A better design for Twitter retweets

Birds on a wire

This week, many people have been given beta access to Twitter’s new Retweet feature. Unfortunately, rather than seizing the opportunity to pave the cowpaths by building a feature that reflects the way users are currently retweeting each other, Twitter have launched something which behaves quite differently.

You have to change your retweet behavior to use the new feature. This has angered many users, myself included, so I’d like to explain how I think the new feature should have been designed. To start with I’ll look at where retweeting came from, I’ll then explain some of the problems with the way it works currently, how Twitter are trying to address these problems with the new feature, and finally how I think the problems could be better addressed.

Why do we need a retweet feature anyway?

Up to now, retweeting has been done purely through syntax – by editing the original message and adding notations like RT @alexbfree or (via @acroll). Often people will add a comment too, as seen in this example:An example retweet

There are a number of problems with this current approach, most of which are explained by Twitter founder Evan Williams in his explanation of the new feature. Let’s look at each in turn:

1. Attribution confusion

From my tweet, you can’t tell that this was originally a tweet by @CBCMontreal, to which @zoonini added “This is troubling”. It might appear that @zoonini was the original poster.
This is because I had to remove her “RT @CBCMontreal” to make room for my “RT @zoonini” and my own comment.

Evan believes the solution is to show the originator’s avatar in place of the retweeter, and credit the retweeter with a tiny link at the bottom:

Example retweet with new feature

Ultimately, this is a value judgement about whether as a retweeter you want to credit the person who passed on the information or the person who first posted it. Personally, I want to credit both, but given a choice I err towards crediting the person I know who passed the link on. I’m sure this judgement will be different for everyone, and the new system doesn’t allow for this.

2. Identity protection

There’s another issue with attribution, that anybody can claim to be retweeting you by writing RT @yourname before any kind of message, and then it looked like you said that thing, which could be something you disapprove of, such as advertising spam. There is a clear need for retweets to be attributable and for it to be harder for people to misquote others, intentionally or otherwise.

Here we see a loophole in the design of the new feature – since we can still retweet “the old way”, there is nothing to stop this behaviour continuing. If Twitter had got the redesign right, they would have the confidence to block the use of RT @name syntax in messages. I think they know that people won’t use the new feature, so they had to leave this option open – which can be used for good or bad purposes.

3. Messy

There’s no denying that my example tweet above is messy and hard to read. RT syntax is not intuitive (as I was reminded recently when explaining it to a new Twitter user). I wholeheartedly agree that there is a need to take the metadata about this being a retweet and from whom, out of the message. It’s a no-brainer that having a retweet button you can click to do it for you would also enable this metadata to be captured.

4. Untrackable

At the moment, you can’t follow the history of retweet back to its source – you can’t see how many people are retweeting a particular message. Why is this important? Because we are moving towards a social, real-time web. In the same way Google revolutionized search by looking at who was linking to a particular site (PageRank) and looking at the authority of that site, the next challenge is to build a PageRank equivalent for the social web.

Companies like Twitter need to determine what is most popular based on how many people are talking about it, and more importantly who are the people who are the most important generators of content. Looking at how many people retweet a message, and whose messages are the most retweeted, give a direct measurement for both of these. These are needed to make real-time social search a viable option.

Alistair Croll has been taking a look in more depth at the idea of a PageRank for humans over on Watching Websites.

5. Noise and Redundancy

Evan goes on to mention Noise and Redundancy as two other issues with current retweeting – that you see repeat too many retweets or too many copies of the same retweet. I don’t think these are major issues – if a tweet shows up more than once, that means more than once person thought it had value, so it is right that it should get more visibility. A “mark as read” option would be more useful than grouping all occurrences of the tweet. As for people who retweet too much, I think the solution is simple – unfollow them!

This is the point where Evan stops, and offers the new feature as the best way to combat these six issues. I think there is one other key issue he has failed to address though:

6. Freedom to comment

Possibly the most frustrating thing about retweeting today is having to tweak and edit the message so that you can fit in the RT credit and more importantly your own comment. The comment is the key part of the retweet, it’s what makes the content tailored and relevant to your audience. It’s hard at the moment – this is often done with a “<” or “<==” at the end of the tweet, followed by a comment. But there are often few characters to play with. This is completely overlooked by the new retweet feature. In the new feature, you cannot add your own commentary at all:

How to retweet

Clicking Yes posts the retweet. A retweet becomes a verbatim quote, with no personalization or commentary applied.

Changing the nature of retweets

And this is the most controversial thing about the new features. It changes the nature of a retweet into the granting of permission to another person to send their message out to all of your followers as well. You might even call it a new form of spamming.

In any medium, the message should be tailored to the audience. On Twitter, every person has a different audience. Untailored retweets are undesirable because they take away the context of the retweet. You don’t get to see why the person you are following retweeted – and this may be different for each retweeter. Some may retweet things they are impressed by, others may want to retweet things they want to ridicule. This is where grouping all retweeters together breaks down. The new design fails to accomodate the variety of tweeters and their audiences and makes Twitter more like an advertising platform than a forum for conversations and diverse opinions.

At the very least, it’s reducing a retweet to a version of Facebook’s “Like” feature rather than an opportunity to comment and add context to the content.

An alternative solution

This brings me to my proposed solution, which I believe solves all the problems mentioned above, while also preserving our right to make a retweet our own with commenting.

I propose that instead of retweet being a one click operation, it should include 2 steps:

Step 1: Click retweet on the tweet you want to share

Retweet step 1
This is exactly the same as in the new feature.

Step 2: Add your comment

The key difference I am proposing is that clicking Yes would then give you the opportunity to add a comment – a special kind of tweet which references an existing tweet:

A new way to retweet - step 2

In effect, the link to the existing tweet is additional context, much like the “in reply to” links today.

Viewing the retweet

The final difference would be how the retweeted message is displayed. The comment of the person you are following should the primary thing visible, with the original message shown underneath in context. (clicking “retweeting” would show/collapse the retweet history)

A redesigned view of retweets

This would allow content-centric conversations to happen on Twitter, much like they do currently on Facebook wall items, forum threads or Flickr photos.

Does it solve the problems?

I believe so, and it does so in a way that preserves current user behavior. Let’s look at each problem in turn:

Attribution – the originator of the tweet and the originator of the comment are separated and clearly identified, and credit is given equally to originator and retweeter.

Identity protection – this model would allow old style RTs to be blocked, eliminating the possibility of false attribution.

Messy – the original content, the retweeter, the originator, and the comment are all separate and distinct

Untrackable – this method allows just the same sort of tracking of the spread of the message and the influence of different tweeters

Noise – I think this will make Twitter streams much easier to digest, because every message will have a context you can dig into if you wish

Redundancy – Much like Gmail’s conversation threads reorder mails to show history, the RT threads would group related comments on the same retweet together, avoiding redundancy while still preserving each retweeter’s right to add their own perspective.

Freedom to comment – The retweeter can not only add a comment to the retweet, they now have the full 140 characters available to do so.

I would be interested to know why Twitter did not come up with a design like this, which seems a fairly obvious all-round win. Did they really not think of this or not notice how people use retweets? Or do they want to change Twitter into more of an advertising network? What do you think? Add you comments below.

Photo credit: birds on wire image by TarikB on Flickr.

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