Quote Tweets Have Turned Us All Into Jerks

How social media design choices help us shame each other

Launched in 2015, Twitter’s retweet with comment or “quote tweet” feature is now pro forma. Those of us on Twitter quote tweet for all kinds of reasons — to recommend a great podcast, amplify other voices, dunk on political opponents, or share cat videos with approving heart emojis. Quote tweets are useful in providing reference and sharing information.

But when we quote tweet, we’re also creating a kind of meme. And while memes can be fun, they also can make online conversation a lot more snarky and a lot less civil.

We tend to think of memes as self-contained visual objects (a picture with some text on it). We think of images like the “Distracted Boyfriend” or viral TikTok videos. Though they don’t follow the format of “text plus picture,” quote tweets are like memes because they repurpose other texts and make them their own unique visual object.

Courtesy of the author.

Some tweets decontextualize, but memes and quote tweets recontextualize — they draw attention to different media. They take a visual and say, “Hey, you scrolling down your timeline, you need to stop and see this.” When used for political purposes, quote tweets seek to provide the essential takeaway or “correct” context from the words they reframe. Like a description in the frame of a painting in an art museum, they tell viewers how they should interpret what they are seeing.

But when we use quote tweets in our political discourse, they have a polarizing effect. Users often quote tweet to reframe the tweet they are quoting as either exemplarily profound or stupid. When we quote a tweet, especially one that we disagree with, we often frame our adversaries as crazy and their words as a perfect encapsulation of how wrong that side is. Like how a photograph captures and pauses a moment in time, we freeze others into our own perception and interpretation of their words. However, the person being quote tweeted might experience their words being framed in the most misleading, most bad faith, and least representative of their intent. It can be the digital equivalent of all the other kids in the classroom pointing and laughing at you.

Take this exchange from Ice Cube and the user Nava Moore. Ice Cube received criticism for engaging with the Trump administration for his “Contract for Black America.” Without getting into the specifics of the argument or adjudicating it, we can see how quote tweets boost disagreements to larger audiences. When Ice Cube quote tweeted his rebuttal, he amplified Moore’s comment to his 5.6 million followers and exposed both of them to more rounds of argument. This exchange also shows how quote tweets can keep the discourse going longer, as his reply was the third quote tweet stemming from Lil Wayne tweeting his support for the president’s “Platinum Plan.”

In her book Memes in Digital Culture, Limor Shifman writes about how memes are modes of expression and used as forms of persuasion or political advocacy. She writes that people use memes to “key their communication as funny, ironic, mocking, pretend, or serious.”

Memefication incentivizes the use of irony and sparking outrage, and is a tool used on both the political left and right. In Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States, Dannagal Goldthwaite Young traces how irony and outrage became a dominant (though not exclusive) social, psychological, and political tool for liberals and conservatives respectively. Like memes, quote tweets are typically used to speak to audiences within their cultural communities and political bubbles, or according to Young, to “bask in the comfort of homogenous social networks in which their opinion is the majority opinion.” If you have ever retweeted a meme or tweet that you disagreed with, you likely participated in this kind of online discourse.

Quote tweets can be used in positive ways as well. Like more traditional memes, they are often used to take down falsehoods, mistruths, or bad-faith arguments. If a person tweets something demonstratively false or misleading, quote tweets are used like a fact-checking tool; a “gotcha!” moment catching misinformation in the spotlight of truth. But memeification has its downsides since the ability to reframe also provides the power to mislead. With quote tweets, we can caricature the thoughts and ideas of others with ease.

The power of memes is not necessarily in their truth, but in their “truthiness” — they “feel” true, which is the first step in successful persuasion. When we quote tweet our political commentary — whether directly or satirically — it’s unlikely that we are searching for discourse in the conventional sense of the word (as in invitation to counterarguments), but explaining to our side why we are right.

By looking critically at the technical features of social media, we can understand how they shape the way we communicate with each other. Without knowing it, quote tweeting has turned all of us into jerks online.

Joshua Adams is a staff writer at Colorlines.com from Chicago. UVA & USC. Taught media and communication at DePaul & Salem State. Twitter: @journojoshua

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