In any normal year, Twitter was a mostly harmless time-suck that kept users coming back for the occasional update on the news of the day, absurd laughs or a quick hit of adrenaline when a post of your own was well-received. This has not been, it is safe to say, a normal year.
Needless to say, 2017 was bad. This will not be received as a particularly controversial statement for anyone who’s been paying attention to the news, which is everyone, because in keeping with the specific tenor of 2017’s badness, the worse the news got, the harder it got to look away. That was particularly true this year on Twitter, where you’d inevitably come across a deluge of users expressing just how badly they wish they could look away. For those of us who could not, Twitter seems to be having a negative effect on our collective mental health. Things have gotten so bad that one of the most popular jokes on Twitter has been about praying for the sweet release of death, perhaps by a well-timed comet wiping us all off the face of the earth. Lol?
With no comet presently scheduled for arrival, we continued, against our better judgment, to tweet, bleary-eyed and dizzy from every confounding utterance from the president, our tweeter-in-chief.
While Twitter use still pales in comparison to Facebook, its reported 68 million monthly users is still significant, and its primacy in the news cycle is entrenched—in no small part because so many in the media are obsessed with it. As such, the things that are important on Twitter can be assumed to be the things that are important to us as a culture. And based on the list of the most popular tweets of the year, we’re in pretty rough shape.
The social media service released the top 10 most-retweeted posts of the year this week, and the story they tell is one of a frightfully unhealthy country, and not just because the most popular one was about eating chicken nuggets.
Sadly, in a grim mirroring of the popular joke about wanting to die, two of the top 10 tweets of the year focused on the decidedly unfunny issue of actual suicide. In August, user @sethjoesph posted a link to a suicide hotline, the tenth most popular tweet, while in July, rock band Linkin Park memorialized their singer Chester Bennington, who took his own life at the age of 41. His was the second high-profile suicide in the music world this year following Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in May.
As dispiriting as those tweets were, things only got worse. Both the ninth and third most-retweeted tweets concerned Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas and the surrounding areas. It was the costliest natural disaster in United States history, causing an estimated $200 billion in damage and resulting in more than 80 deaths. Despite the destruction, the tweets here represented a bright spot and showed how a retweet can often be used for good. The Pennsylvania State University Interfraternity Council pledged to donate 15 cents to relief efforts for every retweet, while the Detroit Lions’ Sam Martin offered to donate 6 pounds of dog food for every retweet. Although considering his tweet was so popular he would have been on the hook for almost 4 million pounds of dog food, he soon had to cap it at $10,000 worth.
No less horrifying was a terror attack carried out in Manchester, England at the site of an Ariana Grande concert. Her tweet, the fourth most-retweeted of the year, echoed a feeling of sadness and hopelessness that many of us shared. It was one that we would unfortunately get to relive again and again with even more deadly attacks to follow, like the one in Las Vegas in November, the deadliest in America history.
Elsewhere, one of the biggest stories of the year followed the horrific rise to prominence of a white nationalist, racist movement that’s been further emboldened by Donald Trump, who regularly tweets in support of and retweets posts from ideologically aligned groups. Perhaps surprisingly, despite his outsized role in nearly every news cycle and his sucking all the oxygen out of the room on Twitter, none of his tweets made it onto the list. As a very minor point of assurance that those looking for a silver lining might take, it was instead tweets posted in opposition to the type of hate perpetrated by these groups that proved most popular. In August, former president Barack Obama posted a message of racial tolerance following a white nationalist march in Charlottesville, the second most-retweeted of the year.
In a somewhat more lighthearted rebuke to the president, LeBron James took a swipe at him, calling him “u bum” when he tweeted in support of fellow NBA star Steph Curry’s decision not to attend the White House after the Golden State Warriors won the NBA title. In a characteristic response, the president rescinded his invitation after Curry and company had already decided they didn’t want to go.
For as much support as Trump seems to have online—he also topped the list of most-tweeted about global leaders—the #resistance was equally as loud, as evidenced by the most tweeted politics-related hashtags:
Is it any wonder that the experience of being on Twitter this year was so mentally taxing? Every other opinion seems to be either in full support of, or fierce resistance to the most Online President we’ve ever had. It almost makes one long for the good old days of, well, last year, a year we thought at the time was truly one of the worst. It’s a nostalgia that was brought out by two of the other most popular tweets, both from Obama. “It's been the honor of my life to serve you. You made me a better leader and a better man,” he tweeted in January, passing the torch to Trump. The latter will surely have tweeted a lot more times by the time his administration is over. It’s hard to imagine any of them will be that popular.