Retweet

The biggest mistake we all made this year was to underestimate Twitter.

The pen is mightier than the sword, at least insofar as those who wield the sword will one day die—but the written word endures.

However, this isn’t the case for tweets, swift messages with viral properties. These are not enduring words, although there’s probably a ‘best of’ Christmas book of tweets—tweets are weapons, short and sharp, and their reach depends on a fundamental property: the retweet.

My contempt for the tweet is rooted in the fact that I hate wasting time. I always have, but as the years mount, my sense of urgency increases.

The idea of blaring out banalities in one hundred forty typos seemed the paradigm of stupidity, on both sides of the trade.

It’s very difficult to be pithy in a few words, and I felt tweeting should be reserved for the likes of Churchill, a tweetmeister with gems such as

History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.

or even

I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.

or when admonished by reporters at age eighty that his fly was undone

The dead bird will not flee the nest.

Neither shall the dead bird tweet.

So I watched as celebrities touched the very hearts of their fans with critical information about eating a burger in Beijing, and felt increasingly out of touch with this new medium—it was just a connection I couldn’t make.

I also expected that when life turned sour, as it has a habit of doing, those same tweeters would be far less enthusiastic—and saw it again and again, as the divorce or the cancer struck. @chemo hair fell out awesome just doesn’t have the same spark.

But at the end of 2014, someone showed me the power of the retweet. He did it by posting—sorry, tweeting—an absolute banality, and then grinning as the comment spread like wildfire.

And I still didn’t get it.

It was only when I began thinking of the non-linearity of the tweet that the penny dropped.

If anyone deserves the end-of-year award in 2016, it’s the retweet. Why? Because it’s caused a paradigm shift in politics, and has therefore secured its place in history.

Mainstream media just didn’t get it. If you run a ‘serious’ newspaper or TV station, the underlying assumption is that people will go there for news. The medium cultivates an image of trust, and attracts specific groups: Fox for these, CNN for those, Sky for us, BBC for them.

And you pay for it. The cost of the newspaper, the TV license, ads…

If someone on TV, or maybe on the web, tells us something we want to pass on, we do it. If you’re sitting next to someone, maybe you’ll comment. Perhaps you’ll call someone, email them, SMS, or even better, tell them over a glass of wine next time you meet.

After all, we all love a good story.

What we have here is the old-fashioned way of sharing information—personal, limited, and slow.

Whereas the new paradigm is ‘personal’, limitless, and fast. The trick is that you personally receive a message from the president-elect of the United States. You turn around to your mom and say ‘Hey mom, Donald Trump just wrote me.’

Does Putin tweet? Da, you bet!

Does Putin tweet? Da, you bet!

Then you retweet to all your friends. You may not even understand what was said, but the great man spoke with you—you just gotta tell the others. Pretty soon, they too will sign on to follow old Delirium Tremens (defined in the dictionary as a ‘rapid onset of confusion’—highly appropriate).

This snap of Putin and Seagal claims 847 retweets. How far it spreads depends on two factors: the first I will now name deepth. If the average deepth is three, then the message will go down three floors on the elevator. The second factor is peedth—the average proportion of followers who retweet each retweeter. Let’s say ten.

In this case, the elevator door opens on floor three, and lets out 8470 retweets. On floor two, these go up by an order of magnitude, and by the time you reach the bottom, you’re up at around one million.

Putin has 501k followers, half a million souls who wheet him—that’s Wibaux-speak for worship his tweet, which sounds vaguely sexual.

From this we calculate that between one and two percent retweeted the riveting news about Seagal’s embrace of the rodina.

Xi Jinping is now also on Twitter. Alas, he has but one tweet and 464 followers.

But fear not. Enter Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. Quoted on the NASDAQ, it boasts over five hundred million subscribers.

So while we sneer at the tweeting classes, those who understand the medium are taking over the world. From Farage to Duterte, from Le Pen to Assad—the Syrian dictator has almost thirty thousand followers.

These are the new rules. Time to fight back.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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