What is it about social media that has us hooked? These digital platforms have tapped into our human psyche by appealing to our basic social instincts and subsequently transforming the reality of the world we live in – both on and offline.

Twitter’s “retweet” function debuted in 2009 and quickly became one of the most popular forms of engagement on the platform. The feature, which was initially seen as a way to improve user experience, introduced a powerful new form of user engagement that would become a fundamental fixture of Twitter which revolutionized the social media landscape.

It would inspire Twitter’s rival, Facebook, to create a similar ‘share’ function for its platform and become a measurement for marketing campaign successes all around the globe.

How did this simple yet revolutionary idea come about? Twitter users themselves!

Users had been sharing other users’ content by copying and pasting the tweet, giving credit with the letters “RT” followed by the originator’s handle. The retweet button was a frictionless way to seamlessly and effortlessly spread content.

Retweeting is a more efficient way to contribute to social media dialogue and develop social capital.

The cost involved in retweeting involves less time and effort to receive and share valuable information, which in turn elevates a user’s online presence when compared to searching for interesting, unknown finds or formulating new info, understandings or ideas from scratch.

The action of retweeting holds a definitive, significant and delicate power unlike any other social media function.

The retweet button is the second most important form of engagement, a stronger act of endorsement of a message than a like, yet not as powerful as initiating or participating in a conversation with other users. It demonstrates that other users found value in your tweet, where as a like is interpreted as a sign of appreciation.

In 2015, Twitter introduced a new feature that offered a perfect combination of endorsement and engagement when the introduced “quote tweet”, by allowing users to retweet with comments, adding their own remarks, observations or communicating with the original tweeter.

#PleaseRT

The developers of the retweet button envisioned it as a democratizing tool, elevating the voices of those whose ideas had value but did not necessarily have the platform to amplify them.

Retweeting expanded Twitter’s capability of enabling asynchronous conversations unhindered by geographic constraints. The function facilitated the creation of new audiences assembled based on their shared interests, mutual aspirations and a shared social context.

For some, it was a shared love of Wendy’s chicken nuggets that inspired them to retweet. When high school student Carter Wilkerson’s plea for free ‘nuggs for life’ was met by a challenge from the fast-food restaurant to get 18 million retweets, the race was on.

Wilkerson’s tweet has a total of 3.4 million retweets to date. It is currently the second most retweeted tweet of all time and Wendy’s not only gave the teen free chicken nuggets but also donated $100,000 to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

The tweet may have failed to achieve the lofty goal of a lifetime supply of chicken nuggets, but it represents the power of brand engagement on social media and the marketing potential of Twitter through retweets.

What Makes a Message Retweetable

A user retweets a tweet that they perceive as containing valuable information worth sharing with others.

Retweeting is used to share informative and entertaining content, start a conversation to connect or engage with other users, define who we are, promote a cause, or to boost a user’s reputation to get more followers.

A tweet containing a message related to a user’s interests is more likely to be retweeted; a user is more likely to retweet the tweets and retweets from those users with whom they share similar profiles.

Unsurprisingly, studies found that users randomly retweet what they have seen before, meaning tweets that have already been retweeted.

Tweets that contain hashtags, links and media elements such as photos and videos are ripe for retweeting. Including an image in your tweet makes it 150% more likely it will be retweeted and adding a hashtag increases retweetablity by 33%.

Those users who have a long-established history of using Twitter and have many followers are often retweeted by other users.

Broader Impact of Retweeting

The retweet released a contagion on social media in the form of viral content. The act of retweeting allows users to take part in and share the credit for viral content.

Media start-ups began experimenting with what types of posts and headlines inspired engagement and drove up clickthrough rates.

New forms of clickbait in the form of bold headlines such as ‘The top 10 reasons why’ and ‘What city should you actually live in?’ began flooding users’ feeds, fuelled by retweets and shares.

Buzzfeed and Upworthy were among many notable early viral content creators that cracked the retweet code to win Twitter, organically driving millions of users to their sites with their calculated content.

Tapping into human emotion proved to be a winning strategy for these companies.

Overwhelmingly, emotionally charged and morally-based content spreads faster and further across the reaches of social media.

This is especially true if the emotions elicited call for action such as amusement, fear or anger. This model was adopted by widespread traditional media and incorporated by brands into their social media marketing campaigns.

Twitter, unlike other popular social media platforms, has transformed into a real-time de facto news source produced by its everyday users.

Many Twitter users are journalists – nearly 25% of all verified accounts – and the site is often used as a source of breaking news.

Twitter has been credited with playing a role in political events and for drawing attention to news stories that were initially largely ignored by the traditional news media. Twitter is recording today’s public conversation in the form of social media discourse, which requires relatively little effort to produce and consume.

As more people turn to social media for information others have turned to the platform to spread misinformation to the masses. In fact, the retweet and share functions have been linked to the elevation of radical and extreme voices and the amplification of fake news.

One of the developers who led the team that built the retweet button expressed regret over the tool saying, “We handed a loaded weapon to 4-year-olds.”

A retweet is a powerful token of trust in the message contained in a tweet and in its originator. It demonstrates value in the originator’s message and provides it and the user with credibility.

The vote of confidence afforded by a retweet can potentially lead to the spread of fake news, a phenomenon that social media companies have endeavored to combat through the introduction of fact checking tools and efforts to educate users through initiatives such as Facebook’s Digital Media Literacy Library for educators and students.

The Ramifications of Retweeting

Retweeting requires little consideration by a user before pressing the button, giving users less time to consider or fact-check the content they take part in disseminating.

Furthermore, the act of retweeting is often performative: ensuring the information being shared is accurate is not necessarily the first concern of Twitter users.

Retweeting has become a powerful tool used to spread disinformation and push campaign agendas.

Movements like anti-vaxxing and climate change denying have benefited from the knee-jerk reaction of Twitter users seeing something shocking or interesting for the first time and sharing it before thoroughly evaluating the sources or data behind outrageous claims.

Fringe users sharing extremist views have also benefited from the RT-sharing phenomenon. They stand accused of using viral media to spread racism, hate and radical ideas.

But not all that is shared is bad.

Content shared through retweeting can lead to the discovery of unexpected and relevant information, increasing user activities and social interactions.

Retweets increase a user’s social presence on the platform, boost a brand’s marketing capabilities, help to spread a message and engage with others. Grassroots campaigns, such as the #MeToo movement, have been forged and Twitter has provided vital traction for their messages, leading to real and positive change in society.

Ultimately, what drives a successful social media strategy is engagement. Retweeting offers a powerful way for users to engage their followers, but more importantly, a way to engage with their message.

Participating and engaging with content provides social media users with a sense of community and validation.

While having a tweet go viral may be an enticing prospect, in the end, retweeting helps to build a positive relationship with your followers. Twitter provides an ecosystem that allows users to connect with their followers in meaningful and compelling ways through likes, mentions and, of course, retweets.