Tressie McMillan Cottom
The Message
Published in
7 min readAug 18, 2015


I have a favorite food. My favorite food is sweet potatoes. The preparation is almost entirely meaningless to me. If there is a sweet potato in it, I probably like it because sweet potatoes are my favorite. On Twitter, you can favorite a tweet. Every tweet I favorite is not my favorite tweet ever tweeted. How can I have a favorite food, the superlative sweet potato, and have thousands of favorited tweets, none of which is superlative in any demonstrable way?

It sounds like a stupid question. And it may be except lots of stupid things are built into the social media tools many of use every day. For instance, it is pretty stupid to preclude a woman who is also a doctor from selecting “Dr.” as her title and “female” as her gender in a database. But, that happens. A theory of stupid, or the million tiny ways that modernity’s tools make life harder in some ways and easier in others, could be in order. There is just that much stupid.

Some of the stupid is about tools created in vacuums by people who think vacuums are galaxies. See again the gender and title form thing. Some of the stupid is about trying to hit a moving target. One of the first things you learn in your basic graduate school research statistics course is that nothing messes up an elegant statistical model like putting human beings in them. Human beings are messy and, indeed, we may be the single causal factor of all that is stupid. That kind of ratchets up the value of a theory of stupid if you ask me.

Twitter executives recently ran afoul of one of the basic assumptions of a grand theory of stupid human things that matter when it changed the “favorite” feature from a star emoticon to a HEART emoticon on the Android app. I mean look at this change:

People hated the heart. It’s a small thing to hate but that doesn’t mean hating it is small. The thing is, people had developed a theory of favoriting predicated on the elasticity of “stars” as a shape. A star can mean “good job” as this article argues. But, as anyone who coveted a star from a teacher in grade school can tell you, the more harried a teacher becomes the easier it is to get the teacher to give you a star. Star inflation is a little stupid but no less real. As star inflation runs amok, a star can become everything and anything. It can mean you showed up but failed at everything else. It can mean that you “participated” but did not win anything in a competition. It can mean present and accounted for, heard and seen, recognized and recorded. Stars became useful on Twitter because they mean something while simultaneously meaning nothing all the time.

Twitter seems to think the “favorites” function is utilitarian. I think it is communicative practice, like call-and-response. A fave can mean everything or anything but it always means something. Here are some ways stars have taken on meaning on my own feed:

The “I Hear You” Fave

Tweet chains can go on for a long time. It’s a logistical problem that people solve many ways. Sometimes people suggest to everyone in a chain that it be rebooted with a new tweet. There’s even a language for this, i.e. the tweet canoe. That’s when there are more usernames in the tweet than content and it’s become too crowded to continue. One way to end a tweet chain that is particularly meaningful to you but that seems to have reached a natural conclusion is to “fave” or click the star on the last issued tweet. It says “I heard you but I think we both agree that we are done here.” It’s digital manners and it is not always trivial. If you use Twitter in any professional capacity, it can be a big deal nicety. I’m an academic. We’re a clannish lot that loves hierarchies and rules. Faving an academic who is a bigger deal than you are is like deferring to them in a conference meeting. It’s stupid. It is also a big deal. Lots of stupid things are that way.

The “This Tweet Made Me Laugh or Think But No Way In Hell Am I Retweeting It” Fave

All of us reveal only parts of ourselves in any social interaction, including social interactions online. That’s a big deal social theory, by the way. Some people seem more open than others like a Kim Kardashian. But even a Kardashian has some part that isn’t on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I don’t know what that part is but I am willing to put five dollars on my hypothesis. It is just the nature of the beast that we divvy ourselves up across different kinds of social media platforms. Depending on how you have divvied yourself up, sharing some content you enjoy on your feed or page becomes a problem.

