Twitter has a relatively short and specific official code of conduct (called, officially, The Twitter Rules) that forbids obvious transgressions, like spamming and posting threats. But if you spend enough time on Twitter, you soon learn that there’s a larger and stickier web of constantly evolving Twitter ethics. For example: In some corners of Twitter, it’s considered a great offense (for reasons that elude me) to retweet someone if you don’t also follow them. Elsewhere, some people assume that if you follow someone, it’s only polite for them to follow you back. Many people on Twitter (more justifiably) get angry at so-called manual retweets, i.e., retweets preceded by RT that “rob” the original tweeter of his or her hard-earned and well-deserved retweets. Everyone agrees it’s bad form to steal someone’s joke and tweet it as your own. And depending on whom you ask, it’s also an offense to retweet someone’s link without acknowledging the person who directed you there with a hat tip (h/t), or to repost a funny photo with your own punch line attached. Yet all of these rules (and more!) are broken all the time, and usually, I’d surmise, by people who aren’t flouting the rules so much as acting in ignorance of the fact that these rules even exist.
But perhaps the one Twitter-specific human behavior that Twitter most vocally and consistently disapproves of is retweeting praise. “If when I start following you the first thing I notice about your twitsyle is that you RT praise, bye,” tweeted Emily Gould last year, and this is just one such representative reprimand. Retweeting praise, if it needs explanation, is exactly what it sounds like: the practice of retweeting other people’s complimentary tweets about you or something you’ve done. This social dilemma is of particular salience to that solipsistic corner of Twitter populated by people who use Twitter, at least partially, as an implicit form of self-promotion: people who also write articles or books or songs or plays, or who otherwise have some sort of artistic or charitable or commercial pursuit that they would like to tastefully bring to your attention.
I guess now is a good time to confess that I’ve retweeted praise. If you praise this article, I’ll likely retweet that, too. The taboo against retweeting praise has always slightly baffled me, in part because so many people whose opinions I trust much more than I do my own seem so reflexively repelled by the practice. And in part because the actual act seems like only a half-step away from, say, tweeting about the existence of a complimentary opinion in the world (e.g., “Check out this nice review I got here,” with a link), which almost no one seems to be affronted by. In fact, I’ve not yet run across anyone who objects to people using Twitter for that purpose: i.e., if you’ve written a play and you want to tweet, “I’ve written a play, and here is where you can see it,” that seems widely acceptable by the Wiki-sourced ethics of Twitter. If someone else says, “I saw this play, and it was very good!” and you say, “Thank you, someone!” that’s … okay. But if you retweet that person’s sentiment without additional comment, this is considered — perhaps reasonably! — to be the tackiest sort of misstep, punishable by muting or, worse, unfollowing, which is to the Twitter community as shunning is to the Amish.
“If you need someone to tell you not to RT praise, you’re a monster,” wrote Dan Kois, the culture editor at Slate, in an email, after I asked him to explain his publicly expressed aversion to the practice. “Complaining about how people tweet is pointless,” he went on. “People can tweet however they want; after all, if you don’t like what someone is tweeting, you can unfollow or mute them. But were anyone ever to praise me on Twitter, I would not retweet that praise. It would be tacky. I would reply with a brief but heartfelt thanks.”
What complicates all this is the fact that social media in general, and Twitter in particular, represents such a new and nebulous arena of public social interaction. Twitter is public; that much seems indisputable. (Though, no surprise, people have disputed it.) But public in what way? What’s the real-world analogy that might best help us muddle through its ever-shifting ethics? Is it public like a public square? A subway car? A cocktail party? An intimate gathering among whispering confidantes that happens to take place behind glass with an unlocked door?
My favorite meta-grappling with all this comes from celebrated novelist and noted meta-grappler Gabriel Roth. (Check him out on Twitter at @Gabrielroth!) After his first novel, The Unknowns, came out in 2013, he created a second Twitter account, jokingly dubbed @GabeRTsPraise, which was both a canny way of retweeting praise and a clever way of addressing the whole retweeting-praise thing. “Whenever I feel any discomfort or ambivalence, my go-to move is to foreground the discomfort rather than smooth it over,” Roth wrote me when I asked him about it. “I joined Twitter a few years before I sold my book, so I got to experience it as a civilian with nothing to promote. And from the beginning the praise-RT move just seemed like a horrible breach of etiquette. Like you, I think of Twitter as a cocktail party, and a certain amount of subtle bragging and self-advancement is acceptable at a cocktail party but if you show up and just stand there holding a big poster advertising your book, who’s going to invite you back? Imagine meeting someone at a party who opened a conversation with, ‘This fellow Larry Smidgen from Minneapolis says my book is laugh-out-loud funny — but also surprisingly moving!’”
