Twitter Tries To Change Retweets, Doesn’t Get The Social In Social Media

A passage from Twitter CEO Evan Williams’ post why the new, formalized Retweet function "works the way it does" shows lack of depth and clarity in Twitter’s thinking about the significance of trying to replace the "Retweet" (RT) forwarding convention, something that arose organically from its community without any assistance by the company whatsoever:

The attribution problem: In order to get rid of the attribution confusion, in your timeline we show the avatar and username of the original author of the tweet—with the person who retweeted it (whom you actually follow) in the metadata underneath. The decision is that this:

…is a better presentation than this:

No fault of @AleciaHuck’s but the first is simply easier to read, and it gives proper credit to @badbanana. Even if you know @AleciaHuck, there’s no benefit to having her picture in there.

 

So here is the big problem: That last half sentence (my BOLD highlight) shows complete ignorance of the way that Twitter works as a social engine and calculus.

Twitter users, whether consciously or not, are with each tweet putting a little bit of previously accrued social capital they have with their "followers" (Twitter users that are subscribed to them) on the line. So the act of forwarding another, often third party user’s tweet is significant in that it is a form of a micro-endorsement for this user that their followers are themselves typically not even subscribed to.

If the text of the forwarded tweet or (in many cases) the link to further content that it contains is ill received, the retweeting user in some sense is held accountable by their followers. At best, only a little bit of "social capital" is deducted, at worst, some will unfollow completely.

The user has put their stamp of approval on the retweeted content, and if it contained a link, it is largely expected that by extension the content at the end of that link was read and approved of as well.

(There are some exceptions to this when the news contained in a tweet is considered "breaking" enough so that the timeliness criterion overrides the need for checking out all of the content at the end of a link first. But, as most Twitter users have discovered before, the risk of forwarding something that turns out to be of questionable quality or outright bogus or even harmful goes up exponentially. "Blind" retweeting of links should be avoided.)

So, because of this micro-endorsement element, a Retweet has always gone well beyond a mere surfacing mechanism. Social media statistician Dan Zarrella in a prescient post a few months ago warned that the proposed RT formalization would do away with this form of social proof inherent in the RT convention ("Using the orig­i­nal poster’s pic & name in my time­line destroys any social proof the ReTweeter may have lent the Tweet.").

Known Avatar = Benefit

Back to the example given in the excerpt, there is in fact a GREAT benefit inherent in the picture/avatar of a user you have been following for any length of time: It is known to you, it is far less of a stranger all things being equal.

You have imbued it in your mind, by way of repetition (active Twitter users may be seeing the profile pictures/avatars of other active followed/friended users hundreds or even many thousands of times), with some trust and social capital.

It has been pointed out by multiple people that the surprise of seeing a "stranger’s" avatar in one’s Twitter inbound stream is downright shocking to some people, so strong is the identification with known people one has been following.

This has been one of the 1st rules of Twitter: You see only who you elect to see (i.e. follow).

If the avatar is now switched out to show that of the original author of the forwarded tweet, this trust is gone, unless the recipients (your followers) also happened to be following that same user. But even if they were, you, the Retweeter, are now cut out of the equation!

The social capital you put on the line is now not really rewarded anymore by having you be clearly associated with the surfacing of the information for the benefit of your followers. This can, especially over time, have several unintended consequences:

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Two Line Avatar Hack for WordPress Comments

Only 2 (!) simple lines of code to have avatar support for your WordPress comments with gracefull fail-over from Gravatar.com to Mybloglog.com, all without plugins… just add to your comments.php in the comments loop wherever you would like to see the Avatars/commenter photos placed:

The code for gravatar image URL is taken from Tom Werner’s simple gravatar.php plugin, the failover to Mybloglog was my idea.

Check it out in action here.

Note that the commenter email address must be URL encoded twice, because the gravatar.com script otherwise strips out the @ symbol.

Plus this makes for minimal protection from email phishing bots. Better would be to have Mybloglog adopt Gravatar’s md5 encoding of the Email address.

If MyBlogLog also had the "&default=[url]" failover support, this could be chained to support further avatar service providers. Since it doesn’t, the chain stops with their somewhat ugly and small default (the grey square with the question mark).

And this also represents one fly in the ointment: MyBlogLog could at least make the size of that default the same size as the avatars their "coiserv.php" script serves – 48 x 48 pixels. I am going to talk to someone at Yahoo about this who might be able to pass it on to the right people.

To get the code, right-click and "Select All", then copy and paste to your theme’s comments.php template where you want the Avatar to appear.