Twitter Should Kill the Retweet

Worawee Meepian/Shutterstock.com

The feature derails healthy conversation and preys on users’ worst instincts.

On Monday, Twitter was briefly ablaze after CEO Jack Dorsey reportedly suggested to The Telegraph that the company might eliminate its heart-shaped “Like” button. The company quickly clarified, tweeting that as part of a “commitment to healthy conversation,” it was “rethinking everything about the service,” including the “Like” button.

But this wasn’t the first time Dorsey has signaled his frustration with the “Like” button. “We have a big ‘Like’ button with a heart on it and we’re incentivizing people to want it to go up,” he said just weeks ago at the Wired25 summit. “Is that the right thing? Versus contributing to the public conversation or a healthy conversation? How do we incentivize healthy conversation?”

Twitter has, for years now, grappled with how to tame abuse and build a more positive experience for users. In a July blog post, the company vowed to work “to increase the collective health, openness, and civility of the dialogue on our service.” Earlier this year, Twitter also introduced a bookmarking tool to allow users to save tweets without having to “like” them.

But if Twitter really wants to foster more healthy conversation, the “Like” button is a puzzling target. “Given so much hate and bile and disinformation and harassment on this website it’s not an immediately obvious move to eliminate the heart shaped button people use to show each other support and appreciation,” my colleague James Hamblin tweeted.

Besides, retweets, not likes, are Twitter’s most powerful method of reward.

The quest to accrue retweets regularly drives users to tweet outlandish comments, extremist opinions, fake news, or worse. Many users knowingly tweet false and damaging information and opinions in an effort to go viral via retweets. Entire Twitter accounts have been built on this strategy. If Twitter really wants to control the out-of-control rewards mechanisms it has created, the retweet button should be the first to go.

Retweets prey on users’ worst instincts. They delude Twitter users into thinking that they’re contributing to thoughtful discourse by endlessly amplifying other people’s points—the digital equivalent of shouting “Yeah, what they said!” in the midst of an argument. And because Twitter doesn’t allow for editing tweets, information that goes viral via retweets is also more likely to be false or exaggerated. According to MIT research published in the journal Science, Twitter users retweet fake news almost twice as much as real news. Some Twitter users, desperate for validation, endlessly retweet their own tweets, spamming followers with duplicate information.

Retweets were introduced, ironically, to make Twitter better. At the time, the company’s co-founder Biz Stone declared that “we hope interesting, newsworthy, or even just plain funny information will spread quickly through the network making its way efficiently to the people who want or need to know.” Retweets were an early way for the company to ensure that the most interesting and engaging content would bubble up in the feed and keep users entertained.

But for more than two and a half years, the company has shown people tweets based on an algorithmic accounting of exactly what the most interesting and engaging content is (yes, part of that algorithm takes user behavior like retweets into account). It has also tested suggesting tweets, recommending accounts to follow based on interest, and built Moments to surface noteworthy tweets about news events. The retweet isn’t just dangerous; it’s redundant.

It’s no surprise that users are also thirsting for a retweet-free version of Twitter. A browser extension that mutes retweets has been popular since 2013. In April, my colleague Alexis Madrigal wrote about how he used a script to eliminate retweets from his timeline and how it transformed his experience for the better. “Retweets make up more than a quarter of all tweets. When they disappeared, my feed had less punch-the-button outrage,” he wrote. “Fewer mean screenshots of somebody saying precisely the wrong thing. Less repetition of big, big news. Fewer memes I’d already seen a hundred times. Less breathlessness. And more of what the people I follow were actually thinking about, reading, and doing. It’s still not perfect, but it’s much better.”

“I think people often make judgments based off social cues, but it’s a completely different experience to use Twitter just focusing on the raw material,” said Jordan Gonen, a 21-year-old college student. This week, he, along with Darshil Patel and Maas Lalani, two 18-year-old college freshmen, launched a browser extension that hides the number of retweets, likes, and followers on all tweets in your feed.

Ben Grosser, an artist and professor at the University of Illinois, created a similar but more robust version of that product in February, called the Twitter “demetricator.” “Part of what’s happening in spread of disinformation is that people can essentially repeat what someone else said and spread it to the world. The retweet has an effect well beyond the ‘like’ in that regard,” he said. Grosser also indicated that removing just the “Like” button would only make the retweet more powerful. “I fear that if they remove the ‘Like’ button, the fact that there are other indicators that include metrics will just compel users to use those other indicators,” Grosser said.

Of course, eliminating the native retweet button wouldn’t stop people from quote tweeting, and it could just send everyone back to the dark ages of the manual retweet, when users physically copied and pasted text from other tweets, with the letters RT plastered in front. But killing native retweets is certainly a step in the right direction.

There are signs that Dorsey may be open to the idea. He’s clearly attempted to do some soul-searching over the past year in regards to how to improve the product. The company has also shown that it’s not afraid to sacrifice hallmark features of the app in service of what it believes to be a better experience. The “Like” button replaced Twitter’s more famous “Favorite” in 2015, and last March Twitter revamped how replies work, hiding the signature @ symbol.

After Kanye West tweeted in September about removing follower counts, Dorsey responded to the rapper via text message, saying that he’s been “thinking deeply about the follower and like counts, and what that incentivizes. We want to change. What made sense 12 years ago doesn’t make sense today.”

For many of Twitter’s 326 million monthly active users, changes can’t come soon enough. “I find it curious that Jack Dorsey has been hinting at possible changes for a while now … I respond [to] this, ‘Well, why don’t you try something?’” Grosser said. “I want to see some action as opposed to continued suggestion that maybe something will change.”

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