One effective way to understand where to put paved paths is to look at places where the grass has been trodden. Twitter has adopted this approach by offering a minimal interface and looking at how people use it.The idea was to allow basic messaging, and not to worry too much about fancy functionality. The tweeters responded by overlaying a number of conventions onto the simple message body. RT, the equivalent of forwarding in e-mail, is a popular convention for cascading news along the social graph, and is one of the central mechanisms responsible for the effectiveness of Twitter as a news dissemination channel.
Now Twitter is considering incorporating retweeting into its interface and API. Twitter already represents replies in its data structures; this will soon be joined by retweeting. It is interesting to see the organic evolution of capabilities in response to expressed rather than inferred user needs. I am sure the vendors creating client software will adapt quickly enough: many already support the retweet function by prepending ‘RT’ to the message, and will now need to modify the interface to keep track of some more metadata.
But this addition to the API is also interesting as an indicator of one potential direction that the Twitter API is headed. By specializing and formalizing its capabilities Twitter may be undermining its position as a generic communication tool that people can use in whatever way they chose. One beauty of Twitter is that it can be so many things to so many people with a simple API. If the trend for adding more features continues, Twitter may reduce the versatility of its messaging system, both from the application programmer’s and from the end-user’s perspective. For the time being, however, this is certainly a useful addition that will make for some interesting social network analysis as applications are able to crawl the retweet graph to see how ideas propagate through the twitosphere.