In Defense Of The Re-Tweet

There’s been some talk of late in blogs and on Friendfeed that the humble re-tweet might be, in fact, at best stupid, worse, a nuisance. As Louis Gray writes in his piece:

“Twitter is a land where 140 characters is all you’ve got to express yourself. If you think you don’t have enough interesting data to share 140 characters of your own, but instead need to piggyback on someone else’s tweet, then maybe you should rethink why you’re using the service.”

Louis earlier suggested that begging for re-tweets is lazy; that repeating what somebody else has said doesn’t add anything to the conversation.

He isn’t alone; Dave Winer and others this week have been beating the re-tweet into submission, suggesting that what Twitter needs is the ‘like’ service that other social networks use (Friendfeed, Digg, Reddit etc).

While I agree that there are right and wrong ways to re-tweet submissions – or, indeed, to ask for them to be re-submitted from your followers – I think completely dismissing the re-tweet is misguided. It serves a purpose on Twitter that makes it unique to that platform.

The Re-Tweet Gives Credit

However you choose to re-submit a tweet – using RT, re-tweet or via (I will address the differences later) – it’s important that credit is given to the original poster. The re-tweet does this effectively and with a minimal waste of characters.

Additionally, the re-tweet is (or should/can be) an endorsement of the person, too. When I re-tweet somebody I’m fairly mindful about whom it is I’m re-tweeting. Even the most obnoxious ass is capable of at least one good tweet, much like every amateur is capable of one pro golf shot. It doesn’t mean the rest was up to par. I take that into consideration when I RT; I’m saying to you, this content is good, and this is a good guy.

Because you give credit, the original poster has an excellent chance of picking up some new followers and meeting some new folk. And vice versa.

This is probably the most important point, and where the ‘like’ system fails, unless that also gives credit, which kind of makes it a re-tweet, and therefore redundant.

The Ripple Levels The Playing Field

Used intelligently, the re-tweet is a convenient but powerful way to share content with your followers, and beyond. Most of the re-tweets you see only appear on your stream because one of your followers re-tweeted something from somebody you’re not following. This opens the entire Twitter network up to you. Sure, there will be some crossover from time to time, but who cares? You can ignore that just as easily as the other 90% of tweets that don’t interest you.

The ripple effect of Twitter means that it is theoretically possible for somebody with just a handful of followers to see their update re-tweeted throughout the entire network. Google’s Matt Cutts probably isn’t reading your stuff, but he may well be paying a lot of attention to one of your follower’s follower’s.

It’s certainly true that a ‘name’ on the platform has far more chance of this happening than the new guy, but it’s far easier to achieve this on Twitter than any other social network. It’s possible, albeit unlikely, for a total newbie to hit the top spot on Reddit; effectively impossible on Digg. The re-tweet makes Twitter a level playing field for information – if what you’re saying is good or significant enough, it will reach a lot of people.

A Re-Tweet Is Not Necessarily A Like

Often with a re-tweet you’re sharing information that is news-related. For example, it might be something about a natural disaster, military action, the death of somebody famous, and so on. This is important content to share with your followers, but it’s not something you like. If anything, you probably don’t like it. Hence, giving a story about a plane crash ‘two thumbs up’, or any kind of checkbox mark of approval that one often finds on other social networks, would possibly be a little inappropriate.

Likes work on other networks because those same submissions are also supported by comments. Why did I like it? Why didn’t I like it? Well, I’ll tell you. In the simple setup of Twitter, you’re not afforded the luxury of exposition. You have to keep it brief. Sometimes, if you can’t explain why you like something, it can come over as a little awkward. Even sinister.

Not All Re-Tweets Are The Same

In his article on re-tweets, Dave Winer suggests that metadata should be stored and displayed within a given tweet, showing how often it was re-tweeted (or liked). That’s a good idea on paper. The problem is that not all re-tweets are the same, and subtle variations can make or break them.

Most of the time, the linked content of a tweet is what is being approved; being re-tweeted. But sometimes, it’s the accompanying comment. Sometimes there is no content. Sometimes it’s just the sheer bizarreness of the submission that folks want to share with their network. What then? Moreover, any ten re-tweets could contain the same link accompanied by subtle changes to the prose. Who liked what?

You Can Put Your Own Spin On A Re-Tweet

If you study the pattern of re-tweets it’s fairly interesting – some folk re-tweet a submission exactly as it was, while others tweak the update and add their own spin. This is a positive thing, and eliminates any suggestions that all you’re doing is pushing a button (which, incidentally, is all you’re doing when you like something on any other network). What’s great about this is then seeing that spun re-tweet get re-tweeted.

I think adding your own stuff to a re-tweet is admirable. Some frown upon it, as if the original submissions is a work of art or a treasure to be left untouched, but that’s nonsense. Sure, if you can’t improve on it, don’t try, and certainly don’t take away the humour or something meaningful in the tweet, but by all means upgrade it if you can. Some tweets may contain a great link but are surrounded by lousy prose – if you re-tweet that, it’s almost like saying, “Hey, Twitter, I can’t write, either!”

The via tag has quickly developed as a very appeasing way of crediting the original poster while putting your own spin on their work.

It’s hard to add spin to a like, unless you also comment upon it, which you may as well do in the re-tweet.

People Are Lazy. And Tired. And Busy.

Most people aren’t aware that you can browse any user’s Favourites on Twitter. Just visit their profile and click on the favourites tab. There you go. For example, here’s Ashton Kutcher’s. Here’s Mike Arrington’s. Now you know this, you’ll probably check out a few other celebrities and have some fun. But will you do this tomorrow? Next week? I doubt it – pretty soon you’ll have forgotten the option even exists.

