By many measures, 2017 has been the year of Twitter in the way that 1952 was a year of London fog. The so-called “Big Smoke,” an air-pollution crisis that enveloped Britain’s capital one December, choking pedestrians, stymying transportation, and reducing visibility to mere feet, lasted five days and changed the flow of urban life. Hospitals filled with respiratory cases, and a number of Londoners took to wearing masks.
Twitter has felt that way lately. This is the year, after all, when the service’s Trends panel lit up, for days, with the new names of abusive men. It has been the season when the former director of the F.B.I. emerged to give snide commentary using the words of social theorists. And, of course, it was the year when, recently, the President seemed to incriminate himself with an ill-advised tweet—albeit possibly the least garish of several during his term. Twitter is ubiquitous and, as a channel of the year’s news, stifling. You hold your breath; you feel your way forward. It seems a long time since your timeline was filled up with people cracking jokes about their lunches.
Still, what if you could rise above the smog and get a blue bird’s view of our tangle on the ground? This morning, Twitter released its top timeline statistics for the year: the most-retweeted and most-liked tweets of 2017, and the most frequently cited accounts. The list is fascinatingly strange. The big news is that none of the year’s ten most-retweeted tweets are by Donald Trump. Instead, three are by Barack Obama—and two of the top three most-liked tweets are Obama’s, too. (The second-most-liked tweet is from the singer Ariana Grande, written after the bombing at her Manchester concert, in May.) In perception, this has been the year of D.J.T. on Twitter, tramping like an angry wildebeest across the civic turf. But, according to the company’s numbers, the largest footprint on the landscape has really been B.H.O.’s
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion,” goes Obama’s most-liked post of 2017, with 4.6 million hearts. (It also had 2.7 million retweets, making it No. 2 on that list.) The quote is from Nelson Mandela, and the included photo is of Obama hanging out with toddlers of many skin colors. Below that, at No. 5, is President Obama’s official valediction (“I’m asking you to believe—not in my ability to create change, but in yours”), and, at No. 8, his final wave goodbye (“It’s been the honor of my life to serve you. You made me a better leader and a better man”). His note to Senator John McCain, after the announcement of his brain cancer (“Give it hell, John”), is the third-most-favorited.
What is one to make of this pronounced Twitter Obamaism—and the lack of Trump? One explanation is that absence makes the heart grow fonder: Obama is missed, and tweet-button love helps to summon him back. A second is that Obama is a practiced political leader, capable of tweeting the sorts of sentiments that people are keen to be associated with, rather than, for instance, nasty remarks about leaders in a disaster zone. A third explanation is that Obama’s tweets benefit from spite-kindness: his supporters are keen to make a point to their opponents. A fourth is that President Trump, for all the attention his tweets stir up, is bad at generating direct interest: if he writes something important, the tweet will appear on the evening news; otherwise, one can safely, and perhaps with relief, focus attention elsewhere. None of these explanations excludes the others, of course, and the truth probably encompasses them all.
Discussion recently has risen around a heuristic known as the Twitter “ratio”: if the number of replies vastly exceeds the number of retweets and likes, then the tweet is “bad.” The ratio does, in fact, hold across all the top tweets. When one looks at the most-mentioned Twitter accounts, however—a metric that comprises replies—the landscape changes. Here, Trump is No. 1 among world leaders, followed by (in order) the Prime Minister of India; the presidents of Venezuela, Turkey, France, Mexico, and Argentina; the British Prime Minister; and the presidents of Colombia and Indonesia. It is unclear what that list indexes, besides population and a tendency toward controversy. In any case, it’s not really a dinner party one would hope to attend. The list for most mentions, among U.S. elected officials, is similarly Trump-heavy at the top:
Beyond elected leadership, the catalogue of high-performing tweets grows strange. The most-retweeted tweet in America this year—the most-retweeted tweet of all time, actually—was by Carter Wilkerson, a sixteen-year-old high schooler in Reno, who had asked Wendy’s how many retweets he would need to receive a year of free chicken nuggets. Eighteen million, the company responded. Wilkerson put out a request, and, at only 3.43 million retweets, he surpassed Twitter’s retweet record. Since then, Wilkerson has been enjoying a year’s worth of Wendy’s “nuggs.” It seems as much a case of just desserts as any in American life.
Beyond Wilkerson’s obsessional achievement, though, kindness shines through. No. 3 for retweets is the Penn State Interfraternity Council’s pledge to donate fifteen cents to Houston’s flood recovery for every retweet; it got more than it expected (1.2 million), and made a capped donation of ten thousand dollars. The Detroit Lions punter Sam Martin (No. 8) similarly promised to donate six pounds of dog food to Houston for every retweet, and received enough to ship an alarming-sounding three million pounds. (He also placed a cap.) The band Linkin Park (No. 6) tweeted an elegant photo in honor of its fallen front man, and a young man with the handle “Seth Joesph” (No. 10) earned six hundred thousand retweets for sharing the number of a suicide hotline. At No. 7, LeBron James obliquely called President Trump a “bum.” “Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” he wrote, in a tweet with well over half a million retweets and a million and a half likes. In such records of outsized human kindness, as the year comes to a close, Twitter offers its most unlikely trending topic yet: hope.