a nation of retwits: our obsession with borrowing the ideas of others

Lately, my social feeds have seen a sharp increase in posts that trouble me. (shhh, don’t remind me that I once wrote this.) Perhaps it has always been this way and I’m just noticing it now, or there may just well be a proliferation of these disturbing statuses, tweets and whatever else they might be called.


The occasional quote doesn’t bother me, but when my mini-feed looks less like social media and resembles something more like the south end of a 2003 Volvo hatchback in the college part of town, I start to get concerned.

I suppose this isn’t a necessarily new phenomenon: back in the bronze age, when people digitally communicated by e-mail, the same problem existed. I still have a standing automatic delete protocol for anything with a subject led off by “FWD:”. (Sorry, Dad.) To almost no one’s surprise, chain e-mails–the Ben Stein CBS commentary most prominently comes to mind–are almost unilaterally fakes, cobbled together from any number of sources, if not conjured up outright in someone’s sick mind.

The falsity doesn’t bother me so much: falsehoods can be to an extent ignored or, at the very least, put on paid television between the hours of 1 and 5 in the morning. What is more problematic to me is the growing suspicion I get that we are becoming a people so utterly reliant on other people’s words, ideas, concepts and viewpoints that we’ve traded out any attempt at being liberal in the classical or philosophical sense in favor of rehashing what other people have said.


Retweets, block quotes, Bible verses, bumper stickers, memes, shares, pins, viral status updates: who needs governments to silence us when we’re doing such a bang-up job censoring ourselves with the words of others?

What we have here is an addiction to the appeal to authority: CS Lewis/Jonathan Edwards/Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert/Rush Limbaugh/Rachel Maddow/Carl Sagan/Friedrich Nietzsche/Karl Marx/Nelson Mandela/Barry Obama/Ben Franklin/Paul Krugman said it, so it must be true! If we weren’t so busy buttressing our own sense of self-worth with the words of others, we might actually be able to have actual conversations about actual issues. And, make no mistake, this has everything to do with self-worth: it’s far easier to rely on the appeal to authority than it is to reason through matters of great, or even trivial, import.

The fact that we’re even using quotes for the small stuff is indicative of a growing cultural disease. I don’t need to quote Lee Elia on why Chicago Cubs fans are an absurd species (…the proposition is both self-evident and a priori), just as I don’t need to quote Greg Boyd for why I maintain an open theist position. Yet, I see people with the apparent need to retweet clever, often glib phrases from their pastors every Sunday, often theologically-problematic lines from equally problematic choruses; no shortage of partisan rehash from talking head du jour; endless mini-missives on leadership to the point that I wonder why so many people interested in leadership can’t realize that they’re doing nothing but following.

“I’d borrow from Neil Postman here, but that would be self-defeating, no?”

Am I the only one who finds it disturbing that we’re so able and willing to redirect any quote, quip or proposition onto our friends and acquaintances, but find ourselves utterly unable and unwilling to interact with them?

“We’re a nation of retwits.”

Of what exactly are we afraid? That we’re not quite up to the task? That much is evidenced by the fact that we’re waist-deep in sound bite simulacra as we speak. I suggest that we’re so reliant on our experts and authorities that we can’t bring ourselves to accept the possibility that they may be wrong, because we’re not interested in what they have to say: we just want to hide behind someone because they sound good enough to be right. Hey, who are you to argue with Bono?

I’m a fan of The Flaming Lips, but I’m not about to subscribe to Wayne Coyne’s liner note nonsense about belief in belief. I tend libertarian-to-conservative, but I’m not in lockstep with Ayn Rand or Sean Hannity. I can take what I can from Paul Tillich while disagreeing, sometimes strongly, with everything he has to say.

In the culture of the retweet, though, this is unacceptable: find your niche–or to wit, find your Nietzsche–and stay put. If you interact with the outside, always be ready to make a defense to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope you have. The more defensive, the better: who can argue against indignation?

Ever suggested to a Christian that the Bible may not be literally true? It’s just like pointing out the logical problems with the hard left or right, which is just like demonstrating the rational errors in Reformed theology, which is no different from arguing that Ken Griffey, Jr. was an overrated ball player, not at all dissimilar to the proposition that Lost wasn’t a very good television show (but was by far the most meta in terms of life imitating art. Those poor schmucks on that island weren’t the only ones stuck in one place for six seasons, a cruel joke at the expense of millions of viewers.) Heads asplode, not because you’re necessarily wrong, but because they’ve never been confronted with the notion that they might not be right. As a result, many just dispatch with notions of right and wrong completely, failing to realize that life doesn’t come with a trophy for participation.

I have too strong a moral compass to try such an experiment out, but I’ve been tempted to take some of my status updates and attribute them to someone with cultural cache to see how many people would like or share a quote from someone of note as opposed to someone they merely know. A good point is no respecter of persons, just as all truth is God’s truth.

At this point, it becomes clearer that there is another component at play amongst the nation of retwits: intellectual laziness. It’s easier to rely on the pastor or the pundit than it is to seek out truth while steering clear of falsehood. The share button is easier to hit than the books, it’s easier to rehash than research, to crib than to criticize. And for all the information age is supposed to be, we’ve never been a more closed-minded and tribal un-culture than we are right now. And something as seemingly harmless as a share or a retweet wouldn’t be such a problem if everyone weren’t doing it in lieu of real interaction with real people in the hopes of solving real problems in the real world.

Don’t take my word for it, though. I’m not an expert.

…at least not until I have a book deal and am on the speaking circuit.

Then, feel free to slap this quote in papyrus on a black-and-white picture of me looking like I mean business next to a lectern in the dynamic preaching pose, or with a self-serious profile pic worthy of any number of philosophers. Then they will succumb to your obvious wit and rhetorical savvy. Silliness fitting for a most silly time in a silly society.

The moral of the story is very simple: make your own point, have good reasons for it, stand by it, and be willing to concede it in the face of valid criticism. It’s not just a good idea for more vibrant social media, but our shared responsibility as stewards of a rich heritage of ideas and innovations.

You can quote me on that.


One thought on “a nation of retwits: our obsession with borrowing the ideas of others

  1. Quoting doesn’t always have to be a stretch to authority, but you’re right, it certainly seems to be the case more often than not. It can be, like the paraphrased quote below, an interesting comment that things “we” think these days have also been thought by people so long dead that even the extended offspring of the worms that ate them are long dead.

    “… people know what is right about what they know, but they do not know how much of what they know is wrong…”

    ~old chinese guy, circa 300BC

    Quotes like these can make a guy say, hmmm, and scratch his chin, or otherwise – as in your examples of the Screaming Defenders of Nothing – scream, argue or change the subject to “practical” matters.

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