Roth did retweet a very positive @NYTimes Janet Maslin review of The Unknowns — but less as a form of self-promotion than to acknowledge that, as he wrote to me, “it was a big day and it felt, in a way, personal — like anyone who gives enough of a shit to follow all my eating-a-sandwich tweets would want to know about the existence of this thing even if they have no interest in reading the book.”
The author Matt Haig is far less conflicted about it. He wrote a long and thoughtful blog post, “Writers and Twitter,” instigated by the fact that another author had been publicly labeled a “monster” on Twitter for retweeting praise. “I am also a ‘monster’,” Haig writes. “In the sense that if you say something really nice on Twitter about my books or this very blog there is a chance I’ll retweet it.” The reason, he once tweeted, is pretty simple: “It gets people to read my book, is a nod to the reader, and I value being employed.”
And when I asked Elizabeth Gilbert — someone whose personal policy seemed to me to be, from afar, to joyously respond to every nice thing said about her with unself-conscious gratitude — she replied: “OK, here is the shameful truth. Until this very moment, when I read your email, I did not know that it was a faux pas to re-tweet praise or nice things said about oneself. I chalk this up to being a relative novice at Twitter … On the other hand, is Twitter really a serious enough cultural landscape that we actually have to worry about decorum? If it’s your Twitter feed, can’t you blow your nose in your own napkin if you want to? And can’t people just unfollow you, if they don’t like it? Is this a CRISIS?”
I assured her that it was, in fact, a crisis. Or, at least, a dilemma. And it seems to me the dilemma comes down to this: Twitter, as a public platform, is intrinsically performative (to pretend otherwise is disingenuous), yet the performative nature of it is undercut and often ameliorated in ways that make Twitter tolerable and even enjoyable, by some level of honesty. So, if you are genuinely happy about something, it seems genuine to share that happiness. If you are genuinely outraged about something, it seems genuine to share that outrage. Yet we’ve all been sent scrambling to the mute button by someone’s excess happiness or outrage. In that way, Twitter and its ethics are not so different from, and no more thornier than, actual life — another intrinsically performative sphere that’s usually made more enjoyable by something approaching honesty. The difference is that on Twitter, you can quickly mute a braggart or scold and move on, rather than passively pretending you haven’t noticed their email languishing for weeks in your inbox.
I also emailed Kurt Andersen to ask his opinion on this, since he’s a sharp observer of social mores, an engaged and deft Twitter presence, and someone who, as a founding editor of Spy magazine, published “Logrolling in Our Time,” the definitive chronicling of gauche authorial self-promotion — in that case, in the form of quid-pro-quo book blurbs. (When someone on Twitter suggested that we need a “‘Logrolling in Our Time’ for Twitter,” Andersen replied: “You don’t understand. Twitter is Logrolling In Our Time.”) Given that sentiment, I assumed he’d have little patience for retweeting praise, but his answer was more measured and more generous: “Like so much of life, it’s a matter of not overdoing it, isn’t it?” he wrote. “What one says and shows on Twitter (or social media in general) is [a] window into one’s mind and life. Aperçus; links to interesting pieces & artifacts & images & videos; those are all fine with everyone, right? The trickiness comes in the personal realm: what you just ate, where you’re traveling, cute things your kids did — and blowing your own horn. I have no problem per se with any of it. And for people with a public life, who make stuff they want the world to consume, I have no problem with them using Twitter in part to promote that stuff. Including RT-ing praise by others if it amounts to no more than, say, 1% of their tweets. If I enjoy the person’s sensibility and work and interests, I’ll accept a bit of bragging, just as I do from my friends. In fact, in general I think I’d rather get a link to a good review than a picture of their dinner plate.”
Perhaps a one percent rule is a useful yardstick — either way, I’m more than happy to go out on that burst of borrowed wisdom (consider it a kind of retweet). H/T Kurt Andersen (@KBAndersen). Enough with the dinner plates. And if you liked this article: Please RT.