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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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Lol enforcement: meet the man policing online joke theft

A story of revenge, retweets, and Kale Salad. 

A man walks into a bar and he tells a joke. The man next to him laughs – and then he tells the same joke. The man next to him, in turn, repeats the joke. That bar’s name is Twitter.

If you’ve been on the social network for more than five minutes, you’ll notice that joke theft is rampant on the site. Search, for example, for a popular tweet this week (“did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything” – 153,000 retweets) and you’ll see it has been copied 53 times in the last three days.

One instance of plagiarism, however, is unlike the others. Its perpetrator is the meme account @dory and its quick Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V has over 3,500 retweets. This account frequently copies the viral posts of Twitter users and passes them off – word for word – as its own. Many similar accounts do the same, including @CWGirl and @FatJew, and many make money by promoting advertising messages to their large number of followers. Twitter joke theft, then, is profitable.

In 2015, Twitter promised to clamp down on the unchecked plagiarism on its site. “This Tweet from [user] has been withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder,” read a message meant to replace stolen jokes on the site. It’s likely a message you’ve never seen.

Dissatisfied with this solution, one man took it upon himself to fight the thieves. 

“I'm a like happy internet kind of guy,” says Samir Mezrahi, a 34-year-old from New York who runs the Twitter account @KaleSalad. For the last six months, Mezrahi has used the account to source and retweet the original writers of Twitter jokes. Starting with a few hundred followers at the end of December 2016, Mezrahi had jumped to 50,000 followers by January 2017. Over 82,000 people now follow his account.  

“I've always been a big fan of like viral tweets and great tweets,” explains Mezrahi, over the sound of his children watching cartoons in the background. “A lot of people were fed up with the meme accounts so it’s just like a good opportunity to reward creators and people.”

Samir Mezrahi, owner of @KaleSalad

I had expected Mezrahi to be a teen. In actual fact he is a father of three and an ex-Buzzfeed employee, who speaks in a calm monotone, yet is enthusiastic about sharing the best content on Twitter. Though at first sourcing original tweets for Kale Salad was hard work, people now approach Mezrahi for help.

“People still reach out to me looking for vindication and just that kind of, I don’t know, that kind of acknowledgement that they were the originals. Because all so often the meme accounts are much larger and their tweets do better than the stolen tweet.”

But just why does having a tweet stolen suck so much? In the grand scheme of things, does it matter? Did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything?

Meryl O’Rourke is a comedian and writer who tweets at @MerylORourke, and now has a copyright symbol (©) after her Twitter name. In the past she has had her jokes stolen and reposted, unattributed, on Facebook and Twitter and hopes this symbol will go some way to protecting her work.

“It’s hard to explain how it felt... as a struggling writer you’re always waiting for anything that looks like recognition as it could lead to your break,” she explains. “When your work gains momentum you feel like your opportunity ran off without you.

“Twitter is a test of a writer’s skill. To spend time choosing exactly the right words to convey your meaning with no nuance or explanation, and ensure popularity and a chuckle, in the space of only 140 characters – that’s hard work.”

However, Mezrahi has found not everyone is bothered by their tweets being stolen. I found the same man I reached out to with a stolen tweet who said he didn’t want to speak to me because it felt too “first world problems” to complain. Writers like O’Rourke are naturally more annoyed than random teenagers, who Mezrahi says are normally actually pleased about the theft.

“If you go to [a teenager’s] timeline it’s always the same thing. They’re replying to all their friends saying like ‘I’m famous’, they’re retweeting the meme accounts saying like ‘I did it’… they don’t mind as much it seems. It’s kind of like a badge of honour to them.”

Sometimes, people even ask Kale Salad to unretweet their posts. College students with scholarships, in particular, might not actually want to go viral – or some viral tweets may accidentally include personal information. On the whole, however, people are grateful for his work.

Yet the Kale Salad account does have unintended consequences. Mezrahi has now been blocked by the major meme accounts that frequently steal jokes, meaning he had to create alternate accounts to view their content. But just because he can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t see him – and he has noticed that these accounts now actually come to his profile to steal jokes he has retweeted, in a strange role-reversal.

“There are definitely times when they're picking up things that I just retweeted, like I know they're like looking at me too,” he says. “It feels like vindicated or validated that they come to me.”

Mezrahi now works in social media on a freelance basis, but would be open to making Kale Salad profitable. Earlier this year he set up an account on Patreon – a site that allows fans to pay their favourite creators. Some people didn’t approve of this, tweeting to say he is “just retweeting tweets”. So far, Mezrahi has three patrons who pay him $50 (£39) a month.

“I mean I spend a certain amount of time on this and I think it’s a pretty good service, so I've been thinking about monetisation and thought that might be a route,” he explains. He believes he is providing an important service by “amplifying” creators, and he didn’t want to make money in less transparent ways, such as by posting sponsored advertisements on his account. Yet although many online love Kale Salad, they don’t, as of yet, want to pay him.

“Twitter should buy my account because I’m doing a good thing that people like every day,” he muses.

Many might still be sceptical of the value of a joke vigilante. For those whose jokes aren’t their bread or butter, tweet theft may seem like a very minimal problem. And although it arguably is, it’s still incredibly annoying. Writing in Playboy, Rob Fee explains it best:

“How upsetting is it when you tell a joke quietly in a group of friends, then someone else says it louder and gets a huge laugh? Now imagine your friend following you every day listening for more jokes because people started throwing money at him every time he repeated what you said. Also, that friend quit his job because he made enough to live comfortably by telling your jokes louder than you can. Odds are, you’d quickly decide to find new friends.”

For now, then, Kale Salad will continue his work as the unpaid internet police. “As long as people like the service, I don’t mind doing it. If that's a year or two years or what we'll see how the account goes,” he says.

“Twitter is fun and I like the fun days on the internet and I like to help contribute to that.

“The internet is for fun and not all the sadness that’s often there.”

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

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