The above is taken from an email (without permission!) Matt wrote me after I asked him to retweet something (1). I include it because I think it speaks to how strongly some people feel about retweeting. Retweeting has long been a controversial behavior. Some people loathe it; others seem to subsist on nothing else.
I don't have problems with retweeting, generally speaking, as long as its done in moderation. I think it can be quite useful. I've heard the argument (see: Rex, Jorn) that's what favoriting is for. I disagree. Although I clearly see the value of favoriting, it is essentially a transaction that takes place between you and one other person (sometimes with that person's knowledge, but often without). Retweeting involves all of your followers. It's a way of disseminating something, while favoriting is a way of saving. It's the difference between bookmarking something in your browser, and bookmarking it on Del.icio.us.
And yet serial retweeters devalue Twitter as a platform. Their tweets often end up as nonsense strings of text. Even occasional retweeting can be a problem, as if something really takes off, you might see the same tweet appear again and again, wasting real estate in your timeline. Something needed to change. And it has.
Like a lot of people, I got access to Twitter's new retweet function yesterday. It's quite different, and like the new Twitter Lists, I think it's going to drive new behavior. If you're interested to see specifics of how it works, they're at the end. But the important thing to understand is that Twitter added a function that lets you retweet just by clicking a button.
While many Twitter clients have offered this functionality for some time, Twitter changed the way retweets work if you use the button. Rather than adding the "RT @whoever" to the beginning (or "via @whoever" to the end), the tweet now goes out to your followers just as it was originally written, with the original writer's profile picture and account name, even if you do not follow this person. At the bottom of the tweet, metadata lists the name of the retweeter (who you follow).
This has raised a few issues, but one comes up repeatedly: if you use the new button, you can't add anything to a tweet. Currently, adding commentary to a retweet is pretty common practice. I assume that's what Danah Boyd was referring to yesterday (and the user behavior document she links is a must-read). Others were less artful. Gawkerwag, for example, wrote a predictably clueless post, noting:
The obvious problem: You lose the ability to actually say anything about what you're quoting if you use the new system.
Well. No. You're an idiot.
I'm sure that kind of language great for drawing outrage/pageviews, but it's just not accurate. You know that little text box on Twitter.com where it asks "What are you doing?" Yeah. that one, the same one you've been using for three years. Well see, here's the thing: You can type anything you want in there. Anything. You're limited only by character count. Which means that, if you do want to retweet something and editorialize a little bit as you do, of course you still can. You don't have to use Twitter's auto-retweet function exclusively. It's not one or the other. It's both. Copy and paste. It works, bitches. Don't be stupid.Ev Williams explicitly noted this in his post yesterday, but it's worth repeating because people seem to be overlooking it:
What about those cases where you really want to add a comment when RTing something? Keep in mind, there's nothing stopping you from simply quoting another tweet if that's what you want to do. Also, old-school retweets are still allowed, as well. We had to prioritize some use cases over others in this release. But just as Twitter didn't have this functionality at all before, people can still work around and do whatever they want. This just gives another option.
Also, Michael Sippey picked up on something really important in Ev's post. Sippey points out that this is part of an effort to help Twitter serve as a discovery engine. It's an effort to rapidly deliver the most important and most relevant information, while cutting down on Infoglut. (Lists help accomplish the same thing.) This does seem like it's where Twitter is headed.I'm still not totally sold on the new retweet function, but here's what I do like about it so far:
1. Retweet counts.
The new retweeting system displays how many times a given update has been retweeted. Currently, if I see a tweet in my timeline that's been retweeted frequently, it's typically a mess (see below) and so I pay less attention to it. With the new system, if something's been retweeted many times, I'm probably more likely to pay attention to it. That's good. It helps filter important information upwards.
2. Goodbye, messy RTs
The auto-retwetting function promises to clean up messy tweets like these. Because I have a short user name, I get way too many @ messages that aren't meant for me, and quite often this is due to serial retweeters who have reposted something to the extent that all its original meaning has been lost. This should help fix that.
We're operating in a short form world. I have a comparatively short three character Twitter username. But even so, if someone wants to retweet something I've said, it takes 6 characters to do so, assuming there's no space between the RT and @ symbol. Seven characters if you want to do it properly. Due to the 140 character limit, it means that even with an extremely short username, five percent of any retweet of something I say has to be reserved solely for attribution. In practice, this means that I often make sure my tweets have an extra eight characters just to give people room to retweet without altering what I say. Because the "RT @mat" no longer needs to be appended for attribution, it means I can have those 8 characters back again. If your username is, say, seven characters, or eight, or ten, you're getting a lot more real estate.
And here's what I don't like:
1. Mass rewteeting
It seems like this could lead to even more retweeting. That it could be a tool for serial retweeters, and drive those who already retweet often to do so even more. (A friend pointed out to me at lunch today that people may begin using the new RT function as a method of favoriting. Rather than trying to pass through information, they will just use it as a way to say, "I like this.") While Twitter notes that you'll be able to selectively turn off retweets from specific users, it still seems like this new tool is only going to encourage a behavior that many people already find annoying.
Right now, if I retweet something that three other people also have retweeted, you'll see it as "retweeted by @mat and 3 others." The @mat will be linked, but I think it's almost critically important to be able to see who the others are. The retweet count (which, as you've seen, I think is great) is totally incomplete without seeing who retweeted.
While Gawkerwag thinks users will be flummoxed by "a strange and potentially confusing avatar of someone they're not subscribed to in their stream," I tend to disagree. Twitter does a good job of explaining what's up when you first encounter a new style retweet (see below). But what it doesn't do is display this info prominently. And it's not at all clear how this will work on mobile apps, where screen real estate is exceptionally limited. The retweeter needs to be just as visible as the retweetee. I don't quite know how you make that happen, but I think it's important for user experience.
The bottom line is, Twitter has been adding and removing features since the very beginning. But because 2009 (and to some extent the last quarter of 2008) is the Era of Twitter, every time the company does anything now it's under increased, often angry, scrutiny. This is natural. Twitter is valuable because we've made it so. We, the userrs, have invested our time, energy, and thoughts in making the service what it is. For many, it has become a vital information gateway. And because we are attached to how it is, we often are reluctant to see it change. This is true of any technology, any website, that people tend to be heavily invested in. But before you go all Bateman on the new retweeting function, give it a chance. It's not going to kill Twitter. It doesn't mean you can't retweet just as you always have. It's just new.
This is how a retweet appears in the new system the first time you see one:
Once you've retweeted, it doesn't appear directly in your timeline as it once would have. Rather, an update is posted in the metadata of the original tweet.
It does, however, update your timeline for others to see. And if you go to look at it yourself, you can see how it now appears, with the retweet icon, the other user's ID, and metadata on who retweeted it.
If someone hasn't been upgraded to the new beta, things still look the same. Here's the same view of my timeline as seen from another user's perspective:
(1) Yes. I'm just that kind of shameless self-promoter.