These tiny Gutenbergs (part one)

We depend on our ability to share as much as we possibly can and it is worth taking a moment to reflect on why the act and means of sharing information has become as important as what information you are sharing. This is the first part of two posts on social sharing tools, specifically, retweets. Jump past the context and into insight from the experts here.

Sharing to build societies and economies

There are three major needs that prompt us to share information: establishing semiotics (which includes finding a common language), economic, and intellectual. As you think through how you share information, it’s worth asking yourself what purpose you have in the act and how others have met similar interests in the past:

First, sharing to establish how we share (semiotics): Hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans began to share through the construction of common symbols made for communication, such as language, both spoken and unspoken. Words, images, and all communication symbols are the first currency of civilization.

Second, sharing to meet economic needs: We built technology, such as our agricultural cultivation tools, bodily and physical protections, all means of transportation, and ever-more complex ways of expanding our quality of life through medicine and understanding the body and environment. Processes and methods for meeting economic interests evolve into physical products or brands, buildings built by architecture and real estate firms run by a group of otherwise unrelated strangers, funded by otherwise unrelated investors, lived in by otherwise unrelated persons in an infinite variety of work and personal circumstances. Sharing information about how to make or do something freely is the cornerstone of a modern economy and one which produces a living for working people.

Third, sharing to meet intellectual needs: As our quality of life rose, so too did how many years we lived. All of this, though, depended on our ability to speak towards one another in a manner that would allow the best ideas to bubble through social or physical barriers, such as class, race, language, location, and even time itself. So we did and continue to use language and technology to meet our intellectual needs to protect and advance civilization.

When we think about the evolution of our needs in association with our capacity to meet them, it makes sense why Johannes Gutenberg’s mass printing press was so wildly successful. The supply of popular religious texts did not meet the social demand for shareable copies of the information contained in those texts.

The demand for ways to share information didn’t end with religious texts, as we found out: It applied to all recorded information. I wonder if someone in the 1400s considered that humanity would not stop creating ways to share information until all available options were exploited. How much farther do we have to go?

The dreaded question: how many times was your article shared?

Sharing information online hasn’t gotten the spotlight it deserves because of the context it exists in: poorly-designed websites and social networks that go in and out of style too quickly. Like many functions, the act of sharing is not a sexy thing to study, but how and why we share deserves our attention because it defines such a significant portion of how we continue building civilization. The displeasing look of poorly-chosen fonts or dysfunctional and disorganized websites, mobile apps, and digital platforms has created a disdain for using online tools to share for intellectual purposes.

This rough patch we call the World Wide Web will not stop the demand for sharing. It will only delay its satisfaction. In the long run, whether or not you think social sharing tools look tacky or seem difficult to use doesn’t matter: all that matters is whether or not they are meeting existing demand. And there are a million of types of social sharing functions on websites – AddThis, chat functions like AIM, the crowd-sourced Diggs and Reddits of the world.

Social sharing has become the most popular way to measure the success of certain media by many online news organizations. It is so popular, in fact, that it is now a common topic of journalists to discuss whether how many times an article is shared on a social network should measure the value of its content, a controversial but necessary debate which deserves more attention, too.

In focus: retweeting is like using a tiny, powerful printing press 

Retweets, or the sharing of other people’s tweets on Twitter, have made Twitter’s use vastly more complex than when the network was founded. When you share someone else’s tweet, you’re doing much more than hitting a button. You’re participating in the building of public knowledge necessary within your own social network.

Twitter wasn’t always so complex. In fact, the platform was first known precisely for being the opposite of complex, and even today, Twitter’s main brand attribution is that it limits users to brief phrases, a few pictures, or a couple web links to videos or stories elsewhere. It is a simple and effective response to the confusing, layered atmosphere that envelops most of the consumer web in too much information, but even Twitter cannot avoid the complexity of human communication.

Sure, retweets are not as cute as a flirty favorite or sturdy like a Twitter list or the newer timelines. And not a lot of people tweet about retweets, while a lot of people tweet about tweets, or favorites (favs/faves depending on your preference). But don’t take the lack of daily chatter to mean retweets aren’t a big part of Twitter, because they are, in the same way sharing posts is a big part of Facebook (which has gotten plenty and perhaps too much attention from media professionals).

In the beginning, though, even Twitter did not seem to understand how retweets were a function of sharing necessary for meeting all sorts of other interests.

Part two: Strategies on how and why to retweet

2 thoughts on “These tiny Gutenbergs (part one)”

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