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.

9 thoughts on “Twitter’s retweet – digg vs. call & response”

  1. adina,

    it’s possible twitter’s making the wrong move — their decision not to include comments make it much more likely that the RT will become a commodify of speech. But since twitter is both production and distribution of talk, that it turns talk into a form thats easily distributed, this is no surprise.

    I dont think twitter’s intending to promote canned talk, but it’s got to do something to move common behaviors into structure and out of the statement itself. And of course there’s a bennie to having all RTs point to one version of the message (from eng pt of view if not also tracking etc)….

    so users will come up with a new form. probably along lines of what we’re seeing already “…. link… (via @name)”

    echolalia — funny. but how else do echoes sound in the echo chamber? a lot of this is gestural and relational (i RT’d you — will you follow me now?) — it’s signalling. we signal w each others’ words because that’s what the medium provides. not so bad. considering that early forms of writing involved hot pokers and arm or a leg.


  2. call and response is a good idea, but let’s be real – 140 characters does not give one lots of room for comments. i usually RT as is and save my comments for future tweets. sometimes i shorten comments so i can respond inline, but that’s not always possible.

  3. I agree. However, isn’t the confusing ‘starred’ or ‘favorited’ action meant to put some special spin on a tweet I like? Retweeting seems the odd way to share, but practically effective to see new comments or other people’s spin on my thought. Favorites don’t have a strong meaning now, unless there is some view I have of my friends favorites (probably out there someplace). Perhaps this could be exploited like google readers ‘share’ mark and used in a view to replace retweeting?

  4. Due to the length constraint, a lot of retweeting is just a direct quote. If their new feature can excise those from the stream and leave only the old-style responses, it may improve the overall flow. If mentions that are actually conversational are distinct from the simple repetition, they will become more useful too.

  5. I would disagree with the statement that Twitter is implementing the wrong thing. They are well aware that many of the power users almost always are adding their own commentary (quote-and-comment). But this feature (at least in its initial phase) is not for them. They have been clear that the first phase of the built-in retweets is for the vast majority of users, who are confused by the syntax rules of RT, via, etc, and just want a simple way of taking a tweet that they have seen, and including it in their own stream. I’m sure Twitter will eventually enhance in the future to incorporate a way to have comments/conversation around it. In the meantime, we power users can just continue to retweet with our own commentary as we do today.

  6. Adrian, agree on the signalling value of RT. In addition to link-and-comment, an RT signals recognition, props, a socially visible gift in an economy of reciprocity. And there is surely value to a gesture such as basic “like” that is baked into Facebook and Friendfeed, and the “Share” baked into many other tools as Michael mentions, compounded with the network-spreading effect of the public-asymmetric twitter network. The thing is, Twitter as a conversational medium is pretty thin, and I see this decision as making it thinner. Thinking about the discussion so far, it would perhaps be better to separate the “like” action from the “comment” action, as FB/FF do.

    Also, regarding “call and response” – I’m not using the term with technical precision, and there may be even greater depth afforded with more technical precision. I am using it as an image for a type of interaction that has variation at its core, and is a gesture of interaction in addition to an interchange of content. This pattern of interaction acknowledges the sender, the message itself, and the returner. The pattern is deeply baked into human interchange such that a simple repeat is seen as immature, mocking, or broken. By varying the message, the one who varies acknowledges the sender and is herself acknowledged.

  7. Eric, I think the power user / ordinary user dichotomy here is not the core issue. Yes, baking in common patterns into code is a good thing, when it lets nongeeks to do things that took geeky aptitude before. The question is which features to bake in, and what becomes easier for the nongeeky users to do. In this case, I think we want some way to simply endorse and forward a tweet (like/share) as well as a way to add one’s own take (comment). By automating like, not automating comment, and changing a social convention that is used for comment, the conversation can potentially become more poor.

  8. I agree that Twitter seem to have adopted the weaker version of the RT, but I’m sure they’ll be planning other functionality for commented RT’s for the future.

    Equally, from what I understand of the implementation, it will effectively encourage the conversation to enter new branches and possibly increase Twitter network penetration. The chances of people following others will likely increase.

    It may be via a diluted message quality that this happens and equally it may increase the Noise to Signal ratio by just propagating already digested messages, but it will likely strengthen network co-relations further.

    Digital Signals Don’t seem to be able to add my blog above! OpenID issue.

  9. Faffing around with the Open ID seemed to dull my brain and I missed these last two sentence’s off the comment! :-s

    “Whether this adds to the quality of the platform is debatable, but it should add value to their seemingly burgeoning desire to capitalise on some of the platforms popularity with possible advertising opportunities via an easy, no user effort required, additional feature.

    I’m with you on there are better ways to improve the conversational element on the platform and I am sure they will have something planned for us twitter geeks. But in the meantime the move should improve their network strength claims.”

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