Trust Agents, Ideaviruses, and the Retweet Misstep

The developers at Twitter rolled out a new retweeting feature in the last few days, and I’m not a big fan. A few people on Twitter asked me why I don’t like it, so I wanted to take a few minutes to explain why.

By and large, I agree with most of what Lisa Barone says in her post Why Twitter’s New Retweet Feature Sucks. I’d like to add more to her point that the new RT function “puts strangers in my stream.” But perhaps the first thing we should cover is…

What The Developers Were Thinking

As I was writing this, I took a look at why the good folks at Twitter made the change. I’ll summarize Evan Williams’ post Why Retweet Works The Way It Does to give the problem with “organic” retweets:

  1. They make it hard to tell who’s saying what.
  2. They’re mangled and messy
  3. They’re redundant
  4. They’re noisy
  5. They’re untrackable

I agree with most of his points, but the move seems like a lot of the policy changes I see in the Army: because a few idiots do something unintended, the DA comes up with a new policy that keeps idiots from doing that – but it also makes it so that everyone else has to learn to do something “the new and better way” when it would’ve been easier to crack down on the idiots and get them in line. Granted, the Army is a hierarchical organization that can get people in line, whereas Twitter can’t – but the same mentality seems to be at play here.

It’s clear that people use Twitter in all sorts of ways, which is why some of us need to write posts showing different ways to use Twitter. So, whereas I don’t want to project my way of using Twitter on everyone else, the general frustration and dislike of the new function shows that enough of us use it in similar ways.

Organic Retweets – It’s All About Trust

That said, one of the biggest benefits I get from Twitter is that it serves as reliable content filter for me. There’s a smallish group of people who I rely on to RT good content. To use Chris’s ideas from Trust Agents, these are my trust agents, and they add a ton of value to the network for me.

With organic retweets, I don’t have to cognitively process all of the anatomy that Evan mentions in his post – when I see a RT by one of my trust agents, the “trust factor” is evaluated at an unconscious level since I see their avatar. I don’t have to look at somebody else’s mug and their content and then have to figure out whether I should trust their content.

So, here’s the difference. Organic RTs look like this:

Organic RTs

The new RTs look like this:

New RTs

See how much quicker you see what’s going on with organic RTs versus the new RTs? I doubt it’s just me that uses the avatar as a filter to determine what I should read. The processing becomes even more difficult when you have a sufficiently large network – Twitter’s web interface already doesn’t scale well, but with the new RTs, it could become even more difficult to use.

Which brings me to Evan’s third point about “redundancy.” If eight of my trust agents RT something, it’s not redundant – it’s letting me know that whatever is being retweeted is influential enough that many people in my network find it worthwhile to talk about it.

Smoothness and Ideaviruses

Let’s talk about ideaviruses and smoothness (a la Seth and Unleashing the Ideavirus) for a second. One of the factors that makes an idea go viral is the ease with which sneezers can pass it along. Organic RTs made spreading ideas really easy precisely because of the extraordinary weight that trust agents have when it comes to sneezing, and seeing their avatars instead of some random person added a lot of smoothness to people who wanted to spread a particular idea. The more a given person has to evaluate the credibility of any given content, the less they’re likely to send it along.

And while many people may be glad to see it become harder for commercial ideas to spread, we also have to remember the role that Twitter played in the recent U.S. and Iranian elections. One of the things that makes Twitter so valuable is because ideas can spread quickly – and the combination of split-second trust, RT saturation, and the smoothness of spreading ideas from organic retweets set the stage for Twitter’s rapid rise as the place to share ideas on the Internet.

Keeping Things Private

Twitter lists haven’t been around for that long, and I for one like them. It took me a while to figure out how I was going to use them, mind you, but I’ve found a few really good uses for them – the best use for me being private lists.

Given that I’m a coach, I have a list of all of my clients so I can see what they’re tweeting about; I often get very valuable information from tweets that I wouldn’t get otherwise. But I don’t want everyone to know who my clients are for privacy issues, so this is a private list.

While I was scanning that particular list, I noticed that one of my clients tweeted something that I wanted to share with everyone. Imagine my surprise when I couldn’t RT from within that private list. I had to click through to my client’s twitter page to RT.

This one baffles me. Their tweets aren’t private – the fact that they’re in my list is. Yet it seems that the tweets are being treated like they’re private because they’re in a private list. I’m not sure what this is about, but I hope it’s fixed.

Moving Past Either/Or

I’m very appreciative that the developers are adding features to Twitter and giving it some support, especially since I’m not paying a dime to use it. That said, I think this new feature is a misstep.

It’s easy for conversations like this to end up in an either/or split, though. The Twitter folks are saying “get used to it” and a growing body of users are saying “give us the old way!” This sets the stage so that one side will “win” and the other side will “lose.” In the end, someone is going to be resentful. (Telling us that we can always do it the old manual way is tantamount to saying “we don’t care if you want to use this new feature.” Just sayin.’)

But there’s a third option: the developers can give us the option in Settings to pick which way we want it to work. Those that like the new function and want to creep people into my stream can do so, but I don’t have to follow suit. I also don’t have to use a third party client, which is actually not in the best interests of Twitter since it marginalizes their ability to monetize off of the site directly.

(In case you’re wondering, I use Twitter’s web interface when I don’t want to be that immersed in Twitter. I can sneak and peak without immersing myself in the way I do when I’m using Tweedeck.)

Going this routes assures that both sides get what they want. It follows the user-generated feature path that Twitter has historically followed – after all, users generated “@username” as a way to reference or reply to another user – but it also allows the developers to make a change that will help some users overcome the pitfalls of organic RTs.

On that note, Twitter is a social network – we users share some responsibility to police up the people who are hijacking tweets and retweeting excessively. We have the ability to ignore or block people, and this is the right marrying of user action and features. A feature can’t regulate a social organism nearly as well as the individual parts of that organism can.

This feature is still in beta, so I encourage you to weigh in one way or the other. If you hate the new feature, don’t just whine and complain – send feedback, then whine and complain or write posts explaining your position. If you love it, let them know you love it.

Whatever you do, do me a favor: hit that RT button so people read this post and take a reasoned stand either way.

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  1. says

    I was thinking of the same solution too. I personally think the new way could be beneficial in some respects (finding new and different people to add), but I can also see it getting in the way of other peoples uses for twitter. The obvious thing to do is just make it a change-able setting. Good post.
    .-= Steven Handel´s last blog ..33 Questions from Dragos Roua =-.

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