I have a lot of non-black followers. I follow a lot of black people. I am black. Sometimes one of the people I follow tweets something that goes at the core of a long history of black humor, for instance:

To get the joke, you have to suspend a lot of decorum, know the historical fault lines and afford me a lot of grace when reading. Basically, you would have to do something white people are not renowned for doing when the author is non-white. Or, if you want to go all universal humanism on me, it is not something that members of a group are renowned for extending to members outside the group. Although that is more true for groups that are most often in power than those who are not, but you get my drift. The person tweeting this usually gets that. I get that. When I fave, I’m participating in the shared context of the tweet but I’m not retweeting it because no way in hell am I dealing with thousands of white people tweeting at me all day long about it. That job pays exactly nothing and we live in capitalism.

The “I Am on Twitter When I Should Be Doing Something Else But This Looks Interesting” Fave

Sometimes I fave things not when they are gold star valuable but because I don’t have a pen. I am busy but this thing on Twitter looks interesting or funny or cool. I don’t have time to look at it now but I might want to look at it later. I am going to “fave” this thing to remember where the hell I put it. It’s a post it note, a sticky, a bookmark etc. I may even export the fave to Diigo to really freeze it in time. Twitter doesn’t like disruptions to how it has shaped temporality. It wants the timeline to move in a way that makes you feel like you’re in a stream that you can’t swim back up. Annotation is a control freak’s dream. I’m gonna take what you want me to do with this book, this web page, this timeline and mark it up to hell and back. Annotating Twitter disrupts the entire structure of the “timeline”, saying time can be taken back from Twitter or at least shaped against Twitter’s will. It also makes Twitter stupid useful in ways Twitter isn’t interested in because doing so doesn’t sell you anything.

The “You So Shady” Fave

Shade on Twitter is an artform. It can be thrown, caught and returned. It can be a novel in 140 characters. It can be a hot mess of stupid and also fun and dangerous and tricky. Shade is human behavior. Sometimes people will throw shade at you on Twitter like they do in business meetings or at school or in grocery stores or anywhere there are humans really. Catching, or interpreting, the shade correctly takes a lot of decoding. You have to pay attention to what the person tweeted just before the shade for context clues. You probably need to know who this person engages on Twitter and, perhaps more importantly, who they studiously ignore on Twitter. You have to know their interests and predilections. Once caught, you can silently cackle to yourself about the shade but that is kind of boring. What’s the point of having a superpower that you never get to use in public? You can put the shade on blast by responding to it on your timeline. But, that puts the tweeter on blast, too. And, it sort of subverts the shade economy. YOU had to figure it out. If you tell everyone else how to figure it out you may as well sell counterfeit luxury purses in the parking lot. You’re just diminishing your shade luxury good. The other option is the fave. Fave the shade. Let the shader know that you caught the shade. You may or may not agree with the object of the shade. That’s for the shader to figure out. And so the big wheel keeps on turning.

Hearts don’t work like stars. Hearts mean something and the something is too particular for some people. If a heart is on a medicine bottle it means something like “watch out!” Jessamyn West reminds me that a heart on a menu means “this is good for you”. I needed reminding because apparently I have mentally blocked out all heart-healthy menu options. A heart before your signature on a note in school can launch a thousand first loves. Hearts mean love. And while you can love a lot of things it is expected that you cannot love everything equally.

Hearts box you in on Twitter. Stars set you free. It was a weird thing for Twitter to want to change. But I think the people at Twitter must be pretty weird anyway. They built this thing with humans in it and then seem pretty dismissive of most things humans do, especially when humans become groups. These are the people who came up with the “verified” status, marked it with a blue check and then were stunned when human locusts swarmed them to get some of that sweet, sweet ostentatious social status.

Humans may care about a lot of stupid things but on the upside humans make stupid things work for them. When Twitter did not have a mechanism to maintain social niceties or to reward social hierarchies that come with real-world consequences, people made them. They turned a utilitarian fave into a complex web of social functions and cross-platform functionality. I kinda ❤ that (and sweet potatoes).



Tressie McMillan Cottom
The Message

Sociologist. Writer. Professor. MacArthur Fellow. Books, speaking, podcast: www.tressiemc.com