I've been a Twitter user for almost two years now and I have always been impressed by the emergent behavior that has developed from simply giving people a text box with 140 character limit. The folks at Twitter have also done a good job of noticing some these emergent behaviors and making them formal features of the site. Both hashtags and @replies are examples of emergent community conventions in authoring tweets that are now formal features of the site.

Twitter recently added retweets to this list with Project Retweet. After using this feature for a few days I've found that unlike hashtags and @replies, the way this feature has been integrated into the Twitter experience is deeply flawed. Before I talking about the problems with Project Retweet, I should talk about how the community uses retweeting today.

Retweeting 101: What is it and why do people do it?

Retweeting is akin to the practice of forwarding along interesting blog posts and links to your friends via email. A retweet repeats the content of a person's tweet (sometimes edited for brevity) along with a reference to the user who is being retweeted. Often times people also add some commentary to the retweets. Examples of both styles of retweets are shown below.

Figure 1: Retweet without commentary

Figure 2: Retweet with added comment

Unlike hashtags and @replies, the community conventions aren't as consistent with retweets. Below are two examples of retweets from my home page which use different prefixes and separators from the one above to indicate the item is a retweet and the user's comment respectively.

Figure 3: Different conventions in retweeting

However there are many issues with retweeting not being a formal feature of Twitter. For one, it is often hard for new users to figure out what's going on when they see people posting updates prefixed with strange symbols and abbreviations. Another problem is that users who want to post a retweet now have to deal with the fact that the original tweet may have taken up all or most of the 140 character limit so there may be little room to credit the author let alone add commentary.

Thus I was looking forward to retweeting becoming a formal feature of Twitter so that these problems would be addressed. Unfortunately, while one of these problems was fixed more problems were introduced.

Flaw #1: Need to visit multiple places to see all retweets of your content

Before the introduction of the retweet feature, users could go to http://www.twitter.com/replies to see all posts that reference their name which would include @replies and retweets. The new Twitter features fragments this in an inconsistent manner.

Figure 4: Current Twitter sidebar

Now users have to visit http://www.twitter.com/replies to see people who has retweeted their posts using community conventions (i.e. copy and pasting then prefixing "RT" to a tweet) and then visit http://twitter.com/retweeted_of_mine to see who has retweeted their posts by clicking the Retweet link in the Twitter web user interface. There will be different people in both lists.

Figure 5: Retweets in the Replies/Mentions page

Figure 6: Retweets on the "Your tweets, retweeted" page

It is surprising to me that Twitter didn't at least include posts that start with RT followed by your username in http://twitter.com/retweeted_of_mine as well.

Flaw #2: No way to add commentary on what you are retweeting

As I mentioned earlier, it is fairly common for people to retweet a status update and then add their own commentary. The retweet feature built into Twitter ignores this common usage pattern and provides no option to add your own commentary.

Figure 7: The Retweet prompt

This omission is particularly problematic if you disagree with what you are sharing and want to clarify to your followers that although you find the tweet interesting you aren't endorsing the opinion. 

Flaw #3: Retweets don't show up in Twitter apps

One of the other surprising changes is that Twitter retweets have been introduced in a backwards-incompatible manner into the API. This means that retweets created using the Twitter retweet button do not show up in 3rd party applications that use the Twitter API. See below for an example of what I see in Echofon versus the Twitter web experience and notice the missing tweet.

Figure 8: Twitter website showing a retweet

Figure 9: The retweet is missing in Echofon

Again, I find this surprising since it would have been straightforward to keep retweets in the API and exposing them as if they were regular old school retweets prefixed with "RT".

Flaw #4: Pictures of people I don't know in my stream

The last major problem with the Twitter retweet feature is that it breaks user expectation of the stream. Until this feature shipped, users could rest assured that the only content they saw in their stream was content they had explicitly asked for by subscribing to a user. Thus when you see someone in your stream the person's user name and avatar are familiar to you.

With the new retweet feature, the Twitter team has decided to highlight the person being retweeted and treat the person who I've subscribed to that did the retweeting as an afterthought. Not only does this confuse users at first (who is this person showing up in my feed and why?) but it also assumes that the content being retweeted is more important than who did the retweeting. This is an unfortunate assumption since in many cases the person who did the retweeting adds all the context.

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