It's been boiling away beneath the surface for a while now, and finally, on Friday, I snapped: I found myself correcting complete strangers' use of the Twitter retweet. That way lies madness, or at least making myself look like a tool, so I reined in my netiquette fascism and thought about just why it is that retweets annoy me so much.
I tweeted my thoughts on the situation, and what do you know -- I've never been retweeted so many times in my life. Har-de-har ha, Twitter.
Retweeting is a solid concept at heart: the idea is to take a tweet you find interesting, or agree with, and re-broadcast it to your followers. It helps insightful, clever or witty tweets spread throughout the Twitter network. If someone retweets you, you're saying something interesting. Well done.
From a professional point of view, retweets are great: when someone retweets a story posted from the CNET UK Twitter feed, it's a quick way of seeing which stories are capturing the imagination of the Twitterverse, as well as spreading our name and bringing more readers into the happy world of CNET.
The problem is, retweeting is broken.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that retweeting has reached epidemic proportions. If you follow lots of people with similar interests -- as I do, with technology journalists, PRs and manufacturers -- you end up seeing the same tweets over and over again. It's the same problem as @replies. Services such as JournoTwit filter this kind of thing, but the fact is if your feed gets too clogged up with stuff you simply don't need to see, Twitter becomes unusable.
The second, and more annoying, problem is that a huge number of people are simply doing it wrong. Verbatim repetition of a tweet is a retweet, and requires RT and the original tweeter's username. Yet many users are getting confused with 'via'. Via means 'by way of', and in the Twitter world means that a user has brought something -- typically a link or news story -- to your attention, but the contents of your tweet are your own thoughts on the matter.
When a user copies someone else's tweet and uses via instead of RT, they're implying -- admittedly unintentionally -- that this is their work. Equally annoying is the practice of retweeting the wrong person: when retweeting a retweet, the original tweeter should get the RT, and whoever brought it to your attention gets the via.
Steady on, you're thinking, easy on the pedantry, dude. But this is important. It's all about attribution, and that's the cornerstone of Web publishing. Linking is the currency of the Internet. In a system where it's so easy for anybody to take credit for another's work, it's even more important to make sure the right person is credited for their work -- even if it's only 140 characters long.
The good news is that Twitter is. This will save the characters currently used to credit the retweetee and should cut down on editing of the original tweet. Plus it'll include cool features such as showing who has retweeted the post.
What needs to happen is that Twitter recognises when a retweet has been retweeted, and automatically links to the original tweet. That way the right person gets the credit -- or the flak. Ideally it will also recognise when you've seen a tweet once, and spare you from seeing the same thing repeated throughout your network.
The fact is there's already a system in Twitter for highlighting tweets you find interesting, or agree with -- but nobody uses favourites. I'd like to see favourites pulled into your feed -- with the option to turn them off, as you can with @replies -- so we can beat the retweet once and for all.