It’s a common complaint: stupid status updaters and incessant retweeters, filling our feeds (and by extension, our minds) with useless prattle, hoping beyond hope to get attention for themselves. I speak of people who unabashedly beg retweets for the seemingly silliest messages, claiming they’ll get some sort of reward from their mom or their friend or their partner…but only if this message gets 5k retweets! It’s a fact of life on social media, especially Twitter. Twitter’s a form of publicity, and publicity means different things to different people.
But what if there exists some arcane purpose, some almost unfathomable rationale behind the practice of constant retweeting? If the institution exists, persistent enough that we complain about it, constant retweeting must serve a purpose. Well, it does: retweeting is a means of producing and maintaining publics.
Michael Warner (Publics and Counterpublics) helps explain the prevalence of constant retweets: a public is constituted through mere attention! It might sound banal, but if you give it a moment you’ll realize it’s a decent point. Publics need attention, on a large and in some way persistent level. Without attention, and cultural forms meant to garner attention, publicness doesn’t exist: it’s members become reminiscent of solitary ships passing each other in the lonely, foggy night. In Warner’s words:
[blockquote cite=”Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics” type=”left”]The existence of a public is contingent on its members’ activity, however notional or compromised, and not on its members’ categorical classification, objectively determined position in social structure, or material existence. In the self-understanding that makes them work, publics thus resemble the model of voluntary association that is so important to civil society.[/blockquote]
To be clear: This is no apology for constant retweeters and their cringing, eye-rolling, ways! I simply mean to assert that the seemingly silly practice of retweeting constitutes part of healthily forming publics. The detritus of the 4th retweet in a row from that friend-of-a-friend who somehow eked their way onto our timeline can be forgiven if we remember that the cultural form of the retweet helps to get the word out regarding what is happening in our online communities, what it might mean for those who are affected by the news, and how circulating texts create common cause and common language for publics.
I love my whiteness and your blackness. > RT @deray I love my blackness. And yours.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) October 8, 2015
Here’s another example. I follow Shaun King, Deray McKesson, and other activists connected to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As I sat finishing this post, I started seeing retweets of an example of a different kind of cultural trope that exists on college campuses around the country: the fraternity blackface party. On 7 October 2015, UCLA chapters of a fraternity and sorority held a party themed ‘Kanye Western,’ one more in a spate of examples of racism that we almost expect to see near Halloween each year. An image of the retweets can be seen below.
Without the visibility offered by the retweet, not only would I and others not have known about this event, we might not know about its prevalence on and near college campuses. I might not know that this sorry disposition might rear itself in the classes I teach. I might not have been cognizant of a healthier mindset that I carry in me that finds the practice of the blackface party disturbing, perverted, and dangerous. I might not even be aware that I am an active part of a counterpublic that has formed in contradistinction to a cultural trope that seems to consider itself private, without any thought to its own aberrant publicness. Retweeting in this context isn’t annoying; in fact, it’s helpful to me and mine, while damaging to a harful practice and mindset. Mere attention might perturb us at times, but also it raises awareness of salient issues and offers common texts around which causes form.
Retweeting helps to create and maintain publics.