The internet is an unforgiving historian with endless primary sources and a flair for reminding us what we really are online: a barely coordinated mass of bumbling sheep.
Take Twitter’s peculiar quirks of language and syntax, such as the popular disclaimer: “Retweets do not equal endorsements.”
The disclaimer started out as a necessity, out of an abundance of caution. Early Twitter was a very different place. Journalists stumbled about blindly. The spread of misinformation was rampant and poorly understood. We needed rules — rules that seemed like good ideas at the time.
But as we’ve come to know, the half-life of a Twitter convention is fleeting. What was once a necessity or, at the very least, a comforting “cover your ass” measure, is now a glaring example of archaic tone-deafness. A statement of the obvious and — the mark of the “noob.”
By 2012’s end, the phrase had metastasized across the internet, earning its way onto Gawker’s list of Terrible Things That Must End in 2013:
Jesus Christ, do we need to see this ever again in someone’s fucking Twitter bio? It’s like the “No Smoking” signs on airplanes. We get it. If your company makes you add this disclaimer, tell the higher-ups they are stupid for doing so. If you add this disclaimer yourself just because you want to, you are bad at the internet.
Like many of Twitter’s quirks, “RTs ≠ endorsements” is the work of one of its users. But unlike the hashtag or manual retweet, its creator remained in the shadows, no doubt surveying his/her creation’s damage with adequate horror.
A search on the Twitter search engine Topsy reveals that one of the earliest mentions of the phrase “retweets are not endorsements” was this one from NBC’s Ryan Osborn:
Earlier tweets confirmed that LaForge —at that time an editor for the New York Times’ City Room blog — was one of the earliest to be mentioned alongside some variation of the phrase, along with then-NYTer Brian Stelter. The most telling is this tweet from 2009:
Patrick LaForge responded in just moments to an email inquiry on the subject.
“Busted!” LaForge confessed. “I was an early Twitter adopter, and this phrase was in my bio starting in 2007 or 2008. I don’t remember when I dropped it. It makes me cringe now,” he says.
LaForge says he borrowed the language from the guidance that the Times was giving its newsroom employees to encourage linking out to other sites in their work. (The Times has often been commended for its rather progressive social media policy, which has few specific guidelines and instead trusts its journalists to exercise the same caution and judgment they would when reporting a story.) He adopted the commonly repeated phrase “links are not endorsements” and casually threw it into his bio as a disclaimer.
“A lot of people didn’t understand what RT meant back then,” he writes. “As a journalist, I wanted to be clear that a retweet did not necessarily indicate agreement. Nor did it mean I was confirming what another news organization was reporting.” There was no broader motive or desire to change industry standards.
Around late 2008, Twitter began to take off among journalists — and other journalists, like then-Times employee Brian Stelter, began to borrow the phrase.
And then it spread. Fast.
Around the time other journalists had cribbed the language, LaForge realized he had created a monster.
“I started to dislike it around the same time,” he says. “For a while I tried ‘RTs are reportage; favorites are bookmarks,’ but eventually gave up trying to explain (Favorites are a whole other problem),” he writes.
As Twitter matured, its users’ skins have thickened (yesterday’s very NSFW US Airways tweet disaster spawned more than a few laughs, but little in the way of outrage or navel-gazing about the platform) and the service as a whole seems to have adopted an unofficial method for coping with the spread of misinformation (basically, freak out about it less).
LaForge readily admits that the phrase is terribly obsolete now.
“A blanket phrase in my profile is not going to indemnify me,” he says. “If I think a retweet is likely to confuse people about my viewpoint, or if there is some doubt about the accuracy of the original tweet, I add attribution, skepticism or other context. Or I skip it.”
Yet despite its status as one of the social network’s most glaring vestigial appendages, the phrase is far from extinct. According to Followerwonk, 31,738 users currently (!!) have some variation of the phrase in their bio.
So now, as Twitter rolls out its newest, Facebookian profiles, perhaps it’s time for a true purge. Get rid of the disclaimer. Let’s retire the “RTs ≠ endorsements’” number. Or, if you’d rather, “Send it to a farm, upstate.”
None of this is to disparage LaForge and his contribution to Twitter’s peculiar history. The phrase stands now as a reminder of Twitter’s humble and often perilous courtship of the news; a verbal monument to the way we were.
CORRECTION: It’s worse than we thought. An earlier version of this story noted that 13,216 users currently had some variation of the phrase in their Twitter bios. A reader pointed out that the real number is actually much higher (31,738, to be exact). God help us.