaviour which I find immensely irritating and is only really displayed by a small handful of people in my stream (which is only small to start with). People who are constantly retweeting, or worse still modifying tweets, to support their own agenda. To be clear I’m not talking about retweets per se. I’m forever RTing people and I think it’s an important part of the way in which twitter operates that people do. I’m not complaining about people sharing knowledge, I’m talking about people whose ratio of sharing others ideas to offering their own ideas or opinions is heavily biased to the former.

But surely there’s a role for curation?
This was raised almost simultaneously by Gary Andrews and Clive Andrews (spooky, but I don’t think that this viewpoint is only held by people called Andrews)! I happen to really value the opinions of Gary and Clive and so it got me thinking about curation. I think absolutely there’s a role for curation, but I’m a bit confused as to whether or how RTing someone is curating knowledge. I love people who curate information, am a sucker for pinterest and could even grow to love storify, my favourite email almost every week comes from Maria Popova, the brilliant brain behind Brain Pickings.

I’m not against curation. I am against shouting though, even if that shouting just takes place online, by constantly creating noise that supports your own self concept, even if you’re not doing it intentionally or strategically…..stay with me here, will explain in a second.

Why don’t you just unfollow whoever the culprits are?
I find this suggestion gets made a lot when you discuss behaviours on social media and on this occasion it was Ben who raised the challenge, a brilliantly sensible one I might add. I’ve not yet worked out whether it’s an inherent self loathing or a distinct obsession with balance, but I’ve never blocked anyone on twitter and I don’t unfollow lightly, mostly because I think you’re just skewing your own perception. I always liken it to when my Mum turns bad news off when it comes on the TV, of course that’s her choice but I’d rather an appreciation of good and bad, than just allow my mind to paint an unduly positive picture.

When it comes to social media I guess I’m still interested enough in people and their behaviour to endure some people whose behaviour irks me, and I’m self aware enough to know that I probably irritate people regularly, so I’m not claiming to be above this. So that’s why I don’t just block the people who engage in this behaviour.

What harm is it doing? 
At one level – none, at another I think the constant re-sharing of one or two voices skews things. I guess perhaps I’m suffering from a twitter headache, the noise of one or two is just drowning out other voices, and when it’s the same person continually RTing the same people, I have to wonder whether (some of) the value and benefit of the platform is lost.

I love social media for its potential to democratise things, to share a wide range of voices, as a leveller. I’m interested in hearing what many people have to say, not just the usual suspects (and I know in some conversations I am one of those usual suspects) which is why I’m objecting to the same voices, shouting. I’m also raising it, both in my initial rant, and in this blog post, in an attempt to act and uphold what I valued about it – debate and discussion, not just quietly ignoring or agreeing with people.

Why does it happen? 
This is the bit that really interests me and I’ve put together a proposition for people to debate and discuss and disagree with; I’m not claiming this is why but I think it may go some way towards explaining things.

If we travel back in time to 1933 to the work of a little known psychologist called Mahler (little known according to the internet anyhow, I only learnt of this work via Peter Gollwitzer) we discover the early thoughts of the construct of social reality.


Mahler argued that if you announce the solution to a problem and it’s acknowledged by others then it formulates in our brain as a social reality; worryingly the research showed that this happens even when the views, opinions or solutions offered were not actually accurate or achieved.

So, if your tweets are retweeted they will formulate in your brain as a social reality EVEN IF YOU’RE TALKING NONSENSE. Or to be less controversial, even if you’re just repeating and sharing people’s views when they support your own.

Peter Gollwitzer is a Professor of Psychology at New York University who has spent his career looking into this further and luckily for us Gollwitzer generously shares most of his academic writing on this topic on his university page, it’s well worth checking out if you can spare the time. In the meantime I’ll attempt to precis and share the highlights of a book chapter he wrote in 1986 Striving for Specific Identities (you can read it here).

Self-completion theory states that when we experience a threat to a valued element of our self-concept we become increasingly motivated to seek social recognition of our identity.

Gollwitzer’s work comprehensively explores this and the implications for our behaviour through a series of four experiments that clearly show ‘self-symbolizing that is noticed by others makes further striving for identity goals less necessary than self-symbolizing that remains unnoticed by others‘. That is, having an audience for our claims makes us feel like they are valued. Which if you think about it gets really complicated on a social media platform. Gollwitzer goes on to explore the motivational basis for this behaviour, and the social implications.

