Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”
If you want a list of the world’s most popular tweets, you don’t, it turns out, go to Twitter. You go to Wikipedia, the internet’s Room of Requirement. In particular, you go to a page titled “List of Most-Liked Tweets.”
The webpage delivers exactly what its title promises: a list of tweets that, when compared with all the other tweets that have ever been twote on the 280-character hellscape we call twitter.com, have prompted the most internet randos to tap a heart-shaped “like” button. There are, to no one’s surprise, a lot of internet randos out there. On the low end, the tweets compiled in this list hover at around 2 million likes (sorry Ellen DeGeneres’s Oscar selfie), and on the high end are upward of 4 million. For perspective, that first number is roughly equal to the total number of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases in the US, as of June 16. The second is greater than the estimated population of the city of Los Angeles. And while, certainly, we should take this dataset with a grain of salt—Twitter, as the wiki’s fastidious phalanx of content editors warns us, doesn’t publish official statistics—adjudicating the difference between, say, 4 million likes and 4.1 million likes feels a little like dick-measuring among AmEx black card members.
Oh! and I should note: for arbitrary reasons, the list features only the top twenty tweets of all time. For equally arbitrary reasons, the rest of this post concerns itself with just the top ten.
Surprisingly, the list of tweets does many of the things that a curated top ten would. For example, like a curated top-ten list, it’s got a few oddballs—the unexpected and delightfully weird inclusions, like this quarantine-inspired video of a sock puppet Pac-Manning cars, that keep top-tens fresh and hip to the culture.
Quarantine day 6. pic.twitter.com/er652Oy3Ki
— jamie (@gnuman1979) March 16, 2020
Also like a curated list, it’s got some pointed absences, those glaring omissions that cater to our collective taste for schadenfreude and petty acts of revenge. I myself was gratified to find that His Twitliness, @realdonaldtrump, authored exactly zero of the tweets that appear in the top ten (or, for that matter, anywhere on the page). Finally, like a curated list, this one’s got the usual suspects—the items that, on some level, you were expecting to find and that, because you were expecting to find them, give the rest of the list a sheen of legitimacy. Barack Obama, responsible for three of Twitter’s top-ten tweets, falls squarely into that camp. This tweet, quoting from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and published shortly after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, currently sits at the #1 spot:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” pic.twitter.com/InZ58zkoAm
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 13, 2017
Yet if Wikipedia’s “List of Most-Liked Tweets” resembles a curated top-ten list, it is ultimately its apparent lack of curation that makes it fascinating—and suggestive. For example, what might we conclude from the fact that the majority of these top-ten tweets are specific to US contexts? Or that within that particular majority, a full five of them are in some way adjacent to Blackness—and not just to anti-Black racism, so spectacularly on display these days, but to examples of Black excellence, like Obama’s tribute to the late Kobe Bryant and Bryant’s own tribute to LeBron James the day before Bryant’s death? What does it mean that the third most-liked tweet of all time is Andy Milonakis’s joke about the SpaceX launch last month, “Congratulations to the Astronauts that left Earth today. Good choice”? And how should we even begin to think about #10 on this list, Ariana Grande’s anguished response to the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017?
from the bottom of my heart, i am so so sorry. i don’t have words.
— Ariana Grande (@ArianaGrande) May 23, 2017
What about this particular tweet and this particular act of terror—over all the other tweets and all the other acts of terror, domestic and international, that routinely dominate our feeds—prompted 2.4 million Twitter users to tap a heart-shaped icon?
And what do those 2.4 million “likes” mean, anyway?
With the possible exception of that last question, these are probably the wrong things for me to ask. In fact, it’s probably wrong of me to speculate in the first place. After all, any sociologist worth their degree would be quick to point out the assumptions I’ve been making about my so-called dataset: that “likes” have some sort of stable meaning, for instance, or that a cross-section of Twitter, however large, can be used to comment on abstractions like a “nation” or a “culture.” Nor, indeed, have I even mentioned relevant words like “celebrity,” or acknowledged the very recent vintage of most of these tweets. To that point, I’d wager that this top-ten list has more to say about the mayfly-brief existence of a tweet and about social media’s commodification of “liking” things, than it does about race in the US or reactions to terrorism.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to wonder about such topics. Harder still not to want this list, tidy and stark as it is, to become a kind of shorthand—to make it speak, briefly and succinctly, to something bigger and more important.
To make it give us something like an answer, perhaps. Or even just a diagnosis.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.