Skip to main content

Twitter’s New Retweet is Broken and How to Fix it

By Jason Grigsby

Published on December 1st, 2009

When Twitter announced their new retweet feature, I read Twitter founder Ev William’s reasons for the design of the new feature with interest. I understood his points. I didn’t agree with the solution, but was comforted by his closing note that “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.”

My plan was simply to ignore the new retweet feature until they fixed its shortcomings. However, Loren Brichter released a new version of my favorite Twitter client for the iPhone, Tweetie, that incorporates the new retweet feature and “deprecates” the old way of retweeting.

After spending some time with the new version of Tweetie, it became clear that the new retweet feature and all of its warts are here to stay. Instead of ignoring it, it was more important to document the ways it is broken and try to get Twitter and the developers of Twitter clients to fix it.

Ev’s post does an excellent job of outlining the perceived shortcomings of the old way of retweeting. I’m grateful for his explanation. Not only is it helpful to understand the design decisions they made, but it also helps me understand where Ev missed important uses of retweets.

One of the main things that Twitter was trying to solve with the new retweet feature is attribution confusion. “Most notably, the text of the tweet is not written by the person whose picture you’re seeing, nor the username that’s at the beginning.”

The solution to this in the new retweet feature is to show the name and picture of the original person who wrote the tweet and annotate below the tweet the name of the person you are following who retweeted the post.

The problem with this solution to attribution confusion is that it eliminates one of the main values of retweets: the credibility and reputation of the person who is retweeting.

By removing the picture of the person who retweeted and making the name much smaller, it becomes much harder to tell quickly which of the people you are following retweeted the post.

The person who retweeted a link to an article matters a lot. We place different value on the people we follow and the information they share.

In the example above, it is more important to me to know that Dave Winer was the source of the retweet than it is to know that jenny8lee—someone I don’t know—wrote the original tweet.

Tim O’Reilly is someone who I find to have very intelligent takes on technology. When I see his picture in my twitter stream, I stop scanning and pay closer attention. His credibility and reputation is what makes me pay attention to what he tweets or retweets.

This is something that the independent Twitter clients have done a better job of addressing than Twitter itself. Both Tweetie and Tweetdeck have included both the picture of the person who originated the tweet as well as the person who retweeted.

I much prefer the way Tweetie handles the retweet in the screenshot above to the way Twitter handles it. I see both Dave Winer’s name and picture. My only complaint is that the picture of the person retweeting is often too small to recognize quickly.

Another point that Ev makes is that “if five people you follow retweet the same thing, you get five copies, which can be useful but is a lot of noise.”

Ev is right that if you are reading every single tweet having redundant retweets can be a bit of noise. That said, it isn’t something that has ever bothered me.

The multiple retweets has however been something that has alerted me to important information. When you think of Twitter as a stream that you dip your toes into when you have time, important information can be missed if it only shows up in your stream one time. However, the more people retweet it, the more likely you are to encounter it whenever you decide to dip your toes in your Twitter stream.

I have to look no further than this past weekend to see the importance of this. On Saturday, the City of Portland announced that e-coli had been found in some of its water supply.

I happened to be out with the family in one of the affected areas. While waiting in line, I checked Twitter. By the time I checked, it had been several hours since the announcement. Yet, I saw one of the many retweets about the outbreak and was able to advise the people around me what water to avoid.

Let me repeat, the only reason I learned about the e-coli outbreak was because I received multiple retweets.

Another reason multiple retweets are valuable is because of reputation and credibility. A retweet from someone I follow whose opinion I value more highly than others is more likely to catch my eye.

There is value in multiple retweets. I’d love to have this be an option to see all retweets or only the first one.

Aside from the two viewpoints about credibility and the value of multiple retweets, there are things lacking in the current retweet implementations. As my friend Peter Whooly pointed out, it’s hard to tell if these are problems with the Twitter clients or Twitter’s API.