Gollwitzer (1986) states that ‘people define the goal of possessing a certain identity as located on the plane of social reality. That is, one feels it is necessary that others be aware of one’s claims to possession of a particular identity. However, individuals engaged in identity-related goal striving see in others nothing more than a passive witness of their efforts‘.

The implication of this is that people striving for identity goals, such as those who wish to be seen as social media experts, can’t achieve their goal, or feel that their identity is validated, without making their self-symbolizing efforts known to others.

What exactly has all of this got to do with excessive RTs?
Well, I could be barking up the wrong tree entirely, but what I’ve taken this to mean, in this situation of the continual retweets of one or two individual’s whose views affirm your own position, is that it’s not just my headache that’s a consequence of this behaviour. I think that it’s highly likely that people are affirming their self belief and creating a vicious circle of self promotion. Social media is arguably a perfect platform for self-symbolizers, people who are looking for their identity to be affirmed, regardless of whether people provide them with positive feedback. The mere act of retweeting is affirming someone’s self, and if someone is retweeting people who support their self in the first place, then I think you get into a doubly vicious loop.

Does any of this matter? 
To be honest, probably not. However if you’ve got this far I suspect something of it matters to you too. My conclusion is that a retweet on twitter is not simply an innocent act of curation, or might not be anyhow. Those individuals who are continually retweeting people who affirm their view, who aren’t offering their own opinion or perspective, I think are to some extent using the twitter platform, and those of us who engage with it, to assert themselves. So please don’t stop retweeting, but maybe think twice about the implications of doing so. Maybe it’s also worth considering whether those who are continually retweeting without offering their own contribution are simply being careless or harmless, or whether in fact they are damaging the platform and the network using it!

ps To get meta about it
This analysis is as likely to apply to myself as the next person. I am very aware I could be taking this too seriously, however, I suspect the reason it bothers me so much is because my own personal identity is quite fluid at the moment, and therefore I’m probably overly aware of others who are self-symbolizing, especially if they are doing it by spamming my stream with other people’s opinions to support them. Perhaps it is my own lack of determined identity, and my attempts to remain ambiguous, that are causing me the angst in the first place. What I do know is that balance and equilibrium are important to me, as are hearing the voices of those who don’t shout the loudest or create the most noise (a constant challenge for such a loud and extroverted person as myself).

I offer this post in part to those who wish to understand others behaviour better, but also as a tool to understand it more myself. So if it receives no retweets at all, I’ll still have achieved something. As ever, I’m really interested in your views and opinions, especially if they disagree with mine…which to get really meta, is probably also something of my own identity, the love of debate. So please, fire away.

One comment on “Excessive RTs: what’s the problem and why do they happen?”

Mike Baldwin says:

Watching C4Games at the weekend where the winner was twitter. I had not really thought of twitter as a game before, More a more messy jumble of people and organisations. Some of which I have connection, others that I would like to have connection. It does seem however that people see twitter as a game to be won = although what the outcomes are I think we are all trying to define.

You mention about the agenda that some people are on, I completely agree. Whilst building community for views and a movement there seems to be an increasing aspect of waiting to build and then “launching” something later as if there is some payback time that the tweeter has earned. Regular tweeters that I trust (admire and in some cases love) have built their own voice. They have shown their vulnerabilities, yes they have shared their successes and yes I hope that for many I can reach out and ask for help as much as I offer help.

George I found the following a very powerful part of your blog

Social media is arguably a perfect platform for self-symbolizers, people who are looking for their identity to be affirmed, regardless of whether people provide them with positive feedback. The mere act of retweeting is affirming someone’s self, and if someone is retweeting people who support their self in the first place, then I think you get into a doubly vicious loop.

The self-symboliser theory reminds me as well of the “dominant narrative” that is often created or extinguished. It is one of my biggest concern that the manipulation and inauthenticity that we see in so much communication that is arising. If you organisation is not customer centric and wants to make as much money as fast as you can please let us know and behave authentically, I am OK with that but please don’t portray yourself to be the cocreating, inclusive world enhancing organisation that you would like me to believe. Again there are some very skilled people who have had years creating/defending these dominant narratives without the ability for the audience to talk back and they are now having to learn new skills

I accept that twitter and other social platforms are changing the way we communicate. However I would like to challenge this stating that the business model should always have me inundated with offers for more stuff.

Write a reply or comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *