Sharing is Caring, but Resharing is Poison (by )

I've noticed a trend that has led me to develop a theory.

It's widely said that social networks start off fun and then decline; I've usually hard this attributed to some combination of (a) all your colleagues, family, and former schoolmates joining or (b) it "becoming mainstream" and a rabble of ignorant masses pouring in.

This implies an inevitability - such environments are fun when they're occupied by an exclusive bunch of early adopters, but if they're fun they'll become more popular, and before long, they'll be full of Ordinary People who Ruin It. Good social networks are, therefore, destined to either to be ruined by going mainstream, or die out because they never take off.

I disagree. The elitism inherent in that viewpoint is a warning sign that it's a convenient and reassuring fiction, for a start; and I have an alternative theory. As you may have guessed from this post's title, I think that the provision of a facility to reshare (retweet, repost) other's content with a simple action is a major contributing factor to making a social network descend into a cesspit of fake news and hate.

Back in the early days of Twitter, most of the tweets were things that people had typed out themselves. Many of them were links to other things, but doing that required manually copying the URL and pasting it into a tweet, and most people added a word or two of commentary when they did so.

But Twitter these days is dominated by retweets. In a quick survey of the current tops of my various Twitter timelines, I saw 7 retweets and 5 original tweets. I see less of what my follows are doing, and more of what my follows are liking about what others are doing.

As these centralised social networks are advertising companies, this is a desirable state of affairs for them, for at least two reasons:

  1. Single-click resharing means that content can spread virally across the platform, getting seen by millions of people in a very short timeframe. This is attractive to advertisers, so the network can make money selling tools to help them encourage this, to track the spread of content, and to generally spread the idea that their network is a place where things spread quickly and influence culture.
  2. A big part of their business model is to better profile their users, so they can sell targeted advertising. It's harder for a computer to analyse your prose to learn about you (bearing in mind you might use complicated linguistic tricks such as irony) than to just see if you click a button in response to something or not. The algorithm might not be entirely clear on the meaning of the content you've just reshared, but it now knows that you have something in common with the four million other people who also reshared it; and cross-referencing that with other information it holds about you and them is a powerful predictive tool.

But that same ability for things to rapidly spread is the driving force behind:

  1. The rapid spread of fake news; tools designed to help advertisers are easily adopted with people wanting to control our minds for reasons even worse than mere financial gain.
  2. Hate storms, when something gets widely shared between a community of people who hate the behaviour implied by the original content; who then all respond angrily to it within the social network and often, due to the amplified feeling of communal hate and the wide reach bringing it to the attention of unhinged and morally dubious people, leading to crimes being committed against the target as "revenge".
  3. A decreased sense of community, due to seeing more and more content from outside your group. Interacting with the social networks becomes more like watching TV than sitting chatting with your friends.

I think the elitist complaint that social networks go wrong when they "go mainstream" and "the normals come and ruin it" is really just a misguided attempt to put the lingering feeling embodied in that last point into words.

Looking back at the original decentralised social networks such as email, Usenet and IRC, they all lacked a single-click "reshare" facility - but some of the criticisms of email and usenet (excess crossposting, forwarded chain emails) both come down to it still being a bit too easy to share things across community boundaries. IRC escaped this.

I think there's no reason a social network can't scale to cover the planet without becoming a cesspit - but I suspect that making forwarding content on too easy is a great way to drag it down the pan.


  • By @ndy, Mon 17th Dec 2018 @ 2:43 pm

    I have subscribed to the 90,9,1 rule where 90% of people are consumers, 9% are curators and 1% are creators.

    Wanting to contribute but not being lucid enough to be very original, I have often found myself in the "curator" role on Twitter. I liked and retweeted a lot of things.

    More recently, however, I've been making a concerted effort not to do this. I liked the things I reshared but I seemed to get far more engagement on actual original content.

    Thinking about it more in light of your article, I now realise that I also tend to follow a lot of original feeds. The ones that post a lot of links are much more interesting than the ones that retweet stuff that's already been posted on the platform. The ones that write original thoughts are either much better or about as good as the ones that curate links to articles from elsewhere. maybe this has helped me get some clarity on my Twitter usage that I've been trying to tease out for a while.

    If only I could find a way to not get stuck in the infinite scroll of the consume cycle tho'! I had http://www.twitter mapped to in my hosts file for a long time but found that I need the Twitter DM functionality to speak with a select few people often enough that it quickly ended up out of the hosts file. I've never really had a problem with this on Facebook because I always go directly to the Messenger URL and don't touch the news feed at all.

    For me, the 1:1 interactions are more valuable but the group interactions are more addictive (even tho' I actively dislike them).

    I've been wanting to build a UI based on the Intertwingly ( ) ideas for some time but, over the last years of social networks, my ideas have morphed more and more into a person-centric user agent that makes it easy to see my communications status with another one of my friends across all the different channels and is less focused on "news feeds", perhaps with a little caveat for the personal blogs of those particular people.

    How long do you think we have to go before we see a lurch back to open communications protocols on the Internet?

  • By sarah, Wed 19th Dec 2018 @ 9:41 pm

    But things like Pinterest are brilliant because they are mainly re-sharing - I am wondering what the difference is - I think it is the expected level of interact maybe?

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