In Tweetie, when you go under your profile and look at the retweets, there is no way to tell who retweeted your tweet. This is possible on Twitter’s web interface.

One of the nice aspects of the old style of retweeting was that retweets also contained the @reply syntax. This meant that you could not only could see the retweets easily, but if your Twitter client offered notifications for replies, you would be prompted when someone retweeted you.

Knowing when someone retweets you is important so that you can participate in the conversation.

This again is an issue of credibility and reputation. Say you create a list of people whose opinions and thoughts you highly value. It is a very select list and you read every tweet these people write. When you look at that list, you will miss any retweets using the new feature.

Being able to see retweets in Twitter lists is a big deal.

This is already on the Twitter team’s radar. Ev says they have some ideas on how they might implement it. This isn’t a show stopper for me, but it is for a lot of other people.

One of the things that got me worked up about this was seeing Loren Brichter’s take on the new retweet feature. He said, “vocal minority have problem with change – no doubt once they try it they’ll realize how awesome it is.”

Because Loren is the developer of Tweetie, the iPhone client I prefer to use, his opinion about the retweet feature matters. The fact that he thinks that:

  1. it is only a vocal minority that has problems with it and
  2. that we simply have a problem with change

frustrated me. From the conversations I’ve had with other users, that isn’t an accurate description.

Many of the same people who have problems with the new retweet feature embraced the new lists feature. Discounting opinions by saying people simply have a problem with change is a way of marginalizing contrary opinions without having to address them. There are legitimate issues with the retweet feature as I’ve outlined above.

And I’m not convinced that it is a minority of people who have problems with the new retweet feature. So far, I haven’t seen a single person who thinks the new retweet feature is complete.

Unlike lists which a majority of people raved about and immediately started using, the new retweet feature is something that most people seem to be at best accepting with hopes that Twitter will address its issues and at worst, so strongly opposed to the new feature that they are taking actions like refusing to upgrade Tweetie to avoid it.

I don’t disagree with most of what Ev said were the reasons for the new retweet feature. I also think formalizing retweets can lead to some really interesting information and features.

That said, the new feature has significant shortcomings that need to be addressed before we should consider the old way of retweeting deprecated.

I’m thankful that Loren implemented the new feature in Tweetie. It made me recognize that the feature wasn’t going away and was already impacting me even if I choose to use the old style retweet because others may use the new feature and I won’t see their retweets.

Therefore, the most important thing we can do to fix the situation is provide feedback to Twitter and Twitter client developers.

My hope is that if enough people provide feedback to Twitter (they are asking for feedback on the feature) that we can have a new retweet feature that we embrace as enthusiastically as we did Twitter lists.

Comments

Vin Thomas said:

Great article Jason. I agree that it is here to stay, and we need to start figuring out ways to improve the retweet feature as we move forward.

For me, the biggest fallback is not being able to comment on a retweet. I almost always comment on a retweet and feel that the new system robs me of the conversational aspect of twitter.

Thanks for writing this.

brianenigma said:

I absolutely agree with all your points. When prototypes of the new retweet functionality were first described on the Twitter blog, I was concerned about the only-see-it-once "feature." Now that it has been implemented, the problem becomes more painfully obvious. (I love the pullquoteability of that e-coli comment, by the way!) On the one hand, I can see how the newbie masses who might not be following many and have a very lightweight Twitter stream might be overwhelmed by seeing multiple retweets; the retweet-to-real-content ratio would likely be high. But on the other hand, the experienced Twitter user (with a more firehose-like stream) really needs the nagging of multiple retweets to make that ratio high enough to notice.

Elly Sookdhis said:

I was upset I upgraded tweetie. I still retweet,
but sometime I quote a tweet instead of RT as I can then edit the tweet and add my comments.
Then, if I could, I DM the person who tweeted and apologized for what I did (please remember that many of us want to do the right thing).

I hope Ev/or the tweeter team can bring back 'the joy of the old RT' soon.

Matt Beck said:

Great roundup Jason.

