Users still aren't right about changes

September 20, 2009 in Data,Internet

Once again, the self-proclaimed "experts" of social media are revealed to be not much more than some anecdotes and a keyboard. The latest is Dan Zarrella, who has written a vitriolic attack on Twitter's planned adoption of the retweet as an official mechanism. Zarrella does some excellent work in other areas, but I find him completely off base here.

Zarrella absolutely hates the way retweets will be presented, and as such falls victim to a common problem in design: people think the status quo can not be improved, because of their perceived existing investment in it. I wrote at greater length on the topic here: When are users right about design changes? Every time a major site makes a change - be it Ebay's background or Facebook's news feed, someone gets upset. Yet, in a couple months this will all be forgotten and the new system will be fully adopted - and I'm tired of seeing this sort of premature and uninformed attack ad nauseum.

The most bizarre part of Zarrella's rant is that Twitter is not eliminating the current retweet "mechanism" (if such it can even be called); it is merely creating a real one under the same name. If Zarrella and his Twitter pals find the official implementation lacking, they can go on using the "RT @username" syntax to their heart's content. No one will stop them or complain.

Of course, there is one thing giving Zarrella pause - Twitter's announcement has forced the RT camp to acknowledge that all they really do is throw those key words ahead of existing tweets and rebroadcast them. I could as easily write "ReT @username" or "@username RT" because there is no official syntax. There's no such thing as a "RT", just a loosely-attributed non-original string of text. This is the lacking data model I so often espouse.

Google, Digg, Facebook - every major site which involves some sort of promotion or recommendation has found a way to do so which preserves the original content under the name of its creator. Twitter remains the lone example of a service whose community encourages the blatant copying (and sometimes editing) of another user's work for the purpose of recommending it to others. The new retweet proposal finally brings Twitter back into the realm of sensibility, where every new retweet does not create another datapoint but rather instances an original.

(In the back of my mind I'm beginning to suspect that the most vocal anti-new-retweet people are angry because they gain a lot of Twitterverse currency via their retweets; the new system will rob them of their perceived authority by revealing they did not actually come up with the information in question.)

The concept of editing a retweet is strange - if you are retweeting something, then you should retweet it as it is. If you want to comment directly on a tweet, then do so. Do not combine the two into a bastardized synthesis of two thoughts. This is an example of functionality which has developed because of Twitter's limitations, not because it is a best-case solution. And it most certainly isn't; changing the content robs the retweet stream of its substance. The current retweet process arose because people wanted to indicate whether or not they like the content of someone else's tweet. In this guise, "RT" really means, "Someone else said this and I'm changing a substantial portion of their 160 characters, but want to loosely attribute it back to them even though I know that you, my reader, will never really check out that person's timeline." Can you sense my frustration?

I find other elements of Zarrella's tirade odd:

If more than one of my followers ReTweet the same Tweet, the screenshots seem to indicate that the ReTweet won’t appear more than once in my timline, it will simply be updated to say “ReTweeted by @user1 and @user2…” The problem here is that if @user1 ReTweets at 1pm and @user2 does it at 2pm, that Tweet will have been buried in my timeline and I won’t see it again.

As I've stated, I would never want to see a given tweet twice. This is an absurd request, made possible only because the current retweet system must work within the confines of what Twitter currently allows - and since Twitter only allows new tweets, not retweets, they show up multiple times. This paragraph seems to assume that Zarrella is haphazardly omniscient - he will miss the 1pm tweet but catch the 2pm showing. And what if he doesn't? Then it would be buried anyway, and none of this matters. In other words, Zarrella wants his timeline cluttered with the same information multiple times. Is there anyone else out there who is willing to go on the record as such? Would you also like Google to list out every link to a site? Or Digg to show every time a site is submitted? My personal interpretation of the screenshots is that retweets will be updated to the time of the most recent tweet, preserving uniqueness but following the chronology of the retweet.

But at the end of the day, Zarrella's complaint isn't about functionality, its about design. He is scared that he might have to change his behavior:

Most active Twitter users use third party desktop and mobile clients to Tweet, and there is no way of telling how those developers will indicate ReTweets in this new format just yet. The Tweets will not contain the “RT @username” prefix. There will no longer be a commonly understood format. Scanning my friend’s timeline is how I use Twitter, and I suspect how many of you do too. The new ReTweet format will make that much harder.

This is laughable. Let's think: currently, developers have no way of knowing whether a tweet has been retweeted except to look for vague prefixes (Zarrella introduced me to "via", which I wasn't even aware was universally accepted). In the new system, there will be a programmatic flag. Is Zarrella really so naive as to think that this doesn't give greater flexibility and power to developers? This allows the addition of Digg-inspired retweet badges, for example. Moreover, is scanning a timeline for these variables length-strings really more effective than a design change?

It's really amazing how change scares people once they feel comfortable with a given system, even if a) the change is universally better and b) the current system will hardly be disturbed. The comments on Zarrella's piece at once confirm these fears but also the happy knowledge that aversion to changes dictated by another power is as natural as its ultimate acceptance is unavoidable.

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