Note: This post was written in early 2011. But nothing has changed. Millions of Twitter users still don't understand that while it has some value, Twitter's built-in Retweet function has all but ruined a key benefit of Twitter for discovering and recommending information to our followers.

You need to understand why in order to understand why you miss a lot of stuff on Twitter, and why others miss your RT recommendations... routinely,

It will also explain why my followers so often see me using the old style (copy and paste) RT method instead.


 

Well, it's been well over a year since Twitter implemented its built-in "new" retweet feature, which for many of us, immediately wrecked what had been one of Twitter's best features: the old retweeting style which evolved organically from the user-base, and with no input from Twitter whatever.

Naturally, something that millions of people loved just had to be replaced by something confusing and destructive to the Twitter experience, just for the sake of their business model and investors.  So, replace it they did. And in so doing, they created a huge level of completely preventable confusion for both new and old users alike. Confusion that still wreaks havoc on your timeline, even though you're probably not even aware of it. I am just fed up with explaining this over and over again, and still kicking myself for not writing this post over a year ago.  My purpose here is NOT to rehash all the details of what Twitter did, or why. You can click here for that. My purpose is simply to tell you clearly, and without all the confusing details, just…

Why you should NOT (always) use Twitter's built-in retweet feature

There are three very big reasons:

Reason One: Your followers won't miss important stuff you want to recommend to them.

To help you understand why, consider this scenario involving you and two other followers:

@Newbie is some follower you just followed recently. He has about 250 followers himself, and you decided to follow him because he tweeted some funny cat pictures now and then.

@Oldbie is a follower you've liked and trusted since you first got on to Twitter.

One morning, before you woke up, @Newbie retweeted a tweet concerning a really big story in your field of interest. He used Twitter's built in RT feature. It was a story you would really want to know about.

Later that day, @Oldbie retweeted about that the same story, also using the built-in retweet. As you respect @Oldbie, you would have clicked to read his tweet immediately had you seen it. Unfortunately, you never saw @Oldbie's tweet because Twitter's built in RT logic doesn't show you items that:

  • have already been retweeted by any of your other followers. 
  • you follow the original tweeter, and thus, Twitter assumes you don't need to see a RT of it—FROM ANYONE.

If you do see a RT of someone you don't follow, you only see in one time. Twitter simply increases the tally of how many users retweeted that first tweet that you received earlier from that relatively unknown @newbie person. Of course, that tweet came in hours ago, and is now so far down your timeline, you were never likely to see it anyway.

But wait, there's more bad news: Suppose the Tweet that both @Newbie and @Oldbie are new-retweeting was posted by someone else that you follow. In that case, you won't see either of their retweets because Twitter logic assumes you saw the original tweet, even if it went by long ago while you were sleeping, nodding off, having sex. This is a massive fail when big stories are involved. Unless you saw the original when it appeared in your timeline, you will NEVER know about it no matter how many thousands of people RT it. And this is absolutely horrible. It squashes one of Twitter's greatest values: allowing people you trust to filter what you see.

So, now do you see the problem? Twitter decided that you only wanted to see a single instance of a tweet, no matter who sent it, or when, and without any regard for how long you have known a user, nor whether you even recognize, respect or trust them. Thus, because you like some of @newbie's cat pictures, or didn't notice the first time an original tweet showed up in your timeline, you completely missed all the secondary reminders from other friends concerning that story. (And this explains why we often don't see something all of our friends are talking about, too.)

Now you might say, "but I hate seeing dozens of retweets of the same thing." And you're right, sometimes that can be annoying. But keep these things in mind.

  1. Repetitive tweets tell you a story mattered to a lot of your followers. You might ignore the first few retweets you see, but when the 3rd, 4th or 5th come in, you're going to notice, and may well be glad that you did.
  2. Repetitive tweets tell you something is really important, or you wouldn't be seeing so many of them. Even on my mobile phone, all those retweets just help reinforce for me what people find important. And that counts. A lot.
  3. The repetition is not nearly as annoying as missing a story that could be important to you, nor missing out on all the comments that can sometimes be as important as the story itself (or at least funnier). And this leads nicely into the next reason you don't want to use built-in Retweets…

Reason 2:  Users can't add their own comments to the built-in retweets

This one you probably know something about already. But you should not underestimate its importance. Comments embedded in old-style Retweets are one of the very best ways to learn more about a story. More importantly, they help you to discover new users whom you would never know about had they not added a funny or informative comment to a manual, old-style retweet. 

