Of Tweets and ReTweets

On Friday, March 19th, a few Twitter users started retweeting @CutestKidEver‘s opposition to Congress’ Health Care Bill. There was only one problem. She hadn’t expressed opposition to it at all. In fact, she was expressing anger at the ads opposing it. Here’s her original tweet:

Getting angry at ads misleading people to get them to call Scott Murphy and tell him to vote no on #HCR

Now here’s one of the retweets.

RT @cutestkidever: Call Scott Murphy and tell him to vote ‘NO’ on #HCR

Do you see the problem there? It was even more pronounced when that same person retweeted @ScottFeinberg. Over two tweets, he said:

The following Congressmen are still undecided about health care reform, which needs 6 more votes. Call and urge them to vote "Yes!"

Rep. Scott Murphy (D-New York’s 20th District) at (202) 225-5614

The retweet said:

RT @ScottFeinberg: Tell Murphy "NO" Rep. Scott Murphy (D-New York’s 20th District) at (202) 225-5614

First of all, let me get one thing out of the way. This post is not about the pros or cons concerning any Health Care bill. So please save your "It’s horrible! / It’s fantastic!" comments for another post. (In fact, I delayed this post until after the Health Care vote hoping to avoid most of those comments.) Why did I highlight those tweets, then? Well, it’s all about the Retweet.

You see, for the longest time, retweeting was an informal process. You’d copy the person’s tweet and username, add an "RT" in front of it, perhaps a comment after it, and off it went. To standardize things, Twitter recently added a retweet function that takes the whole tweet and puts it in the timeline of that user’s followers.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t like this change. No longer could I comment within a RT. It was an adjustment to recognize that the strange person appearing in my timeline was from a RT. Luckily, I didn’t need to bother with it because I used Seesmic Desktop. Hitting the retweet option gave me the familiar "RT @Username Original Message" pre-filled tweet. But then Seesmic Desktop began using the new Twitter RT method. Now, I had to copy/paste the message or select Quote Message (which was one level deeper than retweet).

I really didn’t see the need for this new retweet method. Why replace "RT" (with the ability to comment inline with the original message) with the "intruding tweeter" method? Well, after CutestKidEver and ScottFeinberg’s experiences, I can see one very good reason. While I still can see much utility in the old method, it could easily be used, intentionally or unintentionally, to misquote somebody. And once a misquote is made, it can spread like wildfire with more and more people retweeting the misquoted tweet. Before long, thousands of people could read the original misquoted tweet.

The new RT method is immune from misquoting. You simply can’t use Twitter’s new RT method and turn someone’s support for something into opposition (or vice versa). The problem that CutestKidEver and ScottFeinberg experienced couldn’t happen using the new RT. In the end, I don’t think I’ll be a complete convert to the new RT method. I still like adding my own comments from time to time, but I now can see the importance behind the new method and why Twitter went that route versus incorporating the previous method.