Reshaping the Retweet

For those who Twitter, there is an interesting debate going on in the tech sphere about Twitter’s move towards formalizing an organic practice that has become one of the support beams of the Twitter experience: the retweet a/k/a “RT”. An RT is the copying and pasting of another’s tweet into your own tweet, preceded by the letters “RT.” It has long been used to point followers attention to items of interest and, more importantly, to curry favor with the person who posted the original message.

Twitter is a primitive service and has left most of the innovation and drafting of the rules of engagement to its user base and third party applications developers. Many of the original conventions evolved out of a very poor (read: nonexistent) search function. While a great deal of the original limitations have been resolved by Twitter, the RT remains a user convention with no set format. Until now.

Last week, Twitter stepped forward with the announcement that it will be supplying a button allowing users to automatically repost someone’s tweet. While this will certainly speed up the retweeting process, it also will limit other positive aspects of the former practice. The most notable omission appears to be the inability of the retweeter to edit the original tweet.

Tweets often contain links and RT’s often contain original tweets that contain links. I have seen it stated by so-called Twitter experts that RTs without some description as to why the link should be followed are less likely to encourage a click-through, in the same way tweets recommending that others follow another Twitter user are less effective without an explanation as to why the recommended user should be followed. The added text renders the RT more credible and can offer much-needed background to an ongoing conversation in Twitter’s highly disjointed medium. 

Furthermore, by removing the “RT” and original user name from the new tweet, it will be quite difficult to track who may have RT’d the original (or unoriginal but first-in-time) information. Tracking RT’s has become a popular means of determining a particular user’s social worth to the collective on-line information-churning hive. Other social services have embraced the RT and have employed RT’s and click-throughs in assessing such ephemeral qualities as “karma” or influence.

On the flip side, experts suggest that the new Twitter-sponsored format will make the practice easier and more accessible to a wider audience.

This debate is quite interesting from one of my perspectives – that of a user trying to grapple with how to best manipulate on-line tools to promote my own presence and practice. It is also interesting from my other perspective – that of a curious observer of human behavior and interaction in non-traditional environments. How will the new RT method affect users’ experience and communication habits? Will it affect that experience? Will users continue to employ the old traditions in order to maintain the benefits of that system or will users adopt the new button and innovate another method of tracking the value of a nugget of information and their overall worth? What do you think?

And while I am at it: how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie pop? The world may never know. 😉


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