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Request for Comments

Posted on Saturday 23rd October 2010 at 00:00
Take a look at my Twitter timeline (or your own) on pretty much any day of the week, and you'll see a lot of tweets from people you don't know. In the case of my own timeline, this can account for 50% of the tweets I read, although I guess on average it's more like one in three. Nope, before you jump to conclusions, I'm not about to start another rant about my timeline being clogged up or how my entire life is getting sucked into it. That was my last post.

And yes, I am blogging about Twitter again. I'm sorry about that. I know for those of you who aren't interested in technology, two posts in a row about social media is probably about as much as you can take, but I've had this one brewing inside my head for some time now, and it needs to get written down.

I've called this post "Request for Comments" after the now forgotten system that was used in the early days of the internet, whenever anyone wished to propose a new protocol, standard or feature. I've done so because that is what I will be doing here, once I've given you a little background.

I am talking today about retweeting, or the act of sending out a message that you have read in your timeline, either to echo the sentiment, or to share it with followers of yours who may not be following the original author. Unlike Follow Fridays, which I find a trifle annoying, I actually love retweets, and I'll tell you why in a minute.

The Background

As with Follow Friday, and indeed virtually every other successful quirk of Twitter, the idea originally came from users themselves, as a way of sharing tweets that they particularly liked.

In the old days you retweeted someone by highlighting and copying their tweet into the tweet box and prefixing it with the letters RT and then the username of the original writer, so as to make it clear where the tweet was coming from. So far so simple.

The problem with this little set up was that if the tweeter had written a particularly long tweet, there often wouldn't be the space within the allotted 140 characters to recreate the message and the prefix, meaning that users who favoured using their full 140 characters, such as myself, virtually never got retweeted.

Well, the nice people at Twitter started to take a look at this, and eventually launched an official system for retweeting, commonly known as New Style retweeting. And this is where things got a bit controversial.

The New Style retweet had a lot of advantages over the old. For starters, there was no more copying and pasting, just the click of a button (something many Twitter apps had been doing for a while). Also, the old character limit problem had been removed, as Twitter now stored the retweet information elsewhere, meaning that the full 140 characters were available for the original tweet - with the tweeter showing up in your timeline as though you followed them - and a small message informing you who had done the retweeting. It was neat and tidy, easy to read and easy to see where tweets had originated from.

Great we said, now we can keep track of popular tweets and make sure even the longest tweets get forwarded on across the Twittersphere!

There was, however, a small problem.

In the time that Old Style retweeting had been growing in popularity, a new trend had appeared. Wherever there were remaining free characters at the end of a tweet, the person retweeting would often tack on their own comment, allowing them to either reply to the original tweeter at the same time as sharing the message, or throw in a helpful comment for their own followers.

New Style retweeting doesn't allow this. Quite why I'm not sure. My guess is that the clever people at Twitter began working on their clever system for New Style retweets before they realised that people were adding comments.

So, when the feature launched, some people refused to use it.

As a result, Twitter's dream of a single, consistent system for sharing tweets has shattered into a two tier mess, comprised of those who are in the Old Style camp, and those who are in the New. And all our timelines look messier than ever before!

Which camp am I in?

Well, to be honest, one foot in each really. I like New Style retweets. I like the fact that if someone you follow retweets someone else that you follow, that you only see the tweet once. Even more useful if lots of people retweet it. I like that you can retweet a message that is 140 characters long without having to cut it down, and that it is possible to see all of the people who have retweeted a particular message, to see how popular it is. I especially like that they are easy to read, without having to process usernames and RTs all over the place.

But losing comments is a bad thing. The busier Twitter gets, the harder it becomes to keep track of everything. Seeing comments on tweets is an excellent way of remembering what a particular user is referring to. It is good that you can forward and reply at the same time. It is good that you can edit the tweet, if you are only replying to one part of the message.

And this problem needs to be resolved, because, in my opinion at least, it is limiting the greatest power that Twitter has - to allow people to hear messages from outside their own circle and contact new people. Many of the best people I follow, especially the comic ones, came into my sphere of conciousness through other people's retweets, not because I went looking for them. Many of the people who follow me probably did the same.

So why can't we look at this again?

My Proposal

I'd like to propose a new system of threaded retweets. We keep the New Style retweet, with its tracking and simplicity, but we allow people who wish to comment, their own 140 characters in which to write a reply, and then tack it to the original tweet, so that it shows up attached to it, for followers to see.

This would give us all the best of both worlds. No more messy Old Style retweeting, with characters wasted on usernames and no one knowing which part of the message to read. No more New Style forwarding, without the ability to enhance a tweet with one's own thoughts.

I know threading isn't the simplicity that the founders of Twitter aimed for when they designed the system. They deliberately tried to make it as basic as possible, and they succeeded, for a time at least. But Twitter is too big and too noisy for that level of simplicity now.

Tweets are already being threaded with the in reply to... option. How much more complex would it be to thread retweets as well? I want to see the original retweeted tweet, and underneath it, all the tweets written in reply by those of my followers responsible for the retweeting. Much like I look forward to seeing this post with all your comments written underneath it in the very near future. So, without further a do...

I respectfully request your comments.

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