Some time this summer Twitter announced its RT (retweet) API, a structured way of expressing the forwarding (often with comments) of others tweets that has, until now, been expressed informally by prepending the letters RT to another person’s tweet. The practice of retweeting (described in a forth-coming paper by danah boyd, Scott Golder, and Gilad Lotan) has evolved several conventions for crediting the source and incorporating comments. In addition to forwarding and commenting on the message, it can also serve as a useful mechanism to introduce people to others worth following.
The new API formalizes this notion, but also subverts established practice.
At the time the API was announced, I had mixed feelings about it:
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.
The new mechanism ignores the important social aspect of commentary that is part of the existing RT practice and replaces it with an automated rebroadcast of the previous message, annotated with your credentials as the retweeter. The interface prompts you to reetweet,
and if you click Yes, merely rebroadcasts the selected tweet as your retweet. It does not give you an opportunity to annotate it with your own take on the subject of the tweet. While the new style of retweeting doesn’t add to the length of the message because the retweet information is now carried separately from the text, the gain of a few bytes doesn’t seem to be warranted by the loss of an important social function.
Of course an argument can be made that the fideility of the channel is improved by removing the ability to edit the message being retweeted. The boyd et al. paper cited above documents some of the kinds of miscommunication caused by retweets, including changed attribution, changed meaning, and viral spread of bogus information. Yet removing the ability to highlight, to personalize, and yes, to edit, while giving credit to the originator in favor of preserving the message verbatim is throwing the baby out with the bath water.
It’s also interesting that Twitter chose to emphasize the “follower” notion in retweeting, whereas retweets also serve as a voting mechanism to highlight popular or important messages, and are a common way of understanding key themes in twitter streams associated with events that have little to do with one’s followers.
While this retweet metadata may make it easier to mine the twitter stream, by undermining some of the reasons for this form of expression it does a disservice to the community. It will be interesting to see how people’s practices adapt to this new capability: Will this feature be ignored in favor of the old-style RT, will the ease of a two click interaction suppress the current practice, or will Twitter be forced into modifying its API to include the possibility of a modified message?