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Is Twitter Slowly Eroding Discovery Value?

August 14, 2009

Today I learned about Twitter’s new “Project Retweet,” an initiative by which Twitter will proactively adopt retweeting functionality into their platform. Twitter’s being proactive about bringing more features into their service is on the surface a good thing, but once I delved into @Biz‘s description of how the new feature will work, I realized how poor the approach that they seem to be taking might be.

Here’s how I understand it to work: on the Twitter website a retweet function will appear near the existing reply function on each tweet you see in your timeline. Using the retweet function will echo the original tweet, appearing as a tweet for the original poster rather than a tweet from you.

The new post will appear in your follower’s timelines as if it were posted by the original author complete with that author’s avatar and username instead of yours with only a small notation at the bottom of the tweet that it was retweeted by you. If I’m following you but I’m not following the user whom you’ve retweeted, essentially what will happen is that a stranger’s tweet will show up in my timeline.

If I’m following just a handful of users whom I’m familiar with, then it may be obvious that the stranger’s tweet was reposted by someone I follow, but I don’t follow a handful of users; I follow a thousand users. I don’t even recognize many of the people I follow who are appearing in my timeline; I don’t keep track of whom each of the people I follow is.

I follow a core group of people whom I trust partly because of the information they retweet; their retweets help me “discover” more valuable things — people, facts, ideas, issues, opportunities, etc. To me this is exactly how Twitter creates value: enabling individuals to rapidly create and spread weak knowledge and relationship connections across a broad landscape, connections that make sense to me and are relevant to me and enable further connections.

As soon as the source or origin of the connection begins to erode, the connection begins to lose value. In other words, if I don’t know why a particular user’s tweet is showing up in my timeline there’s a high probability I’m going to skim right over it and ignore it; whereas, if a tweet appears from my core group whom I recognize there’s a high probability I’m going to read it.

The way retweets are currently passed around allows me to identify a potentially new and valuable connection originating from a user whom I already trust and whom I’ve already chosen to follow because they are doing just that: providing new and valuable connections. Disconnect the tweet from the trusted source and the connection won’t be created. Twitter’s discovery value will erode.

A few months ago Twitter eliminated the option to see @replies by people you follow to people you don’t follow. Seeing whom my trusted core group was talking with allowed me to discover new people to follow — another example of relying on the people you follow to present new and valuable connections. Once this disappeared Twitter began turning into a much bigger echo chamber with a much smaller opportunity to discover and create new, valuable connections.

In fact, I rarely add new followers anymore at all because Twitter broke the connection thread I relied upon to discover new people to follow.

The user backlash was tremendous and the founders were contrite yet they did not restore the functionality they took away. They only gave us a vague promise of a new method, saying, “the use cases that folks loved about this setting will return in a new and improved form,” which has yet to materialize.

If Twitter proceeds with “Project Retweet,” Twitter will break another valuable connection mechanism, the echo chamber will reverberate even more loudly and the opportunity to discover new value through Twitter will be eroded even further.

How will we find new connections via Twitter then? Will Twitter’s discovery value completely disappear? I don’t have the answers to those questions, and until I do Twitter’s future value to me is rapidly approaching zero.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2009 12:19 pm

    Good post and its something that’s been on my mind. I have noticed a difference since Twitter changed the @replies, and I did enjoy finding new folks to follow using that approach. Communications are feeling more “insular”, and from what you describe about the next “Project Retweet”, it sounds like it could be more of that. Maybe in some way it was trying to reintroduce that feature for finding new folks, but like all relationships we prefer to lead with our own contacts vs. the person we don’t know. The other challenge is the market is so fluid, who knows what will happen and where it will evolve. But I’m starting to wonder how long Twitter can stand independently, without becoming part of something larger, or perhaps adopting more of the other networks’ features.

    Time will tell I guess. Thanks for looking into “project retweet” and helping us sort all this information.

