Whether it’s a normal brag or a humblebrag, boasting on Twitter has its limits.
Illustration: Nakahodo MCT
O, the cawing and the self-directed cooing. Twitter is often a bastion for self-congratulatory messages. Take this recent event on the social network, which breathed new life into the question: At what point does jaunty confidence metastasize into abject bragging?
Late last month, singer Rod Stewart asked his more than 155,000 followers, “Anyone else have a child in each of the last 5 decades?” He then went on to list “60s Sarah/70s Kim/80s Sean, Ruby/90s Renee, Liam/00s Alastair, Aiden” — an act that, in the animal world, would be achieved by puffing up one’s chest or by raising the feathers on one’s head in a scarifying “crest erection.”
This sort of ultra-brag isn’t specific to celebrities. It’s often the currency of regular tweeters, too. Clearly, the hills resound with the need to be heard.
“People are gaming it a little bit — they’re definitely gaming it,” said Charlene Li, an author of “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies” and founder of the Altimeter Group, a business consulting firm.
Li said that the Interactions page on her Twitter account often contained tweets that have been sent @charleneli. When someone tweets “at” another person like this, the tweet goes out to all of the sender’s followers, but, if the tweeted-at person does not follow the sender, the tweet shows up only on the tweeted-at person’s not-for-public-view Interactions page. Generally, the tweeter, ever eager to increase his number of followers, is hoping that the tweeted-at individual will retweet his missive, especially if that individual has the high-profile account of someone like Li, who has 93,000 followers.
“I have no idea who some of these people are,” Li said. “I look at their profiles and think, ‘Who is this?’ Sometimes they’re just randomly replying to a bunch of people. That’s not very interesting to me.”
But a random appeal to Twitter royalty is only one of several gambits by which users of the site blur the lines between good and bad manners. Some Twitter users, on seeing that something they’ve tweeted minutes ago is gaining no traction, will wantonly fire off a spray of retweets or Favorites (similar to the Like option on Facebook) in a desperate attempt to prompt reciprocity.
Some try to curl up in the shade of the In Case You Missed It tree. Andrew Essex, vice chairman of advertising agency Droga5, said, “I’ve repeatedly used ICYMI, which enables one to retweet a self-congratulatory item ad infinitum, with Twitter-sanctioned diplomatic immunity.”
Twin Cities Twitterverse
Not all lapses of Twitter politesse are calculated. The day before singer/songwriters Sam Amidon and Beth Orton performed at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis two Octobers ago, Amidon on a lark used Twitter to offer a pair of free tickets to then-Mayor R.T. Rybak. Amidon had met Rybak a year earlier when he had performed in Minneapolis with composer Nico Muhly.
Amidon said: “Shortly thereafter my manager got an official correspondence from the mayor’s office saying that the mayor had tried to Direct Message me, but since I’m not following him on Twitter, it wouldn’t work. Oops!” (Direct Messages work only when the recipient is following the sender.) Asked how he felt about the incident, Amidon said, “Shamed.”
There’s no accounting for taste. It would be difficult to determine a universal percentage of allowable self-promotional tweets (one in 10? one in a million?) because tone and the nature of the Twitter feed itself would play a large part in such an algorithm.
But if there’s no algorithm for determining when self-promotion has crossed the line, are there any general principles to be considered? Two come to mind. First, self-promotion becomes unseemly when it is viewed as repetitive. Your followers probably are willing to tolerate two or three newspaper reviews of your new monograph about combat ethics of the Boer Wars, but not 17.
Second, readers are turned off when they’re made more aware of a tweet’s strategy than its content. We were so wowed by the fact that you’re sending the tweet to @madonna and @GwynethPaltrow and @RinglingBros that we lost the fact that you just secured your first booking as a yoga clown.
Thanks, Rod Stewart
Li suggested a third metric: usefulness. “Your content has to be useful to people,” she said. “If it doesn’t have value to your followers, then it’s seen as spam or self-promotion.” Under this guideline, Rod Stewart’s tweet about having a child from each decade would seem to justify its swagger, because it’s information that his fans can share with others, or perhaps bait their grandparents with.
But a tweet like one from the film critic Bill Goodykoontz that runs: “I never anticipated having the sort of job where I would be on the phone with someone and say: ‘I have to go. Ang Lee is on the other line’ ” would probably not. Yes, Goodykoontz’s readers can infer that the critic will soon be writing about Lee, but the lack of specificity renders the communiqué more tease than promise.
On Twitter, inimitable and brazen expressions of opinion and self-esteem are the coin of the realm; thus, the metric of usefulness may indeed be helpful when entering this particular crowded barroom. That said, it’s also important to note that the loveliest interactions one has on social media are those in which two people are drawn to each other not because of what they can do for each other.