I'm with you 100% on this.

I'm not opposed to building a formal mechanism for retweats (or tags, or other extensions).

The problem is that this is implementation is bad.

The Twitter teams seeming inability to parse criticism is unfortunate too.

AdamD said:

Very well stated, Jason. It sounds like most of the problem is a display issue more than anything. Just as some Twitter apps chose to display the retweeter avatar in addition to the retweeted, perhaps some will choose to show multiple retweets and/or include the retweeter's avatar even more prominently.

I haven't dug into how the retweet API works, but I'd like to see Twitter make sure apps have a lot of room to display things the way that makes the most sense for their users. Even if Twitter.com sticks with how it currently does retweets, it'd be a shame to lock other apps into that.

belgium said:

I'm personally very confused why a company would take something that users organically created and change it; companies spend millions of dollars on R & D and Twitter was given a function/use scenario for free, organically grown. We should all be so lucky! Why change what obviously works?

Ellis said:

I have been patiently trying to use the new Tweetie 2.1, but the entire RT functionality of it is broken. I need to find a new client soon. Maybe I'll come back to Tweetie, maybe not. I wouldn't mind if they left me with the ability to use "RT @..." instead of forcing me to use "/via " ...

and then there is the problem with the new RT functionality as described in this blog. That's all be said very well.

Replies to Ellis

@LoganGreer replied:

RT is technically deprecated. The "/via" syntax is better because it's more informative ("via" means something, RT does not) and allows for greater expression with a standardized form: /via /cc... etc.

Read this: http://factoryjoe.com/blog/2009/11/08/new-microsy... and open your mind.

Replies to @LoganGreer
grigs replied:

@LoganGreer How can an informal syntax that evolved through usage be deprecated? On whose authority?

FWIW, I've read Chris Messina's post. To your point of RT not meaning something, here is what Chris wrote:

"The concept is simple and already widely used: sometimes you want to give credit to someone (as part of the pay-it-forward link economy) for something they said or linked to, without quoting them verbatim (which is what RT or “retweeting” is for, in my estimation and use)."

So Chris himself makes a distinction between the two because they both have meaning, and he defines them differently.

But even so, Chris would be the first to tell you that his definitions are simply what he is suggesting, not some sort of central mandate.

Jason Grigsby (Article Author ) replied:

@LoganGreer Given RT is a social convention with no central body that defines its use, there is no way it can be technically deprecated. We can simply continue to use the social convention.

FWIW, I have in fact read Chris Messina's post that you link to. Chris contradicts your comment about RT not having meaning:

"The concept is simple and already widely used: sometimes you want to give credit to someone (as part of the pay-it-forward link economy) for something they said or linked to, without quoting them verbatim (which is what RT or “retweeting” is for, in my estimation and use)."

Chris suggests as an alternative specifically because it has different meaning.

But realistically, this isn't a question of whether to use via vs. RT. The issues enumerated in the article like the lack of retweets showing up in lists and the fact that you can't get notification of retweets so that you can participate in the conversation are bigger issues than whether or not we use the word 'via' instead of 'RT.'

@bitfield said:

Very concisely and eloquently put, and I couldn't agree more. It seems strange that all Tweetie had to do was leave in the option to quote a tweet with 'RT @somebody....' and Loren decided to take it out. The option is all we ask!

Wayan said:

Oh dear god why didn't I read this before I upgraded Tweetie this morning. The app is now useless to me as I loved RT'ing with a bit of commentary in front - adding my own value. I loved it when others did the same too. A bare RT is spam to me.

Any way I can downgrade to the older tweetie version? Please tell me its possible...

Ellis said:

I gave up. Was spending too much time editing out the "via" and putting in the RT. As much as I loved Tweetie, it's now off of my iPhone. I went to Twitelator Pro. Not perfect, but better than Tweetie in it's current state. Amazing how one feature can mess up an otherwise great product for me to the point that I simply won't use it.