How my tweet turned into a RTsunami

There couldn’t be a formula for a popular tweet, could there?

Which means there’s a reasonable chance you’ve seen it. Of course, this wasn’t planned, but inbetween hitting refresh on my phone these last few days, I’ve had a few ideas that might be useful.

I’m not famous – I have under 2,000 followers on Twitter. I’m not a Jack Handey-type purveyor of pithy one-liners with thousands waiting on baited breath for my next side-splitting observation. My point is, people don’t just automatically retweet everything I say. If anything, things had dried up for me on there lately, and after hitting a wall of silence when I announced a couple of major personal projects last week, I decided it might be a good time to wind down my Twitter output – it just wasn’t paying off anymore. 

My followers were no longer my audience, and announcing anything on there, even a silly thought, was starting to feel desperate. But then, when I was sitting on the bus gazing into space, a thought occurred to me – a thought I knew would resonate with a few people, and there didn’t seem to be anything to lose by sharing it.

It started with a thought

There’s something of a con going on, in the world of technology, and it’s in many of our interests to perpetuate it. People our sort of age, which for argument’s sake I’ll call ‘the younger generation’ who work in tech just don’t want to let go of the sense of magic around their work. We don’t really like to admit that our technical skill sets are anything other than futuristic. We still – a bit – want to think we’re in Minority Report.  

Technology can of course be very difficult; the tech world contains a lot of bona fide geniuses – but the rest of us spend a bit more time than we should cruising on that ‘smart’ image, identifying as geeks when what we’re doing is not actually terribly technically challenging. In fact, these days, working with and using technology doesn’t have to be very technical at all.  

These days, working with and using technology doesn’t have to be very technical at all

Older people talking about younger people as ‘technical wizards’ often cite their grandchildren’s ‘skill’ at picking up a device and pushing icons around a screen. This isn’t a criticism of our parents’ generation, but if anything a criticism of us for allowing this stuff to slip through without correction. 

How many older people are disproportionately grateful for our mindless application of Google to a problem? 

Is it a sign of technical know-how, or the precise opposite, that our kids unquestionably accept the astonishing magic of video calls and iPads? In other words, is the reward we get for our inherent ‘technical’ skills actually, more often than not, a pat on the back for being able to identify a picture? And aren’t we, actually, a bit responsible for maintaining the illusion we’re all mysterious geniuses working in this invisible world of hand-held magic mirrors? Very often – somewhat shamefully – we perform this little exaggeration on the very people who know what technology really is. Because you might just be pushing those pictures around on a desk built by the generation who are calling you technical.

It was quite a mild thought and I’m certain not a particularly new one. But I put it together in a tweet like this:

Now I’ve been tweeting for many years and I had a feeling it would do well, but I really didn’t have any sense how crazy things would get. A speculative reload after a couple of minutes revealed 10 retweets – the next reload, 30. It moved fast for the first couple of hours. A friend’s picture of a dog that looked remarkably like Richard Gere had recently been retweeted by Armando Iannucci, and had topped out at under 400 RTs, so I was keen to beat that. A few hours later I was looking at 500 faces – I’d already beaten the Richard Gere dog and could die happy, so I stopped reloading for a bit, fully expecting things to die off.

And overnight it did indeed quieten down. Things picked up again the next day though, with the magic 1,000 RTs moment arriving at about 7am on the 18th January. I didn’t celebrate, and briefly regretted not arranging some sort of arduino-powered fanfare. And I’d already sworn to quit Twitter if it got to 1,000 (the only “plug” I did for it) so it was frustrating when one of my projects appeared in the Guardian later the same day! It’s carried on, a steady trickle of strangers’ faces in my Twitter notifications feed. Richard Gere dog, like his namesake, now seems old and tired by comparison.

Who was retweeting it? 

In some ways it’s an observation about engineering, and like navvies laying the railroads, male engineers were a huge driving force initially. I know a lot of geeky types – technologists and people who make things – but while they’re probably representative of Twitter users as a whole, the bulk of the retweeters weren’t ‘the kind of people’ who follow me. Very few of my followers, or even people I knew, retweeted it. And a lot weren’t British; it started strongly in the UK but would do little laps around other countries – a world tour of  unicode bios.


I had a few friends hit retweet early on, and as the tweet appeared in Twitter’s newsletters and other places, people I recognised would pop up every hundred or so tweets. I’d spot these familiar faces in the crowd and wonder if they realised they slightly knew the purveyor of this tweet that must surely have appeared in their timeline more than once already. No one I know to be ‘famous’ retweeted it, although UK tech broadcaster Ben Hammersley gave it a brief boost early on. Mostly, and unfortunately there’s not getting away from it, this was a tweet enjoyed by English-speaking white males who work in technology.

