ReTweet & other micro-conventions


picture credit: kenworker 推友團在世界遺產吳哥窟前示範「銳推」Taiwanese twitterers showing us how to "retweet" in Angkor Wat

Warning: If you haven't used Twitter or other microblogging services before, this post which focuses on citation issues will likely put you off completely. It deals with only one aspect of microblogging activity, albeit an important one, but it is quite possible to lead a happy and healthy life without ever retweeting (RTing) anyone, or being an RTer, ever.

If however you get to the end of this post thinking, blimey Josie, you haven't begun to scratch the surface of this fascinating and vital issue, then why not treat yourself to the even more detailed danah boyd, Scott Golder and Gilad Lotan review paper Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter.

As anyone who's spent five minutes thinking about publication and referencing styles will have concluded, while format is important, constancy is critical. Twitter and microblogging are still very much environments in process, with Twitter in particular currently having a kickass impact on the social web, from blogging practices to social network service functionality to real time reporting. Like any online community, what is acceptable, in terms of all kinds of behaviors, is negotiated between and within networks of users.

Linkage is emerging as an important currency and network tool amongst microbloggers – especially since Twitter removed users ability to view the posts people in your network direct to people not in your network, aka #fixreplies

so for example, if

@kalamishere posts: @yiannopoulos Singing along yet?

It won't appear in my twitterfeed (the stream of posts I get from the combined posting of everyone I'm following), unless I am also following @yiannopoulos.

Obviously an rss feed, or a twittersearch by name of an individual
users twitter feed, like the
one in my left hand sidebar, will reproduce all posts regardless.
However, unless you are stalking or otherwise have a special interest
in a particular user, the likelihood is that you'll never see links to
and conversations outside of your network, even though these may be some of the
most valuable to you.

The way around this, for people who want to make conversational posts public within Twitter or within Twitter readers is to use any character before the @ symbol, the most elegant probably being a full stop, ie: 

@josiefraser posts: . @menjivar Reviews of Free – take yr pick @Gladwell @ajkeen @gapperblog

Some Twitter readers have problems converting .@ into links, so you'll notice in my example I leave a space between the full stop and the @, since I can afford the extra character. The value to the network isn't in the recognition – simply the giving of the name – it's in the link – the ability to click straight through to another users twitter stream, quickly review their content and interest, RT their content or add them to your follower list.

However, 140 characters – the limit of an individual post on Twitter, only accommodates so much kudos. What happens when you stumble across a post with more RTers than you can fit? For example:

@flash_ahah posts: RT @mattlingard RT @josiefraser RT @timbuckteeth: Most important issue in e-Learning, final version including all comments:

The convention I'm using in this example is to put RT in front of everyone who has retweeted the post so far. This clears up, for example, someone in that chain who may have been addressing themselves to one of the others. For example:

RT @mattlingard @josiefraser RT @timbuckteeth: Most important issue in e-Learning, final version including all comments:

could imply that @mattlingard sent the RT to @josiefraser. I'm also using : to indicate the origional poster. Again, there are a lot of different ways to retweet, and I'm not suggesting my preference is any better than any other. But suppose I now want to retweet the whole message: 

RT @flash_ahah RT @mattlingard RT @josiefraser RT @timbuckteeth: Most important issue in e-Learning, final version including all comments:

Or – about 20 characters too many. There are four ways around this (probably more – please let me know).

1. Don't RT, just favorite. This will show up in your followers twitter stream, although not yours – i.e. it won't be non-manually exportable but it will be saved to your twitter favorites for later reference. I don't tend to do this, since I'm kind of mean with my favorites.

2. If the same story/link has turned up across several different groups of people you follow,  I tend to give up and just put "lots of people are posting about x today," or words to that effect. I figure once more than ten people have posted the same link, and unless there is a clear origional poster, it's best not to spend too much time worrying about on it.

3. edit content. Sacrifice pithy comments or indications of content for names and links. With cunning use of one of the internets many url shortening services, you could probably credit six or seven people. on the downside, this is going to look like a very boring and inexplicable link, so people probably won't bother clicking on it.

4. Cut out some of the RTers. I posted an intention this morning kickoff a new convention for posts with multiple RTers, roughly based on accepted academic practice, which is to use the et al as a heads up that other people were involved in getting the information to you. Obviously the main difference is that unlike an academic citation, where you can actually go somewhere and find out who the other contributors were, you can't necessarily do that on Twitter so you may well be consigning some people to the black hole of anti-kudos. I suggested that the person that I got the RT heads up was the last person to tweet, and or the person I read the information from. This is important, because although I might be following several people in the RT string, the serendipitous nature of twitter – the large amount of people followed, posts made, combined with ad hoc access (like most people I guess, I tend to dip in and out of my twitter stream) means that even though I might follow one person, I might not necessarily get the information directly from them, but via a third, fourth or fifth party retweet. So my amended RT would look like: 

RT @flash_ahah et al: Most important issue in e-Learning, final version including all comments:

Immediately the academics and information professionals in my stream objected to this, and quite rightly so, pointing out that the important person in terms of referencing should be the originator. I broadly agree with this, although it's often not so clear cut, since people bring information into twitter typically without referencing external sources. This means I may well have several independent citations or comments from unconnected sources. However, this isn't supposed to be a hard and fast rule, but a useful convention to fall back on where appropriate.

