The Twitter retweet convention — where a user copies the text of another’s tweet, prefixes an ‘RT @another’ on the front, and then posts this amended copy — has become commonplace, widely supported by Twitter clients as a single mouseclick. However, Twitter has resisted making this convention part of the Twitter platform as a core primitive.
Note that ‘@username’ was at one time a convention, used to draw a specific user’s attention to a tweet, but the Twitter folks quickly saw the utility of that as a means of communication, so they rapidly incorporated that into the platform’s design. And retweets are becoming a metric used to determine the relative influence of twitterers, along with follower count, more or less playing the role that links play in the blogosphere.
Now, they have decided it is time for the microsyntactic convention of ‘RT’ to join ‘@’ in the infrastructure:
Project Retweet: Phase One - Biz Stone
Some of Twitter’s best features are emergent: people inventing simple but creative ways to share, discover, and communicate. One such convention is retweeting. When you want to call more attention to a particular tweet, you copy/paste it as your own, reference the original author with an @mention, and finally, indicate that it’s a retweet. The process works although it’s a bit cumbersome and not everyone knows about it.
Retweeting is a great example of Twitter teaching us what it wants to be. The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact and the more efficient dissemination of information across the entire Twitter ecosystem is something we very much want to support. That’s why we’re planning to formalize retweeting by officially adding it to our platform and Twitter.com.
Biz goes on to state that they will begin tooling an API with RT capabilities included, so that developers of Twitter applications can start to think about integration with this new capability.
Most important, Biz spells out how the user experience is supposed to work, and clarifying that RT will continue to work much as it has in the past. In other words, if you are following me and I retweet something from my friend @gregarious then you would see the retweet even if you aren’t following @gregarious yourself.
Why is this important? Because it supports the convention as it has emerged. It would be easy for Twitter to coopt the convention and make it work in a different fashion. In particular, they could have adopted the same model of visibility that they implemented in their last reworking of ‘@’ replies (or mentions), which is widely referred to as #fixreplies. In that case, the Twitter team decided that the way that ‘@’ had been working was annoying. In the older approach, if you were following me and I replied to my friend @gregarious then you would see the comment I made to him even if you weren’t following him. They changed these semantics so that you would only see the comment to @gregarious if you were following him too.
The logic of this is that some part of the Twitter community expressed the view that this was creating a noisy and confusing stream, because a lot of tweets would be directed to people they weren’t following, so they would only see half of these conversations.
Others — me included — suggested that the convention had emerged in the way that it had, organically, and it has many interesting properties, not the least of which is that users would see part of a conversation and then might visit the other half’s Twitter page to see the rest, and then perhaps start following that other person. When the half conversations are taken away, you might never know that the other half was there at all.
Twitter might have made this some sort of opt-in or opt-out feature, but they argued they could not think of a way to do so efficiently. They have waffled, suggesting they might revisit this in the future, but it is all very opaque.
It’s worth commenting that various counter-conventions have emerged to circumvent the restricted semantics of “@’, which is why you see ‘.@’ used widely now. Twitter does not recognize this as a @reply, so if I post ‘.@gregarious wake up!’ all my followers get to see it, and know that @gregarious has overslept.
However, retweets won’t look the same: the ‘RT’ and the ‘@username’ will not appear in the text portion of the retweet. These will become metadata, displayed in some other fashion. On one hand, this helps a great deal with the text squish problem, where adding ‘RT @gregarious’ at the front of a message may lead to the original message no longer fitting. On the other, though, the retweets might not stand out as they do presently. Designers of Twitter clients will simply have this as another design challenge, and I am sure that they will rise to the occasion.
And the last, and most serious issue in this reimplementation of retweets: the comments that people put on retweets won’t be supported. This is a serious shift away from the everyday convention:
RT @gregarious My head is killing me. | Yeah, take an aspirin.
where the text after the ‘|’ is a comment left by me. Other ways of offsetting comments are in use, like ‘<—’, ‘«’, and so on.
Twitter’s aim is architectural in an obvious way: they want to simply point at the original tweet from every retweet instead of creating 5000 slightly mangled copies.
But they are going to have to extend their implementation to allow users to leave an (optional) comment. Perhaps a second 140 character tweet twinned with the retweet? The outcome of this would be interesting since the comments added to the original tweet could be aggregated, like the chat in Friendfeed, although participation in the chat would still be distributed.
At any rate, this is the rub: if Twitter takes away our ability to comment on the retweets, people will start running around outside the implementation to get back the capabilities that have been taken away.
When the company behind a platform decides to take a user convention, like ‘RT’ and implement it as part of the infrastructure it is pulled from the ultrastucture, where the users live and invent. If the implementation doesn’t fit the contours of use that have become convention then there is a misfit. This misfit could be a gap, where less than the convention has been implemented. And a gap like that leads to a thunderclap, just like the vacuum caused by a lightning bolt creates a vacuum in the sky, and the surrounding air moves in to fill it.
I am hoping that the feedback from the community and the client developers will lead them toward a solution to the retweet comment problem before it actually surfaces. Biz stated that this would be phase one of Project Retweet, but I hope they aren’t planning to defer the comment issue to phase two.
[Other analysis: Jennifer Van Grove does a good job laying out a wish list for various sorts of filtered timelines based on a systemic RT, as well as the downsides of the new RT.]