  2. vinnie permalink
    August 14, 2009 1:25 pm

    I actually like the way they’re implementing retweets (especially since they hinted at the ability to shut retweets OFF on a per-user basis). I hate the ad-hoc way it’s currently done, especially when the retweeter alters the original tweet text in order to fit their comment in or whatever. This method keeps the tweet the way its original author intended and is still a more obvious endorsement than say, faving a tweet.

    As far as @replies goes, I had “all @replies” turned on for a long time. To me personally (and apparently to 97% of twitter users) it got overwhelming and I set it back to the default. Once I got that noise under control I was able to follow even more people (back then I wouldn’t follow more than 200 or so, now I’m near 400).

    Finally, I don’t want to sound like a broken record or some kind of apologist for twitter, but people who follow hundreds or thousands of others are a very small minority on twitter, like single-digit percentage minority. If 95 people came up to me and asked to do something one way and 5 people disagreed with me, it doesn’t take a genius to see where I’m siding.

    As for discovery, the worst thing they ever did for that was changing the user search. Back when I started, the user search worked by searching location and bio text as well as names. Now it only works on a username/real name basis which is horrible for finding anyone but people you know. You can’t track anyone down by interest or geographic area.

  3. August 14, 2009 1:40 pm

    I’ve been trying to figure out why they feel this change would be an improvement. What problem does it solve? The most active re-tweeters are already using 3rd party clients, anyway. Like many of the decisions around Twitter, I’m left wondering…

  4. August 14, 2009 1:45 pm

    I can’t agree that they’re breaking anything. Retweeting is already broken, and they’re not making it any worse.

    With the 140-character limit, we’re often faced with the choice of knowing who’s retweeting versus who originated the tweet. Yesterday I found mentions of myself by search, but in doubly-retweeted posts where my name was cut off. People saw the second and first retweeters, but never saw me. (I don’t know how search found my name since it never showed in the tweet.)

    I assume that’s happened to the originators of retweets I’ve enjoyed, and I’ve missed the chance of learning who that was, and of finding someone cool to follow.

    I think the solution is to treat retweeters’ identities as metadata, standing outside the 140-char limit. It would be all a part of threading, which is another thing they can’t break because it’s already broken.

  5. August 14, 2009 2:43 pm

    I’ve definitely noticed the same thing since Twitter changed the way @reply conversations worked. I’ve added very few new followers because I’m not seeing outside conversations that might interest me.

    I hope that the new RT feature will play out differently than you’ve outlined here. It could work well, or it could be awful.

  6. August 14, 2009 4:08 pm

    Here are my thoughts on this article. I actually like the fact that if you retweet someone that the original person would show in my twitter stream. I sometimes feel like I’m going to quit using Twitter and one of my biggest beefs are re-tweets. When I follow someone, I’m following you. I want to hear from you 95% of the time. I dig you and that’s why I followed you. If you retweet some Guru about personal branding for example, most of the time the link is shortened and I have no idea what it is. I click it and I go some where that I have no interest in. You may have liked it but I don’t. Now, I’m not so crazy I followed you because you are having trouble with originality and coming up with your own stuff.

    I love it if you write a blog post and tweet your own blog. That’s simply a reminder to me that you have hit the publish button and to come view your brilliance. I will happily do that. When I click your link to a friggin sales page, the next thing I click is the unfollow button.

    Maybe I’m wrong but I would like Twitter better if no one could retweet. I don’t even consider Twitter as Social Media anymore. I consider Twitter as Interactive Media. The social seems to have disappeared.

    I think it would be cool if you were only allowed 5 tweets a day so make the most of them. I also rarely follow anymore because the Social aspect has almost disappeared. I’m beginning to prefer Facebook for my Social Media.

  7. August 14, 2009 5:09 pm

    How obvious the connection is will depend, of course, on the application developers and how they make use of the API. It’s entirely possible that a developer could make it very obvious.

    I’m looking forward to the ability to use the full character limit. Also, the built-in ability to filter certain people’s retweets is something useful to me. This is a huge bonus. Built-in filtering is essential for honing the usefulness of my timeline. I may love your original posts but believe your retweets are far too promiscuous. Blocking your retweets gets me exactly what I want.

