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:

1) You might RT less because of this (largely unconscious) calculus, after all, why primarily boost the other person when you are taking most of the risk.

If the feature is used less, it would go the way of another Twitter feature that has withered on the vine, Twitter Favorites, which because of a lack of a meaningful social feedback cycle have languished as a form of a somewhat dysfunctional personal tweet bookmarking. Incidentally, the new feature could have been subsumed into and under the name of the old Favorites.

Paris Lemon of TechCrunch just wrote a post (see below) where he predicts that Twitter will have to allow people to turn off all inbound Retweets (per user shut-off is already supported) due to the "stranger shock" factor mentioned above.

He also thinks the feature if left to stand as is, will lead to a bifurcation of the use of Retweets into "old-school" and "new", with possibly unintended or of yet unforeseeable consequences. Which would certainly not be a desirable state of affairs for Twitter.

The control it hoped to gain from the Retweet implementation would largely be void if say half of all Retweets can’t be counted by their scheme.

2) You might retweet less carefully than before because you begin to think by way of 1) that your retweeting has become less meaningful to your followers in the sense of you having done the surfacing.

Other services like FriendFeed (FF) have had features that are similar to Twitter’s new offering for a while, e.g. on FF it is called a "Like". But the "Likes" there never quite had the social touch, mostly they’ve been used as just a surfacing mechanism, with the social element coming from FF comments.

It has also been pointed out by Robert Scoble and others that all Twitter had to do to avoid some of the angst surrounding the new feature roll-out, was to name it something different than "Retweet". Which makes sense, once a "brand name" of sorts is established in people’s minds, they are very loath to rearrange that in their mental real estate (lesson for all business great and small inherent here).

3) Context is clearly lost without the Retweeters avatar, and because the new Retweets presently cannot be annotated as you were/are free to do under the old "RT @username: …" convention.

This means you cannot express why you decided to forward the information if so desired. But intention and context go a long way in all social interactions (just think of the nuances inherent in most inside jokes, popular culture speak, sarcasm, asf.), and to cut it out is to misunderstand the social in social media.

The small annotations, even just 1 or 2 words, or a glyph or an acronym, can make all of the difference between sterile copying and the kind of mild embellishment or emphasis that we all use when telling each other stories or news in our social circles.

Are You A Good Little Retweet Automaton?

The new Twitter RT wants you to be a good, anti-septic, little forwarding automaton. Big mistake, think about what would it would be like if all of your social interactions used primarily direct quotes when relaying what a third party said.

TechCrunch’s Paris Lemon in a good, detailed post about the New Retweet conundrum titled "Simple Is As Simple Does: The Risk Of Retweet", echoes some of the points above:

The second point may actually be even more problematic for Twitter: Users want a way to include their own statements in Retweets. The new way of doing this does not allow for that. The fundamental principle behind this should be obvious: If you share something, there’s a natural desire to explain why you’re sharing it. That’s what a lot of people do with current retweets. Even if they just add “LOL,” it shows that they think the tweet they’re sharing is funny.

We’re also vain. Sometimes retweeting something is more about getting your say in rather than simply highlighting what someone else has said. Or, maybe you’re even retweeting something because you disagree with it. With the new Retweets, you can’t let that be known.

Social media had just given us all a voice, why would we want to give some of it up again to satisfy Twitter’s data management needs?

Lance Ulanoff wrote a great post on some of the awkwardly Orwellian language used by Twitter in the new Retweet implementation and in some of the explanatory PR that has gone along with it.

It appears as if the entire feature change is primarily cooked up for the benefit of Twitter’s ability to easily count Retweets and maybe make money off of the emergent surfacing derived from it. Strange, since they have already been doing something just like that IN FREE-FORM with Twitter "Trending Topics". Why the hand-cuffs now?

Williams (@ev on Twitter) claims the new feature’s goal is "helping you discover the information that matters most to you as quickly as possible." But the cognitive dissonance you may experience with this fundamental change will at best only slow things down for you.

All of these points taken together would explain the so far decidedly negative reception of Twitter’s new Retweet feature. By the way, the oft-repeated excuse that users will reflexively react negatively to any kind of change is a poor fig leaf here:

Twitter users so far have enthusiastically embraced the new Lists feature, a rather substantial change, since a few weeks ago. This obviously isn’t the case with this new RT feature.

And Twitter could have really seen all this from a mile off, since around August when the intentions for the new RTs were first announced. As already pointed out above, back then Dan Zarrella and others created some amount of buzz in the community for "saving" the established, user-borne, well-liked format, using among other things the ominously named "#SaveRetweets" tag.

Why not listen to your users, Twitter? They’re the reason for your success.

[Will social media services finally begin to understand that their very existence has changed the game? See what I wrote here:

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