For example, consider this retweet from @newbie, who is now using the old RT method so you WILL see it regardless of who else retweeted that same item already:

@newbie: This story increased my profits! RT @nerdish Study says hire only very good spellers. http://butt.ly/3das

Not only did you discover a new interest that you shared with @newbie, but at the same time, you discovered a new person named @nerdish. Without that all important old-retweet comment, it would probably have sailed right on by you if you're timeline was even modestly busy.

Reason Three:  New RT minimizes the impact of Twitter campaigns

Often, we want to let people and organizations know how we—and the crowd—feels about something. With Old style RT, they'll see thousands of tweets aimed at them. But with the new built-in RT, they may not even see a single one.  Let that sink in. If you want @piersmorgan to know how pissed off you are about something, he'll never see it in his mentions unless you use the old RT.  Be lazy and use the New RT, and it's like saying "ditto" on some lone tweet he may never even see. You scream, but no one hears.


Now, you may be saying to yourself…

"What good is all of this if those followers don't play by the old retweet rules as Shoq has laid them out here?" A good question:  If it all depends upon what THEY do, and has nothing to do with the choices that YOU make, then why bother? 

Three good reasons:

  1. It does affect you. The same rules applied to what you can see will have bearing on what others see from you when you use the new RT. Sure, if you're the very first person among your followers to retweet someone, your RT may get seen. But if not? Then it's just one more number added to the tally on the first Retweet showing up in the timeline of people following both of you.
  2. Because only if you understand the impact it has on you, can you ever explain it to them so that they don't do it. And of course, so you won't either. 
  3. As I demonstrated when I created the #MT and the shorter #FF (for #followfriday) tags, change happens on Twitter over time, as the crowd discovers a better mousetrap.  If YOU stop relying on new RT, others will too.

So now you know

Twitter has a lot of reasons to want you to use the new retweet; reasons that have everything to do with them making money by reporting tweet metrics to advertisers, but absolutely nothing to do with the value that you and your followers will get from Twitter.

For me the choice is simple

Old Retweets are the very essence of Twitter. Sometimes I will use a new RT when I'm in a big hurry and just want to be sure at least some of my followers will see a tweet. But this is usually when I really don't care enough about it to give it special treatment, or when the tweet is so densely or specifically worded that I really can't easily condense it down to something that I can fit a comment into. Alas, if the tweet was from earlier in the day, only those who don't follow the original tweeter are even going to see my recommendation.  Again, for me, this aspect of the issue is a massive fail. It impedes our ability to recommend things to our friends, or those who rely on us as a filter of news and information.

As for you, well…

You're gonna do what the hell you do no matter what I say anyway. And that's how it should be. But at least now you know the stakes. Twitter is a very powerful tool for communication and knowledge sharing. Sometimes it seems like the only people who don't quite understand that well enough are the fine folks at Twitter.

Related

Back story on the "New" Retweets (by Shoq)

About the MT signal (by Shoq)l

This post has been updated.

Update: See latest Google Hit Counts: #Followfriday vs. #FF  Click here to jump.

What is the #FF Hashtag?

It's just a much shorter version of the familiar #followFriday hashtag seen far too often on Twitter (and now other social networks, as well).  And as I will explain below, it's also a tag that denotes a ritual behavior that has serious issues and could really benefit from a major rethink.

It's not news to my followers that the concept of #Followfriday is a ritual that I've been openly contemptuous of, but like many trends, such a genie is hard to stuff back in its bottle. But if people are going to use a bad idea, I reasoned, at least they should do it efficiently. Why use 12 precious characters when just 2 would do the same work.

