Retweets = Endorsements: Curation in the attention economy

It’s probably the most standard Twitter profile text outside of ostensibly nubile 22-year-olds who are “just looking for a guy to treat me right” — “Retweets are not endorsements.” Journalists, who are among the more active Twitternauts, like to pretend they exist outside of normal human functioning like judgment and subjectivity, and thus use this phrase to let everyone know that just because they put something on their personal (or corporate-personal) account, it doesn’t mean THEY actually think that thing. They’re just letting you know. It’s FYI.

It’s bullshit.

This is the ignore-the-obvious-fiscal-advantage argument that’s given whenever people wonder why the media focuses on inane, unimportant or crazy stories that even most journalists are sick of — sometimes even on air. We know that you posted the story about the celebrity because people will click on the link about the celebrity. It’s why the concept of clickbait headlines exist: it’s certainly not for the reader’s benefit. Journalists have ready-made reasons (read: excuses) as to why they post tripe, and the closest they ever get to the truth is “because people will read them.” . They’re just trying to inform people!

With the democratization of communication accelerated by the internet, “major media” no longer holds any meaningful gate-keeping role in deciding what people should know about. You can lament or celebrate this information as you may, but most would not argue with the truth of it. There are simply too many outlets through which you can acquire information, be it personal feeds from social media, websites, TV channels, magazines, etc. If someone wants to get their message out into the world, there are ample ways to do this.

Let’s take, for example, an American neo-Nazi group. Their message is that the white race is superior and other races should be subjugated/deported/killed. They might have a Twitter account, a website, a magazine, whatever. The main point is, none of these mediums have the ability to reach out to people. Sure, they can tweet @ someone and force their way in, but for the most part the way people interact with their message is through (digital or actual) word-of-mouth from those who espouse those beliefs, or by seeking them out directly.

But what happens when, say, a major party presidential candidate retweets some of their views? It by no means indicates that the candidate himself is a white supremacist or in any way sympathetic to those points of view. But it does give the jerks a voice. It lets people who may similarly not be white supremacists or sympathizers be exposed to that person, and provides them a vector to that information. Clicking on the Twitter handle to see the white supremacist’s past tweets opens the door. The person who goes through it is not automatically going to become a skinhead … but perhaps that Twitter user is adept at using misleading rhetoric and subtle innuendo to draw people down the path.

None of this makes it the candidate’s fault (or the candidate a racist [UPDATE: Except when it does, don't slow-walk that nonsense, Past Me]), but the root cause is undeniable.

So what does this have to do with the media? The sole ability any publication/outlet has is to determine what information they think their readers should know. They cannot make their readers know this information anymore than the presidential candidate or the racist twit can make anyone pay attention to them. All they can do is put the information in front of those who let them. It’s exactly the application of, “You can’t control what other people think, you can only control what you do,” only this time it has nothing to do with telling your child that some people are just mean.

The story is whatever the story is, and by printing a story in the newspaper, airing it on your broadcast network or pushing it to your audience via Facebook, your website, YouTube, etc., the publisher/creator is saying “This is a thing that is worthy of attention.” Especially if you’re not going to put any effort into context (which is what a retweet is), you’re explicitly stating to your audience that this is a thing they should know about. In an “attention economy,” with a surfeit of content and not enough eyeballs, getting someone to look at you goes a big way toward your winning (whatever it is you’re trying to win).

Thus, tweets like this:

are actively missing the point. No one’s saying you absolutely believe 100% in whatever you retweet. But it’s disingenuous to argue that there’s no value to the original tweet by your retweet. Hell, if there wasn’t, there would be no point in your retweeting it at all.