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“How many retweets for…”: inside Twitter’s new begging economy

How many retweets must a man pin down, before you can call him a man? 

It is sometimes alleged that Attila the Hun (of Attila the Hun fame) demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper in exchange for ending a siege on Rome. Though no historical sources exist detailing how this (potential) exchange went down, it is easy to imagine that it went a little something like this:

ATTILA: (Angry, large) How much pepper to end this siege on Rome?

ROMAN MAN, ROMAN MAN WHO IS SOMEHOW IN CHARGE OF ALL THE PEPPER: I guess… I guess 3,000 pounds?

ATTILA: Good.

In this scenario, 3,000 pounds of pepper are worth potentially hundreds of thousands of Roman lives. Historically speaking, then, money hasn’t always been money. Sometimes it’s been pepper, other times it’s been rocks. And now, in this day and age – this day and age that we live in – it’s retweets.

Carter Wilkerson owns the most retweeted tweet of all time and a year’s supply of chicken nuggets. The 16-year-old high school student has over 3.6 million retweets on his tweet begging the American fast food chain Wendy’s for “a year of free nuggets”. Though the chain initially demanded 18 million retweets (RTs) for the food, they have now given Carter his nuggets and a $100,000 donation to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (in his name).

In this scenario, 3.6 million retweets are equivalent to $1653.35 (£1283.66). [Where if, six nuggets from Wendy’s cost $1.79, and a reasonable human demanding a year of free nuggets would, in fact, want a six pack of nuggets every single day, plus the $100,000 charitable donation]. One RT is thus worth 0.00045 USD.

This is the currency conversion rate we must now abide by to avoid total world-ending lawlessness.

Why? Because since Carter’s success, there are now tens of people an hour begging brands for freebies in exchange for retweets. “How many retweets for…” begin the tweets, which are variously begging for a single Monster energy drink, a year’s supply of Pot Noodles, and a signed copy of Manasseh Azure Awuni’s book, Letters to my future wife.

At present, many brands ignore these pleas, but those that do engage make demands based on nothing but the whims of their social media editors. If, as Carter proved, one RT = 0.00045 USD, then how can Mercedes-Benz ask for 20 million RTs for an S550 Sedan? They make a mockery of the system we have built. In actual fact, this $96,600 car is worth 214,666,666 retweets. The devil is in the detail.

Sometimes, however, one doesn’t even need to ask for the retweets to reap their reward. The artist Hector Janse van Rensburg recently profited six bottles of Radox and a toy model of an Aston Martin car after an imaginative tweet gained 74,000 retweets.

“It was just a joke so I picked something silly,” Hector tells me by direct message over Twitter. He thinks his tweet gained so many RTs because of the intricate comedy involved. “I could, if I wanted to, pick something less ambitious and I might get it? But I think it had to be too ambitious to reasonably come true for it to be funny.”

There is, then, another element to our new Twitter economy – humour. Carter’s tweet only gained RTs because it was phrased amusingly, adding another dynamic to our conversion rate. In our modern bartering system it is not just the objects being bartered that are valuable, but the words used to barter themselves.

With that in mind, stricter regulation is needed. How can we allow brands the invaluable free publicity of thousands of RTs when they flagrantly disregard the rules of our new economy? And the public must not ask “How many retweets for…” but instead go into their negotiations knowing exactly how many retweets are needed for, among other things, a single Domino’s pizza. Must we mock the value system we have now chosen for our society? Must we live without law? Even Attila, after all, knew the value of his pepper.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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From Darwin to Damore - the ancient art of using "science" to mask prejudice

Charles Darwin, working at a time when women had little legal rights, declared “woman is a kind of adult child”.

“In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females,” wrote James Damore, in his now infamous anti-diversity Google memo. “As mentioned before, this likely evolved because males are biologically disposable and because women are generally more co-operative and agreeable than men.” Since the memo was published, hordes of women have come forward to say that views like these – where individuals justify bias on the basis of science – are not uncommon in their traditionally male-dominated fields. Damore’s controversial screed set off discussions about the age old debate: do biological differences justify discrimination?  

