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.
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…