A bit of a moan about Twitter’s new “retweet” function

I’m not happy about the new Twitter retweeting system. I’m blogging about it now in the hope that in a couple of weeks I’ll look back and think “what was I moaning about?” It takes time to get used to anything new, so I’m hoping that’s what will happen here.

Up until now, Twitter has watched and understood its user activity, then implemented new features based on that user activity. For example, the evolution of @ replies. Twitter noticed that people were interacting by putting an @ symbol before a username, and built on it to create the replies feature that we know today. However, the new way of retweeting doesn’t actually replicate or build on what users had been doing.

How it used to work

Retweeting had evolved to work like this: you copied and pasted the tweet, including the originator’s username, into your update box. Then you added RT at the beginning (eg “RT @username1: Have a look at this funny thing!”).

It had its flaws, of course. Often, including the RT and the originator’s username would take the character limit beyond 140 and you’d have to edit the original tweet down (sometimes this was done badly). Then there was the problem of retweeting something someone’s already retweeted. Do you include both usernames (eg “RT @username2 RT username1: Have a look at this funny thing!”) or just the originator’s username? Or just the most recent retweeter’s name? Or scrap all of that and reword it, adding a “via” at the end?

But, despite its flaws, lots of clients (including Dabr, the client I use on my phone) and add-ons (including the greasemonkey script I use on the web) include a retweet feature that works in this way. It puts the whole tweet, including “RT @username” at the beginning, into your update box – you then edit it where necessary, and update. And these client ways of retweeting work well, in my opinion.

How it works now

But the new “retweet” doesn’t work like that. Now you press “retweet” and it posts the original tweet, wholesale, into your followers streams. It has the originator’s name at the beginning with a small symbol to show that it’s a retweet, and it shows your name underneath, in small letters: “retweeted by @username”.

I don’t like it! I know they had a big job on their hands trying to come up with something that took into account the flaws with the old system, but I don’t believe it works. Here’s why:

  • No ability to add context. This is my biggest gripe. Under the new system, you can’t add anything to the message you’re retweeting. What if I wanted to retweet an opinion that I found, say, distasteful – but also wanted to point out that I didn’t agree with it? What if I’m retweeting something as part of a bigger conversation I’m having with a group of users, and wanted to add a message about how it might be useful to that conversation? On Friday, one person I follow wrote “any scriptwriters on here?” I wanted to retweet her message, but to direct it to a couple of people I know who are scriptwriters, by adding their @usernames in brackets at the end. Instead, I had to just retweet the message and hope that my scriptwriter buddies might spot my retweet in their stream, instead of having the insurance of it appearing in their @replies. Not having the ability to add to a retweet is going to have to change the way I tweet, which is a shame.
  • No way to judge context. When my eyes scan the stream and see a (new style) retweet, I find I need to know who is retweeting it before I can fully understand the message. I’m thinking “who wants to show me this?” I find I need to see my friend’s name first – that’s what tells me why I’m seeing it. “This is going to be funny”, “this is going to be serious”, “this one is interesting to photographers”, “this one is political”. I find myself looking for the “retweeted by…” first, before I read the tweet.

    Perhaps it’s something I’ll get used to, but this lack of context means I’m finding it more difficult to scan my stream. It’s like following someone new, but all the time! When I follow someone new, it always takes time to get used to seeing their name in my stream. For a while I am thrown and, on seeing their tweets, have to give myself a moment to remember who the person is and how come I’m following them. Now I find I’m having to do the same for retweets. It’s an extra “think-layer” that I wasn’t expecting to have to go through.

  • No quick way to see how many of your friends retweeted something. When it says “retweeted by [your friend] and 4 others”, why can’t I click to see who those others are? Using the “old method” I could gauge a tweet’s popularity within my social circle. I would see the same message three or four times in my stream – which, yes, could be seen as a flaw, but also served as a popularity-meter for the tweet. Now I get it once (which makes sense) but I don’t immediately get to see how many other friends wanted me to see it (which removes a level of context). Yes, I can go to the “retweeted by others” link to find this out, but again, it’s an extra click and an extra “think-layer”.
  • Your retweets don’t appear in your own stream. It’s as if they’re not real tweets. Using the old method, you are effectively saying “I want my followers to see this message” and your followers are treating the message in the same way that they treat other messages from you. Now the message bypasses you and just appears in your followers’ stream. Yes, it means that tweets can’t get mis-attributed, but now your followers not only have to judge the context for themselve, but they can’t reply to your retweets. I guess this is a combination of the first two problems in that I can’t use someone else’s tweet to begin a conversation or make a point.
  • Tweets of yours that have been retweeted don’t appear in your @replies. Looking at your @replies is a quick way of seeing what sort of feedback you’re getting, both via people replying to your tweets, and people passing on your tweets – but now, the two forms of feedback are separated by two or three clicks. To see who’s retweeting you, you have to go to “retweets”, then click on “your tweets, retweeted”. Not intuitive and not part of your overall Twitter conversation.

I guess I could sum up my discomfort thus: I feel that, rather than build retweets into the loop (as users did, then Twitter clients built upon), Twitter has taken them out of the loop. Now, you’re simply pushing other people’s content to your followers. Twitter is a conversation – but retweets aren’t part of that conversation any more.

5 thoughts on “A bit of a moan about Twitter’s new “retweet” function

  1. I don’t really see the problem that everyone seems to be having with Twitter’s Beta on retweets – it is just that a Beta and they are looking for feedback. So, send them feedback. Personally I don’t use Twitter in the browser, I like most Twitterers out there use an application interface such as TweetDeck. My preference is to use DestroyTwitter to manage, watch and post tweets. They have an inbuilt system for re-tweeting that copies the message wholesale and then I can comment and add opinion to this before it is submitted. I can see the frustration with Twitter’s built in system posting wholesale automatically without allowing commentary – but it is quick and simple right?! If that’s all I wanted to do then it is labour-saving. Twitter no doubt will extend the Beta, get more opinions from people and improve this feature. But it won’t stop the majority of us from using RT in our preferred applications or typing out retweets with commentary.

    • Kevin: I did send feedback a couple of days ago.

      And I do appreciate that it must have been difficult for the Twitter guys to find a way of addressing everything they wanted to. Ev’s explanation says “While it would have been pretty trivial to do the way some clients have, the reason it’s taken a while is because we wanted to do something a little more fundamental that we thought would add a lot more value.” I’m not yet convinced that it does add “a lot more” value, because it feels that a lot of what I perceived as value has been taken away.

      You say “I like most Twitterers out there use an application interface such as TweetDeck”. Actually, I’d hesitate to agree that “most” Twitterers use other interfaces (referred to in the post as “clients”). I’ve no idea what the stats are, but I’d guess the majority of Twitterers use the web. It may be that your friends and followers don’t (nor mine) because they are slightly more techie than the average user.

      FWIW I didn’t get on with TweetDeck and I’m not sure that I would be able to install it on my work PC anyway (like many people, my work PC is “locked down” so I don’t have the admin permissions to install stuff myself).

      Yes, the new function would be labour saving if it did everything I wanted to do (as @troynt’s Twitter script and Dabr, the two tools I use, do). But it doesn’t. So at the moment, my perception is that Twitter have used a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

      I’ve used words like “yet” and “perceived” throughout this comment because – as I said at the top of the post – I’m fully aware that I might just be reacting badly to change and will feel differently about this in time. :)

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