    In any case, it doesn’t sound like they’re preventing anyone from using the old method.

    I’m trying to understand this concept of “skimming over” the timeline; it sounds like you pay more attention to certain users. That makes sense, but I assume you’re skimming over based on avatar. So changing avatars also breaks the link you find valuable.

    And, as you point out, skimming over is a method of dealing with a larger volume of tweets. Perhaps if you had better built-in filtering, you could pare down your timeline in a targeted way so you wouldn’t have as many tweets to skip over to get to the valuable ones, raising the value of your timeline.


  8. August 15, 2009 7:56 am

    Steve, I really like and agree with a lot of what you have to say. 5 tweet limit would be awesome! I am as guilty as anyone of inane tweets, but it would force me and everyone else to post what’s really important.

    I have lost most of my interest in twitter and am spending more time on Facebook. I wasn’t quite able to pinpoint why it was, but I guess I felt some shift in twitter over the last few months.

    I have also noticed that some things are on twitter that shouldn’t be. I think it’s Best Buy offering tech support on twitter. Doesn’t seem like the best use of it to me.

    I feel like such an old-timer on there (been on since July 2007) and it has changed so much!

    Oh, and I am also guitly of skimming. Sometimes I am just in a hurry or not in the mood to read certain people’s tweets. I like them and may come back to read their timeline so I don’t want to unfollow, though I do try to keep following list around 100. I can’t keep up with more than that and have zero interest in following a million people.

  9. August 15, 2009 11:23 am

    @Queen Moo. I knew there had to be someone out there who agreed with me. I’ve been hammered because I dared speak against Twitter. I too have found Facebook to be more fun and certainly more social. I have less than 60 Facebook friends but we actually interact with each other.

    I like that Facebook, no one can see what I do unless I have given permission. The entire world of Twitter can read my stuff. Because of that, I feel I have to constantly self censor myself.

    I call most people Twitter Sheep. Aimlessly retweeting other people, afraid to tweet something original. Nothing aggravates me more than looking at my Tweetdeck and seeing 15 retweets from the same internet Guru. Please people, do you think I’ve never heard of this person you retweet constantly on a weekly basis? There goes the unfollow button.

    BTW, I unfollowed probably 50 this morning. I don’t follow many Guru’s but I do agree with Seth Godin. He thinks Twitter is useless or so I’ve heard him claim in some videos. I have never met anyone who has signed a huge contract because of Twitter. A business who uses Twitter to offer 50% discounts…thats awesome. Joe Lonesome sending me links to his sales landing page or Penelope Porno telling me how I can hook up with her tonight…that’s lame and useless.

    I would rather a person send 1 tweet a month if it’s a really good tweet.

  10. August 25, 2009 9:51 am

    By removing the ad-hoc nature of retweets there are a few things that change that I think you misunderstood.

    Yes, tweets from someone else will show up in your timeline, but they will be attributed to the person who discovered them. Disconnecting the current RT strategy allows for flexibility in your timeline. I filter out anything that starts “RT @” because I’m interested in what is going on right now, not the front page of Digg.

    Also, as someone who has keyword searches going on Twitter 24/7, people RT’ing messages that contain my keywords are the bane of my existence. Changing how RT’s are done would free up those timelines and a lot of server time on Twitter’s servers, which means better uptime due to a lower volume of these relatively useless messages. Check out or and you’ll see thousands of messages that could have been removed from the system.

    If you’ve been around Twitter long enough, you’ll also know that it’s difficult to RT certain things because of length, and occasionally tweets are “stolen” by others, which might not seem like a big deal but for true discovery value, this is what would make the most sense. This would allow you to RT something without editing it, and it would give credit to the original person. If anything, I feel that this increases discovery value.

    I feel the last point I made is major flaw with the post. Connections made through the new iterations of RT would be ones strictly based on original content. If you are in search of discovery, you’ll be able to see other who RT’d an individual message rather than someone’s interpretation of it. New connections to find through Twitter will have to be made through trusted sources rather than skimming off of the top of other people’s conversations.


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