What’s worse than bragging? Getting other people to do it for you

Retweeting praise might make it seem like you are not boasting. You’re fooling nobody

Last week Harris Wittels, the man who coined the phrase "humblebrag", died at the unconscionable age of 30. In his memory I've been sifting through some of the finest examples of this specious genre – the boast that pretends not to be one – and have come up with two favourites.

My second best is Stephen Fry’s tweet from 2013: “Oh dear. Don’t know what to do at the airport. Huge crowd, but I’ll miss my plane if I stop and do photos . . . oh dear don’t want to disappoint.”

But my runaway first choice is from Oprah Winfrey. "OMG! Just had a SURPRISE date with Jackie Jackson. My teen idol heartthrob. Tried not to talk too much or eat too much. Succeeded at neither!"

As Wittels put it: “Oprah, you don’t gotta brag. You’re Oprah.”


However, there is another sort of boasting that needs exposing even more than the humblebrag as it is more widespread and more lethal. For want of a snappier name, I’m calling it the thirdpartybrag: when you pass on favourable remarks made about you by someone else.

The rampant popularity of this sort of bragging is for three reasons: it involves minimal queasiness as you don’t have to make the boast yourself; it sounds almost objective; and Twitter makes it a doddle. It is as easy as hitting the retweet button and, far from looking crass, it has the further beauty of seeming almost good manners, as a retweet is a self-serving sort of thank you.

A particularly prolific thirdpartybragger is the British scientist Richard Dawkins, who engages in the practice several times a day. During the time I have been writing these paragraphs he has failed to resist the urge to retweet the following from @jamiesaboyname: "Such an amazing experience last night, to be in the presence of two of the worlds most beautiful minds @RichardDawkins @LKrauss1".

Channelling Wittels, I want to shout: Richard Dawkins, you don’t gotta brag. You’re Richard Dawkins.

I have become so allergic to thirdpartybragging that I am unfollowing everyone who engages in it. So it is farewell Dawkins. It's also farewell Jack Welch, who one might have thought didn't gotta brag either. He recently retweeted the following from @SPPresents "@jack_welch Just wanted to say THANK YOU for selecting me to narrate your new book Real Life MBA. It's well written, funny, and engaging!"

‘Ludicrous bilge’

Various colleagues have also been removed from my following list, though there are two who are getting a second chance. In one case, the thirdpartybragging was done by the man’s wife; the other retweeted comments about himself that were insulting rather than complimentary. Even though this is merely a thirdpartybrag with a bit of humblebrag thrown in, I’m forgiving him as the insult – that his column was “ludicrous bilge” – was quite funny.

The popularity of thirdpartybragging raises the question: why do people demean themselves in this way? Partly it is because such retweeting administers a stroke to the ego.

However, stroking egos is not what the internet is there for: it is what mothers are for instead. When mine was alive I would ring her up every time anyone said anything nice about me and hold forth at some length. From the other end of the phone would come pleased noises.

To follow someone on Twitter is not at all like being their mother. When the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore retweets "@SimonMontefiore J'lem one of the best books I've read. Can't wait for your next tome!" I don't make pleased noises; I make vomit ones and hit unfollow.


A bigger reason for the thirdpartybrag is not to feed egos, but to flog books, talks and so on. But can something so blatant really work?

The depressing answer is that it seems to. Seth Godin, a marketing pundit, has just devoted an entire blog post to reproducing gush from a third party. I fear I am the only person who responded badly – 876 people liked the boast post so much they retweeted it.

Thirdpartybragging shows followers as brainless and perpetrators shameless. In the case of Mr Godin, who is both in marketing and from America – where there is a more robust attitude to boasting in general – it may make sense. But what about Mr Dawkins? Has thirdpartybragging damaged the scientist’s considerable brain?

To find out last week I composed a tweet that went roughly: “Didn’t realise @richarddawkins invented the meme. He’s even more of a god than I thought he was.” I sat back and waited for him to retweet, but several days passed and nothing happened. I feel better about Mr Dawkins as a result. But now I am vaguely offended. Didn’t he like my message, or something? – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015) Seen & Heard returns next week