So a few weeks after the ritual was clearly entrenched, I urged my friends and followers to just use both tags for a while, until the #ff caught on with the Twitterverse. After 11 months it seems that's finally happening, and it's now familiar enough that many people are finally dropping the longer original. Good riddance.

But there is much more wrong with this practice than some wasted character space, and I'd like to examine it and propose a retrofit for something popular, but not very useful…yet.

What's Wrong With The #FollowFriday Ritual?

It's just a bad idea, in my opinion. It's noisy, inefficient, quasi-elitist, impractical, disruptive, and just encourages a kind of cliquish behavior that social media has been wonderful at avoiding on many levels.  It can also just make people feel bad.  I have nearly 6000 followers. I follow about 2500.  What does it say to thousands of people that I really like when I single out only a handful of them each Friday? 

Of course they know that I can't possibly recommend everyone, but they STILL feel I did not recommend THEM. Even if they are not consciously acknowledging it, it's there as a resident feeling in most of us.  And that creates a social peer tension that is simply unnecessary, in my view.

The efficacy of the ritual is small anyway. People feel obligated to engage in it, and  wind up just blasting out enough friends so their closer  friends won't feel left out. People receiving these "lists" almost never follow everyone–or even more than a handful of them. Many follow none of them at all. 

While I certainly can't claim formal research, my own experience, and asking amongst friends, is that typically, we might recognize a name we've already seen and think "ok, well there's that @name again, recommended by someone I already follow, so I'll follow them." But that's about the extent of how much we use these "recommendations."

And such a modest value-added to a user's social graph hardly justifies list after list after list of #FF posts  flooding out of the Twitter firehose from millions of users each and every Friday. It's nearly zero signal, and almost all noise. My followers know that I often joke about evacuating or taking shelter when these Friday "Tweet bombs" start to fall.

For a really entertaining comic about #FF, that makes my point in a creative way, check this out: "How Follow Friday is supposed to work."

Is it Wrong To Recommend People?

Nope. And I do that often (but not just on Fridays). But making one or two recommendations, and being specific about why, is a very different message from blasting out some random collection of names that comes off more as "people I like," rather than people who bring value for others to follow. And it's very hard to read news or other important tweets when 150 "name lists" are flooding into our streams.  It's intrusive, disruptive, and often just damned annoying.

Why Do I Even Explain All This?

Because people often include me in their #FF lists, and I do not mean to seem ungracious or ungrateful for the kindness and consideration when they do.  I am pleased they think well enough of me to do this.  But I would not fault them if they didn't, and actually wish they didn't do #FF at all (at least in its present form).

But as critical as I am of the practice, I am also fully aware that #FollowFriday is a fun social activity, and can be a useful way to pass along interesting or important people. I would like to see some new method of recommending people emerge that is less formal, and far more effective.  I just happen to have such an idea lying around here somewhere :)

How Would a New #FF Method Work?

I would like to see the entire meme refashioned from a day-specific "#followFriday," to a far more general, "Friends to Follow" (#FF) recommendation which can be used any day of the week, at any hour, rain or shine.

Note: the actual designation is just a working name. It really doesn't matter what we call it, and at some point, some name will just stick. I also heard and liked "Followable Folks."  So long as the letters stay the same, use what works.

With these "Anytime #FFs,"  Fridays won't come to a standstill as millions of random messages get blasted into the stream, trashing everyone's timeline. If you know a friend who knows a lot about something, and feel they would be valuable to your followers, just go ahead and say so.  For example:

#FF my friend @tesibria. A brilliant lawyer who tracks the Birthers.

#FF @LizzWinstead, co-creator of the daily show. You can think AND laugh (and even chew gum) at same time.

And that's all there is to the idea. Simple, flexible, and far more interesting and informative, in my opinion. And since they can be sent out at any time, there's no need to wait for some ritualistic special day, and no good friend or associate needs to feel "left out," until such time when they've NEVER seen one from you. (But that's their drama–and yours.:)

An important additional benefit is that 3rd party application developers can easily slurp this new meta data from the twitter stream, and feed it into lists, databases, groups, analytic metrics… and whatever. Best of all, now you can do a search for "@someone and #FF" and harvest all the recs they've made in past days or weeks.

