What Tweets With Ridiculous Numbers of Retweets Say About Twitter

Let's just say that the Arab Spring doesn't make an appearance. 
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Favstar

Each social network has its own greatest-hits list. YouTube had "The Evolution of Dance." Facebook seems to generate million-like stories about kids and puppies every other week. Many of Tumblr's most-noted stories feature cats and/or GIFs. 

These most popular stories do not describe everyone's individual experience of these platforms, but you have to admit, they do say something about what's celebrated collectively. They represent the mass-market experience of the social network.

So, on the eve of Twitter's initial public offering, we took a look at what Twitter-tracker Favstar says are the 10 most-retweeted tweets of all time (though none is more than a couple years old).

This seems like the best metric for measuring Twitter success, given that the network's defining feature is the rapid spread of information. And yes, I understand this list is not be totally comprehensive or perfect: for example, it leaves off Barack Obama's reelection tweet, which garnered more than 789 thousand retweets, and I'm not sure why. And there are tweets from Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and a Green Bay football player noted here that should be on the list, but don't change the analysis.  So, as a caveat, let's say FavStar is not canonical, but it is instructive.

Notably missing from the list: political figures, revolutions, breaking-news events. While most individual Twitter accounts feature a mix of entertainment, news, and interpersonal interaction, when you average out the sea of tweets, we find gray platitudes from famous people. 

OK, here we go, from 12 to 1, ranging from roughly 45 thousand retweets up to 88 thousand.

12. A imitation account of the singer Frank Ocean, 45k retweets: "3 guys in Colorado died protecting their girlfriends. i don't want to hear any girls saying that 'All guys are the same.' "

11. Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, 46k retweets: "Cutting PBS support (0.012% of budget) to help balance the Federal budget is like deleting text files to make room on your 500Gig hard drive"

10. One Direction bandmember Liam Payne, 49k retweets: " '@googlefacts: Koutaliaphobia is the fear of spoons. Liam Payne from One Direction says he's scared of spoons.' i now know the name for it"

9. Soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, 51k retweets: "Thanks for everything boss." (With a photo of Alex Ferguson, his coach at Manchester United.)

8. Rapper Drake, 53k retweets: "You never worry about the last laugh if you've been laughing the whole time."

7. Singer Ariana Grande, 53k retweets: "Retweet for a follow & I'll follow as many as I can today. If I don't get to you now I'm sure I will eventually, I'm always doing these. :)"

6. Online storage company Dropbox, 56k retweets: "A guide on how to get more free space with Dropbox!http://t.co/nIjwo0nM Retweet for a chance to get +100GB!"

5. A parody account of the photo sharing service Instagram, 56k retweets: "Right now you have 3 fingers behind your phone, your pinky tucked under for support, and you're scrolling with your thumb."

4. One Direction bandmember Louis Tomlinson, 60k retweets: "Uh oh . @tomthewanted The Wanted's Tom Parker: My failed X Factor audition shattered me |  http://metro.co.uk/2011/07/04/the-wanteds-tom-parker-my-failed-x-factor-audition-shattered-me-64958/  via @metrouk

3. Justin Bieber, 62k retweets: "every girl out there should respect themselves. #real"

2. Actor Ben Savage, 68k retweets: "I'm going to be a father! Well, on TV at least. The 'Boy Meets World' sequel is officially happening!"

1. Viral photo account Earth Pics, 88k retweets: "Retweet if you want to be part of our social experiment!" BUT! It featured a photograph that was just written text saying, "If you retweet this before September 1st, we will write your @username down on a piece of paper. They will get thrown of [sic] the Eiffel Tower, they will also get left in the London Underground, and some taped in public bathrooms all over the world. Hopefully someone will find your URL and send you a message telling you where they found it! Retweet if you want to be part of this social experiment!" 

As a sophisticated information consumer, this list might not exactly give you hope for the information-sharing potential of social media. 

Let's walk through it. Fully half of the tweets are from musicians. Then, we've got the king of the nerds (Tyson), a footballer (Ronaldo), a former teen icon (Savage), an Instagram parody account (?!), a chain letter in Twitter form, and an interesting outlier (the Dropbox ad). 

There are a couple things we can say about this list. One, teens dominate the mass movements on Twitter. Their interests (pop music, soccer), concerns (boys/girls), and modes of communication (chain letters) are all over this list. Two, there is an advertisement on this list that was retweeted 56,000 times. That's got to be exciting for marketers, who can imagine duplicating that success at smaller scales and with more targeted audiences. 

Since the beginning, Twitter has felt like a hardcore information experience. There is a code to the language (character limits, @-signs, hashtags, retweeting, favoriting, etc). Facebook silences the noisiness of the stream for you; Twitter can't escape it. And even done right, it's felt more like an information-dense utility than entertainment. 

Seeing this was a problem, Twitter actively reached out to friendly brands and celebrities. They made the pitch in TV hits and through these recruits that Twitter was for everyone. Twitter was a way to meet Shaquille O'Neal, not just follow a revolution in Tunisia!

They added blue lines to make it easier to follow conversations and a discover tab that tries to emulate Facebook's more curated timeline. The whole message has been: Twitter is fun! And easy! 

But the more I look at the list above, the more I see that even at this most mass-market level (which is still small relative to Facebook or YouTube), Twitter is for obsessives. Teenage fans, though they might not be web developers or social media marketers, define obsessive when it comes to learning and talking about the idols they worship. Bieber fever, anyone?

Maybe Twitter is made for obsessives, but the content of their obsessions doesn't matter. Maybe instead of casting itself as a simple, fun, easy tool, Twitter should bow to the pressures of its own tool, and rebrand for the hardcore experience. Here's the new, more accurate tagline:

Twitter: Find Your Obsession. 

This story has been updated to reflect that Favstar's data is incomplete, and that their list of the most-retweeted tweets is not canonical.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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