And this is also what will happen with any kind of ‘like’ system that replaces re-tweets and ranks them somewhere else. You won’t notice, because the ripple effect that sends re-tweets to your follower’s followers will be lost. And even if you do, you’ll forget about it within a few days. If your feed isn’t picking up the data, you will remain blissfully unaware of it unless you take action. Which means work. Which means you’ll probably pass.

And if the feed is picking up the data, it might as well come in the form of a re-tweet. What’s the difference? (See next.)

Twitter works really well because it’s real time; how often do you go back and read yesterday’s tweets? Never, right? Maybe to check out your favourite user or because they came up in a search. But yesterday’s Twitter is like yesterday’s newspapers – a fantastic archive, but not always relevant to now.

Even If We Did Have A Like Button

What then? If I mark a tweet as ‘liked’, does that mean I’ll then automatically post that to my stream, saying, “@Sheamus liked: blah blah blah”. How is that different, both in a submission and character-length sense, as “@Sheamus RT blah blah blah”. If anything, it takes up more letters. And if it simply gets tagged, then unless my followers are actively looking out for what I liked, it’s probably going to go un-seen. It’s okay for the tiny percentage of Twitterers whose loyal network hangs on their every word; for the 99.99 per cent of the rest, it doesn’t work like that.

And If We Get A Like, I Want A Dislike, Too

One of the (many) things I object to most on Facebook is you can’t say you don’t like something. I dislike lots of things on Facebook, but I’m forced to either vote it up or abstain. Nobody notices the latter. If I get a like, I want a dislike, too. Or at least a ‘Sheamus chose to abstain from commenting on this tweet for reasons important to him that you probably wouldn’t understand or agree with,’ or similar. At least then they’ll know I didn’t actually like it.

When Re-Tweets Turn Bad

It’s not all good. There are certainly times when the re-tweet is not the best choice. For an update on Twitter to be worthy of sharing with your followers I believe you need to consider two things.

  1. Is this article/website/content really good?
  2. Will it appeal to my followers?

This seems pretty obvious, but by having just a quick scan across the Twitter stream, it clearly isn’t. For the re-tweet to have value the tweet must be valuable. That’s a relative term, and what’s valuable to you isn’t always going to be valuable to me, but it should always deliver value to somebody.

And it doesn’t have to be breaking news or social media 101 – wit has value, too. As does humility.

Don’t get me wrong – nothing you ever submit to Twitter will ever appeal to everybody. I could find and tweet the solution to world peace and somebody would complain to Biz Stone. But I don’t think it unreasonable to expect it to appeal to enough people to warrant the share.

What’s also pretty blatant on the network is how often folk re-tweet something they clearly haven’t read. Either the headline was enough (which says a lot about modern culture), or they’re re-tweeting out of habit, or because they want to get the attention of the name who shared the original content. Don’t do that. Read the link thoroughly – who knows what you’re actually sharing with your followers? A re-tweet by definition carries your stamp of approval, whether the news is good or bad.

It can also get tiresome to see the really popular stuff getting re-tweeted en masse. This is somewhat akin to my moans about recommending the Twitter top 100 in #followfriday, too. These guys don’t need your help. That said, with estimates suggesting Twitter now has some 20 million users, there’s a good chance that a lot of those folk won’t see it unless somebody – maybe you – re-tweets it.

I’m also not sure of the point of adding the extra names each time you re-tweet – surely the originator of the tweet should be the only one credited? The problem here is never being sure if the re-tweet has been spun, and this is where via once again comes in useful. You credit the original tweeter at the beginning of your RT, and then add a via at the end, as a courtesy to the person who re-shared it that you are following, and everybody is happy. (See the image at the start of this post for a genuine example.)

And while it’s certainly true that newcomers often struggle to understand the basic concept of the re-tweet, that’s something Twitter could take care of by adding a simple RT button to the homepage. You know, like every Twitter client ever made.

You Can Filter Out Re-Tweets

If re-tweets really upset you that much, you can filter them out in TweetDeck. Select the pane you want, click on the ‘Filter this column’ button, select minus (-) from the menu, and enter ‘RT @’ in the text box. Problem solved.

(Although that said, while you might not like to re-tweet yourself, I’m sure you don’t mind when others re-tweet your stuff, right? Do this and you’ll miss those moments of glory.)

What I’d Like To See

I mentioned Favourites above and it remains an overlooked part of Twitter’s content. Despite my reservations earlier, there’s definitely the potential for a feature there that could be made available to stat freaks like myself.

If Twitter created a ranking system that showed the most-favourited tweets, broken down in the last hour, 24 hours, week, month and so on, across the entire network – as well as just my followers, maybe even specific groups of them – that’s something I’d be interested in.

This data is kind of available thanks to trend-tracking services like Twitscoop, but it’s not quite the same thing. Making mention of something in a tweet and marking it as a favourite are two very different animals, much in the same way that ‘liking’ something does not mean you choose to share it with everybody else.

Maybe when you Favourite something, a minute later it gets tweeted to your stream, or picked by a Twitter-powered @favourite bot that forwards it to those who choose to follow. Maybe it’s highlighted in gold and accompanied by a beautiful melody sung by a choir that all of Twitter enjoys. Maybe these are all on/off options.

By making favourites more significant, you can have your ‘like’ – and there’s no reason I can think of why that can’t exist happily alongside the simple, effective, and uniquely different, re-tweet.