I put the three most plausible conventions to the vote, along with an open field for other suggestions. You can go vote yourself and check out the current wisdom of this particular crowd, but at time of writing the preference, given some mitigating factors, is clearly

RT @(origional source) via @(my source) or, as I'd interpret it

RT @flash_ahah et al RT @timbuckteeth: Most important issue in e-Learning, final version including all comments:

with RT @(origional source) or 

RT @timbuckteeth: Most important issue in e-Learning, final version including all comments:

Favored in case of minimalism or if there really wasn't enough room. Not entirely happy with this last one, since it still doesn't indicate multiple posters.

Thanks to @jont @goatgirl74 @encratica @Eingang @sarahhorrigan @RecordedBooks @timdifford @shirleyearley @traceymadden, @paulbrichardson, @MarkRussell, @lyndsayjordan, @amcunningham for taking time to talk about this with me over at Twitter today. & cheers to everyone fr the RTs! 

7 thoughts on “ReTweet & other micro-conventions

  1. This is a real issue and with only 140 char. It makes sense to have some convention.
    I like the: RT @(original source) et al via @(my source)
    I trim content often but keep the source. I think most peeps want the recognition. Nice article.

  2. Hi Josie, thanks for your great post showing the difficulties of RT.
    For Replies Twitter stores the original tweet in their metadata (inReplyTo) but they do not for Retweets. Like with forwarding e-mails I would love to see Twitter storing these additional metadata. I started a request for this additional semantic relation at . If they stored all the information it would be very easy to retrace who retweeted who… What do you think?

  3. I tend towards RT @(my source) RT @(originator). If I felt important to acknowledge there had been a chain I’d put an ellipsis between the two. Informality of env means that complete chain not relevant and clutters. Important is to know origin and to give due credit to my informant.

  4. Menat to say: use this system as quicker to re-edit post by cutting out intermediaries. If I have to reform the chain I’m less likely to retweet in the first place. BTW, I thought “et al” meant co-authors/creators. Someone who passes on info is not such.
    Twitter is not an academic environment that has to conform to rules, rather one that lives on flexible social conventions.

  5. Thanks very much for the comments.
    Kenny – I think you’ve basically nailed it. Everyone would like recognition, and where possible it’s good manners to pay them their due. It’s been really interesting going through this conversation with my network on twitter, being able to work through the practical issues. I’ve settled on the following –
    1. Give everyone RT Credit where possible
    2. Give informant and source where possible, informant first, source indicated with the colon, ie:
    RT @flash_ahah et al RT @timbuckteeth: Most important issue in e-Learning
    I’d actually rather edit content than just give the origional source, but that’s me.
    I’ve used @informant et al once this week – basically to refer to a story everyone had retweeted and that didn’t have a personal author to attribute/offend within Twitter.
    Wolfgang – I am totally in favor of any way of using metadata fields to make things easier for everyone. The only obvious issue I would have here is that Twitter does not store or retrieve your content indefinitely. After a few months, unless you’ve archived them using a third party service, those event or other tags will have vanished into the ether. Twitter also only stores your last 400 direct messages, & deletes those from your inbox that the recipient deletes themselves (whether they were sent by you or them). What I’m saying is that Twitter is a real pain in terms of archiving and retrieval, and they would have to do a lot more than improve their metadata (although that would be nice) in order for me not to have to depend on third party services for functionality. Only this morning I was thinking wistfully about Jaiku – the far superior microblogging/lifestreaming service which was brought by Google, & completely mismanaged. Then again, the best and most useful things about the web are often the simplicity and ephemerality of practices. & certainly simplicity and ephemerality are critical core design values in terms of the hordes of third party application businesses who make their money by elaborating on mainstream services in an endless variety of ways.
    Neil – I totally agree. I guess my use of et al, with it’s academic contexts, makes it sound pompous to some people. In my head, it’s slang shorthand for and all, everyone, lots of people, etc. I’ve always used et al in that way, & there’s no reason why my particular habits and writing tone should translate very well or be appropriate for many people.
    More than anything I agree with your last sentence “Twitter is not an academic environment that has to conform to rules, rather one that lives on flexible social conventions.” This is precisely why I enjoy Twitter and want to hang out there. This post is, rather selfishly, about me thinking through the practicalities of my referencing in an environment where kudos is important. As such I hope that it works as a small contributes to the conversation about social engagement, rather than prohibits any form of play, experimentation or adaption.
    I’ll finish this stupidly long reply by linking to another interesting piece on RT that was posted this week, Dan Zarrella’s ReTweets Change Everything :

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