Twitter’s retweet – digg vs. call & response

When Twitter paved the cowpath, turning the Retweet social convention into a feature, their design decisions highlighted the fact that retweeting had two different social meanings.

One meaning is a “digg” – a simple, one-dimensional, unequivocal “upvote” for a post. By “retweeting”, the poster is adding their social cred to the original tweet, and spreading it to their own social network. That cheerleading is the meaning that Twitter chose in implementing Retweet as a feature. This use has a competitive dynamic to it; people measure the success of the meme by how often it is copied. The direct copy has bit of a multi-level marketing, spam-like flavor to it – I put a meme out there, and have the most success if other people take up the meme and start to hold tupperware parties for their friends.

The second meaning is a comment – copy the original tweet, and add a pithy comment with your own quick take. This pattern adds value, meaning, personality along with the forward. You’re contributing to the conversation, not just repeating what someone last said.

This is the version I strongly prefer. From the point of view of Retweet as call and response, Retweet as simple repetition sounds like echolalia, simply repeating the other person’s words directly. This is the communication style of a very small child learning to speak – or someone who has autism, schizophrenia, or some other mental disability. Only those who don’t have the ability to vary communication will repeat words directly.

I’m not sure how often I’ll use Twitter’s Retweet feature. Surely there are some times when I just want to give something a thumbs-up. I strongly I’ll continue to quote-and-comment more often to contribute to the conversation. The problem with the “cheerlead” version being baked into software is that because it will be easier, it will encourage people to simply copy rather than comment.

Twitter’s implementation of Retweet as a feature is a deep example of a principle of social design – build simple software, watch users, and then turn a carefully selected subset of the patterns they develop through use into features. It’s important to be very sensitive to how to bake the pattern in, because subtle changes can have major effects on the social dynamic of the system.

Twitter watched and implemented, but they implemented what is, in my opinion, the wrong thing. Or rather, they implemented the thing that turns the Twitter communication pattern into something more like competition, more like spam, and less like conversation.

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