The microblogging and social networking site Twitter took off last year and had more than 44.5 million users worldwide as of June. In the 140-character limited ecosystem of Twitter, users have evolved a language of their own, figuring out creative ways to filter the sometimes overwhelming stream of Twitter posts. Now, Twitter has announced that a user-generated communication technique called retweeting–reposting someone else’s message, similar to quoting–will be formally incorporated into Twitter. Some experts say Twitter’s approach will hinder the conversational aspect of retweeting; others predict that it will create a new way of communicating.


Twitter has incorporated other user-generated linguistic tools, such as using a hash symbol in front of a word to make it easily searchable (like “#conference09”). Another common technique is typing @ in front of a username to reply directly (but publically) to the user, which Twitter also formalized after users adopted it. These linguistic tools have even trickled into other social media environments, including YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and blogs.

Currently, there is no set format for retweeting, which loosely consists of reposting someone’s tweet and giving due credit. The most common scheme for a retweet involves prefacing the post with the letters “RT,” then the @ symbol, and the username of the person being quoted. The retweet rebroadcasts the information to a new set of followers, who see the retweet and have the option of retweeting themselves. In this way, ideas, links, and other information can be distributed–and tracked–fairly quickly.

But the retweeting format is much more inconsistent and complex than the targeted reply and hashtag conventions, according to Microsoft Research social media scientist Danah Boyd, who recently posted a paper on the behavior of retweeting. Variations include typing the attribution at the end and using “via,” “by,” or “retweet” instead of “RT.” What’s more, people often add their own comments before or after a retweet. This becomes a problem with Twitter’s 140-character limit, explains Boyd. Typing “RT @username” takes up characters, and so does adding a comment. To deal with this, users will paraphrase or omit part of the original text, sometimes leading to incorrect quotes.

Last week, Twitter announced that it will soon implement a button that will let users automatically repost someone else’s tweet. While this will make it quicker and easier for users to accurately retweet, the mockup of the new button does not appear to let users edit the retweet, so that commentary can be incorporated. Rather, the “retweet” button will add the image and name of the quoted person to the original tweet and post it for those who follow the retweeter.

The new retweet function “is not going to meet the needs of those who retweet. At the same time, I think it’s going to bring retweeting to a whole new population,” says Boyd. “Adding commentary is a huge element to why people retweet.” Instead of just replying privately to a person with an opinion, by retweeting and adding a comment, users can target a larger audience, sharing their opinions and inviting others to do the same, she says.

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