But Can't Twitter Lists Be Used To Recommend

Sure, but you run into the same problem–and some new ones. And lots of decisions.  Do you put ALL your friends in such a list, or just the ones you like? How big is the list? Does it just become another variation on your entire follow list? Do you have many lists by topic? What makes these lists different from any topical group you chose to follow?  Why are you recommending them? How much work do you want to do to maintain it?  Lists are a tool.  They can be a very good "recommending tool," but a fairly formal one. They not too useful as informal tool that can be used on a flexible, minute-to-minute, completely spontaneous basis.

Can This Idea Fly?

Sure, why not?  #FF and MT are already catching on.  What else did we have to do this year?  This post is all that's needed to explain it. I plan to just start using Anytime #FFs immediately.

As with any idea I've come up with since I was old enough to say, "this really sucks," you and everyone you've ever known are free to completely ignore it :

Update 1:  In December, 2010, I started noticing a number of people using the "#followanytime" tag. Ugh and more ugh. While it's certainly in the spirit of my ideas herein, and possibly even the direct result of them, I rejected that tag because it's just more characters to waste space. And it's also completely redundant. #FF's meaning is now clear to millions. It's a very small jump to using it "anytime," and as you can see by doing a Twitter search on any day of the week except Friday, miliions already are. Just say no to #followAnyday usage.

Update 2:

Google hits (as of Jan 21, 2011):

#FollowFriday = 510,000
#FollowAnyday = 324,000
#FF           = 202,000,000

Google hits (as of March 4th,  2011):

#FollowFriday  = 622,000
#FollowAnyday  = 339,000
#FF            = 454,000,000

Google hits (as of May 27th,  2011):

#FollowFriday  = 1,480,000
#FollowAnyday  = 1,160,000
#FF            = 809,000,000

Google hits (as of Sept 16th,  2011):

#FollowFriday  = 2,240,000
#FollowAnyday  = 1,200,000
#FF            = 1,180,000,000 (Nutz – probably just a google error )

Google hits (as of April 13th,  2011):

#FollowFriday  = 3,700,000
#FollowAnyday  = 5,960  (finally, this bad idea is dying out)
#FF            = 13,600,000 (This seems more realistic. Google tweaked something)

Google hits (as of November 2nd,  2012):

#FollowFriday  = 2,553,000
#FollowAnyday  = 3,900  (Going, going.. )
#FF            = 11,600,000 

 

Clearly, #FF has failed in the marketplace of ideas :)

Related

How Follow Friday is Supposed To Work

.

It's amusing noting how most of the big tech blogs (which get a lot of traffic from Twitter), are deferential in their reviews, merely making passing reference to the intense dislike and confusion.  Read Mashable, Techcrunch, and other big dogs, and it's all sort of "well, some like it, some don't.. la di da." Mashable refers to the feature as "semi-controversial." But go almost anywhere else, especially on Twitter, and the "semi" quickly becomes contempt, and the bad publicity and user antagonism is palpable. 

Sure, social network users often grouse about tweaks and changes, but this one needlessly disrupts or convolutes  one of the most fundamental behaviors. I already have a growing list of reasons to dislike it, and will be detailing them later today.  In the meantime, her here some updates.

Twitter Retweet feature still " temporarily disabled"

"We’re working on a few problems related to the ongoing rollout. These should be resolved quickly and it will be back on for those who had the Retweet feature previously. And we’ll then continue the incremental rollout of this feature to everyone."

Re-Tweet Redesign Helps the Rich Get Richer on Twitter – Gawker.com


The new "re-tweet" feature is both less useful and more confusing than the ad-hoc system that preceded it. But that's OK, because it bolsters rich celebrities and dot-com millionaires.