What other responses did it have?

This is the internet, and naturally some people missed the point. They missed it with such precision it’s like they did it on purpose, imagining I was insulting the old rather than puncturing the self-importance of the young! 

Others seemed to have a version of Twitter that lacks a retweet button, and quoted me word-perfect after trimming away all those pesky obsolete vowels. Several people told me they could fix cars and make things because they could click on something, which doesn’t do much to trouble my case either. Those who speculated about my gender (which isn’t revealed in my twitter bio) assumed I was male. At the time of writing, I’ve had about 50 new followers, but none have clicked through to my website. As far as I know, no one (and I haven’t checked thoroughly) has tried to pass the quote off as their own. Someone “didn’t see the logic” in the tweet – and they’re right, of course! There is none, which brings me to my next question:

 What’s the formula for a popular tweet?

Now perhaps there isn’t one, but having done a bit of reverse engineering on popular tweets of my own, I’ve come up with a few ideas…

  1. Say something that’s true in a way that sounds new. Just stating truths isn’t quite enough – you need a spin. It’s much more like writing a joke or a poem than forming a watertight case in 140 characters. The logic criticism was right: the tweet doesn’t quite hold together as an argument, which could be the very reason it did well – maybe it activates the ‘imaginative leap’ part of people’s brains, and that makes them want to RT it. The other most popular tweet I’ve written, which ran its course after just a few hundred RTs a few years ago, was similarly illogical: 

“Any sufficiently advanced hobby is indistinguishable from a job.”

That one was interesting, with people sharing it uncredited, and people I knew letting me know they weren’t going to retweet it until they were sure I hadn’t ripped it off anyone and had thought of it all by my little self. Anyway, it shared some of the same appeal as the 1500-er: it referenced a geeky thing. And in my experience, those are the the things that do well…

2. Make it a bit geeky. This is going to sound a bit cynical, but highly active internet audiences, especially mine – probably yours – are geeky. They want to hear about technology, robots, apps, cats, jetpacks, cake and Star Wars (any combination of these is also acceptable.) Even better, they want to hear ideas that take their competition down a peg or two – who doesn’t? And guess what, their competition are geeks, too. 

3. Make agreeing with you very desirable by saying something that makes people feel clever and slightly edgy. Finding an impersonal voice will make it much more persuasive. If it doesn’t sound like it came from anyone in particular, it could be coming from someone unimaginably clever. It could almost be a ‘saying’ – a voice of truth handed down from a mysterious sage. If it sounds like you and is too much about your life, well your friends might love it, but who else can relate?

 4. Trust your timing. If you’re thinking about something a lot right now, other people probably are, too. The zeitgeist, it’s in your head! We’re hyper-conscious of living in an age of lost skills, but we’re also enjoying a niche resurgence of interest in physical objects. Everyone wants to do real-world hacks now; physical product design is hot. Of course I didn’t realise how many people were thinking similar thoughts until I sent that tweet out, but your personal instincts are a great place to start. 

The zeitgeist, it’s in your head!

5. Cover a few areas. 140 characters isn’t much, but you’ll get a good spread of RTs if you say something of relevance to a range of people. My tweet is about the current state of technology, the skills we should admire, the way we interact with our families, generational change, and the things we feel but aren’t really prepared to say. Which brings me to…

6. Blow open a ‘secret’ without being angry about it. There are things it simply isn’t acceptable to say. What are they? And more to the point, could you be the one to state these things in a non-angry, non-self-righteous tone? Twitter is the most unbearably self-righteous location on the internet: say something unsayable in a fun way, and you’ll stand out a mile.

Could you be the one person on Twitter stating the truth in a  non-self-righteous tone?

7. Be international and real. Don’t just aim for UK nodes and be wary of ‘internet language’. If you say things that don’t have alienating spelling or ideas in, they’ll get a lot further. I don’t live in London and don’t understand a lot of tweets and articles that reference London things, so however great the message might be I simply won’t share them. Similarly, I’m in my mid-30s and don’t know what a doge is, so the chances of me retweeting anything that looks to my ancient eyes like a meme in-joke for teenagers on Tumblr are slim. If you want to get a lot of people looking (and of course, there are good reasons you might not!) play to the geeks, but don’t alienate too many people.

Do you have any surprising strategies for social media success? Let us know: