Retweeting is a basic protocol of social media. It's a low-commitment way to disseminate information that you yourself have not distilled, but at a most rudimentary level, tells your followers, "Hey, look at this shit I like."
But just because you share other people's well-written articles or insightful opinions, it doesn't mean you're smart. And according to a new study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, retweeting might actually be making you stupid.
An international team of human development researchers at Cornell University and Beijing University set out to investigate the cognitive effects of sharing information on social platforms. What they found was retweeting, or "re-blogging," directly interfered with people's learning capabilities and retention rates.
The authors asked a group of Chinese college students to scroll through a series of messages on Weibo—which is China's version of Twitter—and share the posts they found most interesting and engaging. Compared to the control group, which was not given the option to share any of the messages they saw, the students who re-blogged information performed worse on comprehension tests on the material they'd just read.
"Most people don't post original ideas anymore. You just share what you read with your friends," Qi Wang, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, said in a statement. "But they don't realize that sharing has a downside. It may interfere with other things we do."
According to the study's finding, the participants who were allowed to retweet their favorite messages submitted twice as many incorrect answers on the comprehension test than their peers in the control group. And the material they did remember indicated a poor understanding of the subject matter. "For things that they reposted, they remembered especially worse," Wang added.
What the researchers suspect is the decision to share or not to share consumes a person's cognitive resources, which they referred to as "cognitive overload." Have you ever spent more time crafting a tweet about a story you just read than reading the story itself? Chances are you'd fail a quiz on what that article was actually about.
In a second experiment, the authors gave both test groups a science article to read after spending time re-blogging, or not, on Weibo. They discovered the students who re-blogged again performed worse on a comprehension test about the article. The action of sharing information, it seems, also negatively affects people's cognitive abilities in other non-social media related tasks.
"In real life when students are surfing online and exchanging information and right after that they go to take a test, they may perform worse," Wang suggested.
Similar studies have observed whether social networking impacts analytical reasoning and retention. And just as the Chinese researchers found, certain actions online caused test subjects to exhibit poor cognitive functioning.
I don't think people should stop sharing things on social media. Afterall, without the RT, we'd never know that Donald Trump is dim enough to accidentally retweet "white genocide," or that militant atheist and insufferable pedant Richard Dawkins really is that bad.
But instead of spending so much time obsessing over the right way to retweet, maybe we should focus on understanding the stuff we claim to read, and take satisfaction in knowing that most everyone else is faking it.