Hate It Or Love It, Twitter’s New Retweet Style Is Rolling Out

This article is an example of the deferential puffery the big tech blogs engage in, but it's interesting for Scoble's comments trying to explain other dimension and ways of thinking about RT.  Users who don't know Friendfeed may not follow it.  But it also has some good general comments, like this one:

I would say it destroys the flexibility that RT has without gaining anything in return (except now there’s the Retweet sidebar area – but this doesn’t really add much information – can’t be search the way Robert describes w/ FF [below])  All in all, HUGE disruption for LITTLE or NOTHING gained. #FAIL

I just hate being right sometimes… wait, no I don't.

I love Twitter. Let's be clear on that.  But we can be critical of the things we love.

The reviews are already coming fast on "Project Retweet," and they're not pretty.

After the brief status blurb from CNET below, jump to the entire Lance Ulanoff article linked below. My merry band of followers will note the very same arguments from him that I've been making since I heard about this preposterously dopey idea.

New Coke.. I mean Retweets are down right now, and while that's probably just a glitch, some already speculate that Twitter may already see the writing on the wall, and have already shot the rabid dog before it could bite them in the ass.  Chow down, Rover!

CNET's Webware

Twitter issues mulligan on new 'retweet' feature

It was a controversial new addition: Twitter had just started rolling out a new feature that built "retweets," a user-created way to quote other tweets, into the main Twitter application. But on Wednesday, plagued by errors, Twitter appears to have pulled the feature for further maintenance.

Lance Ulanoff, PCMagazine

Twitter Retweets: Thanks but No Thanks

Seriously? Are these guys not even aware of how their own service works? I'm not the only one who adds to RTs. It's an incredibly common practice, and I think it's what helps propel the never-ending Twitter conversation along.

Twitter Watch

Twitter's new retweet feature is the worst ever.

While current users may get used to the feature, it’s going to alienate new users. Twitter isn’t like Facebook; it can’t boast the same network effect that makes Facebook indispensable. So it needs to keep things simple for new users. But now each new user will need to understand why much of their early friend feed will consist of messages they didn’t subscribe to. To understand this, they’ll need to learn the meaning of a new symbol. I expect that in trying to understand it, many of them will end up accidentally retweeting messages they didn’t want to see in the first place.

Related

New Retweets: be Afraid

 

The new Twitter retweet system has been unleashed, and it's a classic example of taking something that worked, and breaking it. Rather than simplify something most regular Twitter users understood and used rather creatively, they have now created a hybrid pastiche of behaviors where retweets will mean different things to different people, depending on how they were generated, and which client is in use when perusing them.

It's just nutty. I was contemptuous of this idea from the start, and early experience from most users suggests that I was right to be. It's an example of what happens when people who own a service believe that their narrow experiences represent everyone else's, and what they may or may not want. As I tweeted recently:

The two biggest lies in business are: "Our research shows.." and "Our customers say they want…"

The old method of retweet will still work, but you can be sure the Twitter clients will all handle it differently. But all in all, rather than improve the experience, they have simply made it very difficult to understand who sees what, and why.  Far from simplifying things for new, or casual users, they have greatly convoluted them. Even experts aren't quite sure what happens, let alone able to explain it easily.

I just don't have time to really explain all of this right now, so I will just list a few articles that try to explain what they have done, and let you figure it out. I will try and clarify my take with updates, so bookmark this for later reference 

If someone comes across a really solid explanation of how it all works, please Tweet or email me, and I will pass it on here.

If you have specific understandings of the behaviors (and you are certain about them), post as comments below. I will edit and include them in a more formal guide later.

Why Retweet works the way it does  — Twitter CEO, Ev Williams explains in a way that will the most make sense (as far as this sense goes) to social media geeks and people who enjoy reading self-serving corporate business case modeling repackaged in pseudo user-interest clothing.

Project Retweet: Why It Will Change Twitter for the Better –  Mashable's take on the new Retweet before it was released. I find this article to be sorely lacking, and a bit of PR puffery planted by Twitter in an attempt to justify something they wanted to do anyway, and got help explaining the rationale wherever they could.

Save the Retweet – Dan Zarella's excellent early effort to prevent this farce from ever happening in the first place. (Wasn't loading at press time, but probably will soon.).


Update:

The Reviews Roll In: New Retweet=#FAIL