Most tweets exist in the Twittersphere for a few hours. They enter followers’ streams with dozens of others, soon to be cleared out by the latest links, thoughts, and observations of other Twitterers.
Some may last a bit longer in the form of retweets. But a rare few survive for weeks as retweeted retweets, restatements, and reiterations.
Such was the case with a recent tweet about Chuck Norris and the iPhone 4.
I first saw this tweet a couple of weeks ago as a retweet of the parody account @ceoSteveJobs, who tweeted on Aug. 10:
The tweet had the right mix of timeliness, humor, and universality, three critical criteria for anything to go viral.
A strange thing then began to happen. I noticed people began appropriating this tweet as their own, without giving credit. I saw it in my stream as “original” content. I also noticed it among self-proclaimed tech gurus.
I’m sure such repetition happens often on Twitter, but here, the Twittersphere began policing itself. People challenged the copiers and demanded that they give credit through retweeting or the “via” tag.
Bartlett responded with a tweet explaining he had overheard the comment from a friend and tweeted it.
Like a Chuck Norris action hero, the tweet kept on going as aggregators embraced the meme, again without sourcing the original tweet.
Then, like the old game of Telephone, the tweet began to morph into new iterations. People with dozens of followers tweaked the words, and the tweet began life anew in retweet after retweet.
@davidrisley posted this form on Aug. 18, a full week after @ceoSteveJobs:
A couple of days later, it spread in other languages, to other countries.
By this point, I became curious how long a tweet could linger. I’ve been on Twitter for almost three years, and I can’t remember a tweet with such a long lifespan. So I began digging.
Lo and behold, @ceoSteveJobs was not the original creator.
I found a tweet from June 25 crafted by @vowe, a consultant and systems architect from Darmstadt, Germany, with more than 1,600 followers. His tweet had been retweeted more than 100 times.
Is it the original most powerful tweet? Only the Twittersphere knows.
(Note: This post focuses on tweets surviving in real time on Twitter proper. Some do live on for months and years in web archives and leaderboard-type sites such as Favstar.)