TECH
12/16/2010 12:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Do We Retweet--And Why?

What do we retweet and why?

I posed the question to my Twitter followers, who responded with explanations ranging from the practical ("to win free stuff!") to the poetic ("What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.")

Retweeting, or reposting another user's Twitter message to share it with your own followers, yields a cryptic series of symbols--think "RT @bbosker"-- that can be befuddling to social media neophytes.

Ambiguous acronyms and "@ mentions" aside, retweeting, invented by Twitter's users, is a fundamental part of the Twitter experience: we do it to others and we yearn to be retweeted ourselves.

Although anyone with access to text messaging or the Internet can tweet, the Twitterverse has shed its characterization as a rogue outlet for updates on our meals and has matured into a robust platform established entities such as the White House, President of Russia, and Google use to build their brands. Increasingly, everyone who is anyone--or aspires to be a someone--is using the microblogging service to reach out to their constituents, customers, critics, and fans. Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, Hugo Chavez, and Robert Gibbs were just a few of the high-profile newcomers to Twitter this year.

In the most basic sense, a retweet offers a way to quickly share information while attributing the original source. As I wrote here, at times a retweet is "the online equivalent of a thumbs-up--'Hey, that was clever'--or a pat on the back--'See what cool thing my friend is doing!'"

We use it to speedily spread breaking news we think others need to know or to post PSAs to our followers warning them about worms, scams, or natural disasters. Sometimes we build on the retweeted content, adding our own question or comment to drive the conversation forward.

Almost always, a retweet offers a way for us to make ourselves look good through association with something timely and entertaining.

"If a tweet [is] worth retweeting it usually brings value to the community and makes your Twitter account look credible," Toni Panayotov told me in a tweet.

Yet retweets are also an act of Twitter goodwill, a show of support for the person who's posted the tweet, as well as content contained in her pithy post.

"People also retweet to introduce their followers to someone new or to shine a spotlight on someone deserving," Mark Trammell, a design researcher at Twitter, told The Huffington Post in an email. "The retweeter becomes the person who brings the new cool kid in town to the party."

Whereas Facebook requires both parties to agree to a connection, on Twitter we frequently engage in one-way friendships in which one person unilaterally chooses to engage with another's updates. Since we do not necessarily follow the people who follow us, our retweets can help us connect with users who we respect by letting them know that we're listening to them.

One Twitter user, @DavidRostan, told me he retweets if "it is something I enjoy or believe in and if I want to build a better bond with the original tweeter."

Judging from Twitter's list of the top 10 retweeted tweets of the year, when we do decide repost each other's content, we share tweets that are funny, pithy, and from someone famous.

Eight of the 10 most retweeted Twitter updates of 2010 were posted by celebrities. Of those stars and starlets, only one, Stephen Colbert, was not in the music business. The rest were from the likes of Rihanna, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne, whose tweets about sighting Justin Bieber's six-pack, wronging Taylor Swift, and getting out of jail whipped their followers into a retweet frenzy.

It helps that these pop culture icons have millions following their every musing, just as scores of us watch them on more traditional platforms, as well.

"Social media emphasizes what already exists in real life in normal life and the stars are still stars in social media," said Loic Le Meur, CEO of Seesmic and founder of the LeWeb conference. "It is kind of sad thought because you might have expected that coming from Twitter or social media, we'd see new content."

The top 10 tweets are also all linkless (save one from Colbert), and quite short: the top Twitter posts contain an average of 65 characters, far less than the 140 character maximum tweeters must abide by.

If you want to be retweeted, it seems you stand a better chance by being funny and referencing mainstream pop culture. Tweeting their own song lyrics helped Lady Gaga and Drake make it into the retweet hall of fame, while nearly half of the tweets (including those from the non-celebrities, @Sh*tMyDadSays and @AlQaeda) were humorous.

"[Twitter users] like content that is entertaining much more than news per se," Loic explained.

Talking about Twitter also helps. "Just noticed Twitter keeps prompting me to 'Add a location to your tweets'. Not falling for that one," @AlQaeda wrote in a post that was ranked the fifth most retweeted tweet of the year. The tweet that received the most retweets came from Colbert and included a nods to both Twitter and the BP oil spill (his was the only one that directly referenced current events). "[I]n honor of oil-soaked birds, 'tweets' are now 'gurgles," he wrote.

Not everyone on Twitter has embraced the retweet, however. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that just 18% of Twitterers retweet content at least once a day, while nearly half say they never do.

Do you retweet on Twitter? What kind of content do you share and why? Weigh in below.