Twitter Design Decision For The New Retweet – Demystified

In: Twitter

15 Nov 2009

Are you confused with Twitter’s new Retweet feature? Don’t worry, many people do.  I was.  Or maybe you are one of the people who got upset when the new functionality was finally rolled out (albeit only to a limited number of people) ?  No worry, I did too.
People say that it’s always hard for us to accept change, especially when we’ve already gotten very accustomed to and felt comfortable with the old way of doing things.  It certainly is not different this time with the new Retweet.
What is different though, as Techcrunch wrote in this post, is that this time the change is pretty significant that it changes Twitter’s fundamental functionality.
So significant this change was, that Evan Williams (Twitter CEO) himself felt compelled to write a blog post (apparently he hardly ever writes), specially to explain the reasoning behind their decision when they designed this new feature.
I wrote on earlier post, that things were getting clearer everyday when I was using the new Retweet.  But just when I thought I’ve known everything that I needed to know, I was quite surprised that I found a new thing that I didn’t notice before after I read EV’s post, which is arguably the most important change in this new way of Retweeting :)
So, I thought I would share it with you, just in case you haven’t noticed, or for you that hasn’t got it yet, something to keep in mind (just in case you think your Twitter is broken).  I also want to summarize, in my own word, what EV is explaining in his blog post.

EV started his post by describing the problems that we are facing with the old way of Retweeting, which are:

1. Attribution Confusion
In short, we just don’t know (for sure) who is the original Tweeter who write the Retweeted Tweet.  Yes, most of the time we try to include the originator’s username when we Retweet, but often when there are already multiple Retweeters, we just don’t know from whom the Tweet originally came.
On the other hand, it’s so easy (if you want) to pretend that a Tweet comes from somebody (fake Retweet), simply by writing ‘RT @nickname …‘, while in truth it doesn’t.  This could be seen as very cynical and devious, but shit happens.  In this particular case we have a problem of accountability and reliability.  We just can’t be sure if a Tweet really comes from the person written on that Tweet.

2. Redundancy and Duplicates
How many times have you seen the same Tweet is being Retweeted many times by your followings?  Whilst most of the time I don’t mind about it, sometimes it could be just plain annoying.  But most importantly it adds unnecessary noise in your already crowded timeline, and when you have a couple thousand followings, it does become very noisy very quickly.
Then there is the problem with duplication.  There is no way we could prevent somebody to Retweet the same Tweet, over and over again (Spam everyone?).

3. Trackability
Some people would like to know how many times their Tweet has been Retweeted.  This is especially true for social media, marketing, PR, and business people who need to know how far (in term of numbers) their message has reached their audiences.  But even for the rest us, I think it would bring a nice feeling when we know that people appreciate our Tweet.
Of course, as usual, third party developers have tried to cater for this by creating websites that counts and ranks Retweets and Retweeters (e.g. RetweeterRadar, Retweetist, RetweetRank).  But by nature of problem no.1 described above alone, we know that this calculation would only be an approximation.  We could guess the number, but we won’t know for sure exactly.  It’s just plain unreliable.

The new way of Retweeting, Twitter hopes, will solve the above problems.  This is reflected in the new design:

1. Additional Metadata
Every Tweet that’s Retweeted (using the new way of course) will internally have additional metadata embedded in it.  In addition to the existing “who’s the Tweet belongs to” metadata, it will also includes a list of users who Retweets it.

The consequences of this are:

  • We will know for sure who is the originator of the Retweeted Tweet (No confusion of Attribution and No Faker/Spammer).
  • We will be able to count exactly how many people has Retweeted the Tweet (Certainty on the Retweet counts).
  • You can’t Retweet a Tweet more than once (No cheating).
  • Only one instance of Retweeted Tweet will be shown in your Timeline (No duplicate Retweets).
  • Lastly, you cannot Retweet your own Tweet :)

Retweeted Tweet

2. Suppress Retweet Stream from Individual User
Personally I don’t see the problem on having my timeline full of my following’s Retweets.  If you don’t like somebody’s too much Retweeting, you can always unfollow him/her :)  Moreover, if you are serious with your Tweeting, you should use a 3rd party app (like Seesmic or Tweetdeck) to manage your Tweets more effectively.
But, obviously I’m in the minority here because Twitter thinks that it’s useful to add a functionality so the user can turn on or off Retweet stream from a user you are following (without unfollowing him/her).  This basically will include/exclude the person’s Retweets from your timeline.


3.  Serendipitous Encounter is Back :)
This is the one I’ve said above, i.e. the most important change done to our timeline that I didn’t notice before.

Before the new Retweet feature is activated, the only Tweets that we would see in our timeline are the ones that come from our followings.
Now, after you’ve got the Retweet activated, you will start to see Tweets from people that you don’t follow appearing in your timeline, simply because it has been Retweeted by your following!

This arguably is breaking Twitter core functionality, and indeed for some people (like poor Justine Bateman) who didn’t realize this, it’s understandable why they would think that Twitter is broken and that he/she has been targeted by spammers.
I, for one, welcome this ‘feature‘.  For me this is yet another way to meet new (follow-worthy) people.  If my followings think that this person is worth Retweeting, then ‘maybe’ I should follow him/her too.
Twitter did think about this though, which is why you will get notification (at least initially) to make you accustom to this (big) change.

4.  No annotation or commenting on Retweet
I’ve already touched this dilemma already, but here is a quote from EV on this issue:

What about those cases where you really want to add a comment when RTing something? Keep in mind, 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. We had to prioritize some use cases over others in this release. But just as Twitter didn’t have this functionality at all before, people can still work around and do whatever they want. This just gives another option.

I applaud EV for coming out of his shell and really making an effort to explain Twitter’s decision.  Personally, apart from the ability to annotate, this won’t affect me much, at least until the 3rd party developers come up with the best solution for their apps.  As soon as they do (please hurry), I’m sure I will be Retweeting again with confidence.

Do you think Twitter decision is reasonable? Are you OK with these changes? Or you just don’t care?

Leave your comment and let me know what’s on your mind?

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2 Responses to Twitter Design Decision For The New Retweet – Demystified


Alex Bowyer

November 29th, 2009 at 00:06

I'm not convinced by Evan's comment on RT comments. If they designed the retweet button correctly, people could still comment on tweets but they could also block old style retweets – which would eliminate false attribution.


Alex Bowyer

November 29th, 2009 at 00:15

Hmm, my comment got chopped. Here's the rest: Here's my thoughts on how they should have designed it to meet the needs of both Twitter and the users

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