L’histoire de la machine à réplications: le bouton Retweet

Un texte de 2019 sur l’histoire du bouton Retweet, qui date de fin 2009, à la fois dans le style  « média studies » et « études des infrastructures ». Un moment clé de basculement vers le design de l’attention qui favorise la réplication à haute fréquence.

Johannes Paßmann. “Less Mutable, More Mobile: The Role of Twitter Apps in the History of the Retweet Button.” Computational Culture 7 (21st October 2019).


Voici l’introduction

Twitter is not only a platform for the circulation of all kinds of messages; it is simultaneously an interface that makes this very activity explicitly visible. It is a highly reflexive infrastructure, as it automatically produces dynamic accounts of its infrastructural activity. I assume that these accounts are in no way a secondary, ex-post addition or a neutral formalization of that activity but rather a defining condition thereof: Twitter’s infrastructural reflexivity is a key driver for both, its everyday practices and its history. In what follows, I will make an attempt to unfold a history of one crucial strand of Twitter’s development as a reflexive infrastructure: The stabilization of retweeting before the company Twitter introduced a retweet button in November 2009.
This history first tries to understand the popularization of distribution practices such as writing ‘RT @username’ at the beginning of a retweeted tweet: How is it possible, that unconnected, manual activities turn into a stable practice? From a praxeological perspective, this calls for an explanation as ‘practices are not only recurrent patterns of action (level of production) but also recurrent patterns of socially sustained action (production and reproduction).’ 1. I argue that central actors for the socialization of retweeting, i.e. rendering retweeting a collective practice, were apps, as they were able to formalize procedures on a medium scale. 2
Second, it will try to outline, how this has been turned into a unit called ‘the retweet’, i.e., a social medium that can be given, received, collected and counted. Unitization is thus understood as a special kind of formalization. A result of this unitization is that retweeting as an infrastructural activity is made reflexive. I will demonstrate that although it is possible to show how and by whom retweet counters were introduced before November 2009, it is impossible to assign this crucial step in Twitter’s history to a single ‘inventor’. Rather, it is precisely the quest for an inventor that makes evident, how the development of this social medium dissolves into a long ‘chain of translations,’ where transformation occurs, because old technologies and practices are translated into a new context. 3
Third this history of early retweeting has to be complicated further: These formalizations and unitizations are accompanied and yielded at the same time by their narrativization. Counters and their interfaces in apps and similar services did not only spread and stabilize technologies and practices of retweeting; they also spread a description of Twitter as a powerful circulation machine, one that includes many different voices and brings a participatory, always-counted crowd to the fore, a crowd that is supposed to be somewhat more heterarchical than the old media institutions. In other words, the history of the retweet is also a history of its own historiography, or rather, its ‘media biography’.4
This observation holds true for the descriptions and accounts produced by counters as well as for the media coverage of the social media platform. This coverage has contributed to the platform’s rise as a global infrastructure by displaying it as such: Twitter’s growth also rests upon spectacular, globally spread stories, whose core is their distribution activity, their countability and, often as a result, the presumably increasing power of individuals and the decline of institutions. I will start with a perspective on Twitter’s narrativization in early 2009, before the introduction of the retweet button was announced. This will not only show what powerful narratives about Twitter looked like and how they contributed to Twitter’s popularization. It will also demonstrate the inseparability of formalization, unitization and narrativization by outlining, through which formalizations retweets have become objects of the narrative.