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.
What Ev Got Wrong
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.
Attribution Confusion vs. Credibility and Reputation
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.
Redundancy vs. Dipping in the Stream
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.
Problems with the Current Implementations
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.
No Way to See Who Has Retweeted Your Tweets
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.
No Notification of Retweets
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.
Retweets Don’t Show Up in Lists
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.
Ability to Annotate Retweets
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.
Vocal Minority or Silent Majority?
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:
- it is only a vocal minority that has problems with it and
- 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.
How to Fix Retweets
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.