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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Why You Absolutely Must Get Twitter’s Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

I have mentioned social media sensation Twitter, originally billed as a so-called "micro-blogging" service, in a number of posts over the last year, and by now there is almost no way that you haven’t heard one of its seemingly nightly mentions in the mainstream media.

If you’re not on Twitter yet, you should be, if only to see what’s going on, and to grab any usernames (for your own name, your company, and your products/brands) that may still be available before someone else does.

(If you are completely new to Twitter, first watch this brief video, and click though this presentation slide deck.)

Even if you decide that you don’t have the time to invest in maintaining an active profile on Twitter, you should at an absolute minimum understand that the new "real-time Web" that is emerging due to Twitter’s popularity is changing the game in many ways:

Not only is it causing redesign changes and opening-up at Twitter’s rival social media services such as FriendFeed and Facebook. Search of Twitter’s massive real-time stream of "Tweets" (the micro-messages that users send to their follower lists), is now being called "the pulse of this society" by wine merchant turned Social Media guru Gary Vaynerchuck. And I would agree:

Should you know what 10 14 Million people (yes, it grew by nearly 50% in the last month), many of them sought-after influencers and early-adopters are saying about you, your company, your brands, your products, your market, and your business’ target keywords on Twitter?

Of course you should. Twitter’s recent geometric growth proves that it is finding itself right at the inflection point from early to mainstream adoption in these last few months. And therefore searching at Seach.twitter.com has become an absolute goldmine of marketing relevant information, one that must almost be considered indispensable at this point:

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Social Media Lessons: Controversy Erupts Surrounding Facebook’s “Twitterization” Redesign

Yet another controversy has erupted around Facebook (the recent Terms of Service PR disaster having barely scabbed over) in the last few days, this time around the redesign of the Facebook user "Home" page (the profile page was redesigned last year), which is adding a real-time feed more along the lines of micro-blogging service Twitter.

While I personally am all for that change, having been an ardent Twitter user since early last year, there has been plenty of backlash from Facebook users about the extent of these changes. And all of the usual suspects of the blogosphere are weighing in, with heavy-weights like TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington and Robert Scoble siding with Facebook’s right to basically do what it wants with the free service it provides.

Even going so far as arguing that listening to your customer too much can be counterproductive. Here is a quote from Mike Arrington’s piece "No! Never Surrender To Your Users, Facebook.":

In an interview last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked with me about how users are willing to accept change over time, and that Facebook would continue to push things along. Suddenly, though, they surrender because a few users have a belly ache over a redesign.

If they wanted to make these changes anyway, they shouldn’t have titled their blog post “Responding to Your Feedback.” They should have just continued to ignore the ranting, and announced further changes. Showing that you’re listening to feedback just invites more of it.

Someday, if they’re not careful, someone is going to do to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace, who in turn did it to Friendster. Making users happy is a suckers game. Pushing the envelope is what makes you a winner.

While I can see their point to a degree, social media represent a whole new ballgame in many ways, which it makes it harder to predict what will happen. While these “A camel is a horse designed by committee" ideas may have validity in the realm of physical product design (Scoble is using a quote from a mentor about the problems with crowd-sourcing the design of a Porsche), I would hold that things may not be so straight-forward in the digital/social media realm:

1) Facebook already had several cases where it needed to retreat in shame from changes to the Facebook platform, the biggest among them the Beacon activity-tracking system that caused such privacy concerns and general outrage among Facebook users that it had to basically be abandoned.

More recently, the above-mentioned Facebook Terms of Service (TOS) debate around changes that appeared to give Facebook almost complete, irrevocable control over a users data and images even PAST the closing of an account, brought forth a similat swift user community response, and backing off by Facebook (for now to the original TOS, with supposedly a crowd-sourced version being on the way).

So with this partial retreat by Facebook, incidentally again due to privacy concerns, they’re really batting 0 for 3. One would think that they would be wising up on the PR front by now. And so much for "Zuckerberg never backs down"…

2) Much of this is not really surprising since Facebook’s users are perfectly empowered through Facebook’s platform:

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