Modern science developed in a society which assumed that man was superior over women. Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary biology, who died before women got the right to vote, argued that young children of both genders resembled adult women more than they did adult men; as a result, “woman is a kind of adult child”.

Racial inequality wasn’t immune from this kind of theorising either. As fields such as psychology and genetics developed a greater understanding about the fundamental building blocks of humanity, many prominent researchers such as Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, argued that there were biological differences between races which explained the ability of the European race to prosper and gather wealth, while other races fell far behind. The same kind of reasoning fuelled the Nazi eugenics and continues to fuel the alt-right in their many guises today.

Once scorned as blasphemy, today "science" is approached by many non-practitioners with a cult-like reverence. Attributing the differences between races and gender to scientific research carries the allure of empiricism. Opponents of "diversity" would have you believe that scientific research validates racism and sexism, even though one's bleeding heart might wish otherwise. 

The problem is that current scientific research just doesn’t agree. Some branches of science, such as physics, are concerned with irrefutable laws of nature. But the reality, as evidenced by the growing convergence of social sciences like sociology, and life sciences, such as biology, is that science as a whole will, and should change. The research coming out of fields like genetics and psychology paint an increasingly complex picture of humanity. Saying (and proving) that gravity exists isn't factually equivalent to saying, and trying to prove, that women are somehow less capable at their jobs because of presumed inherent traits like submissiveness. 

When it comes to matters of race, the argument against racial realism, as it’s often referred to, is unequivocal. A study in 2002, authored by Neil Risch and others, built on the work of the Human Genome Project to examine the long standing and popular myth of seven distinct races. Researchers found that  “62 per cent of Ethiopians belong to the same cluster as Norwegians, together with 21 per cent of the Afro-Caribbeans, and the ethnic label ‘Asian’ inaccurately describes Chinese and Papuans who were placed almost entirely in separate clusters.” All that means is that white supremacists are wrong, and always have been.

Even the researcher Damore cites in his memo, Bradley Schmitt of Bradley University in Illinois, doesn’t agree with Damore’s conclusions.  Schmitt pointed out, in correspondence with Wired, that biological difference only accounts for about 10 per cent of the variance between men and women in what Damore characterises as female traits, such as neuroticism. In addition, nebulous traits such as being “people-oriented” are difficult to define and have led to wildly contradictory research from people who are experts in the fields. Suggesting that women are bad engineers because they’re neurotic is not only mildly ridiculous, but even unsubstantiated by Damore’s own research.  As many have done before him, Damore couched his own worldview - and what he was trying to convince others of - in the language of rationalism, but ultimately didn't pay attention to the facts.

And, even if you did buy into Damore's memo, a true scientist would retort - so what? It's a fallacy to argue that just because a certain state of affairs prevails, that that is the way that it ought to be. If that was the case, why does humanity march on in the direction of technological and industrial progress?

Humans weren’t meant to travel large distances, or we would possess the ability to do so intrinsically. Boats, cars, airplanes, trains, according to the Damore mindset, would be a perversion of nature. As a species, we consider overcoming biology to be a sign of success. 

Of course, the damage done by these kinds of views is not only that they’re hard to counteract, but that they have real consequences. Throughout history, appeals to the supposed rationalism of scientific research have justified moral atrocities such as ethnic sterilisation, apartheid, the creation of the slave trade, and state-sanctioned genocide.

If those in positions of power genuinely think that black and Hispanic communities are genetically predisposed to crime and murder, they’re very unlikely to invest in education, housing and community centres for those groups. Cycles of poverty then continue, and the myth, dressed up in pseudo-science, is entrenched. 

Damore and those like him will certainly maintain that the evidence for gender differences are on their side. Since he was fired from Google, Damore has become somewhat of an icon to some parts of society, giving interviews to right-wing Youtubers and posing in a dubious shirt parodying the Google logo (it now says Goolag). Never mind that Damore’s beloved science has already proved them wrong.