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July 23, 2009, 2 p.m.

On retweeting: How broadcasting someone else’s 140 characters helps make a new medium social

So you’re on Twitter. You know what a hashtag is; you can squeeze any message into 140 characters. You’re a veteran.

But do you know about the battle between the adapters and the preservers? Can you identify an “ego retweet” when you see one? Have you thought about the intellectual-property implications of the letters “RT”?

Three researchers — social media guru danah boyd, Cornell sociology grad student Scott Golder, and artist Gilad Lotan — have written an academic paper that hits on all those topics while examining an issue at the core of Twitter’s social nature: How and why do people retweet? Their draft, entitled “Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter” is available on boyd’s site and open to public commentary. “We’ve gotten numerous comments and emails from people who have enjoyed reading the paper,” Golder told me over email, “and many of them have shared their own personal reflections on retweeting.”

The authors examined a random sample of 720,000 tweets from between January 26 and June 13 and found that about three percent of all tweets are retweets — that is, they are primarily a repeat of another Twitter user’s message. “We are studying Twitter in a variety of contexts,” Golder said. “In particular, we are trying to initially simply map out what’s going on, document people’s practices and get an understanding of how people are actually using it and what they’re using it for.”

Here are some of their findings:

There are several ways to retweet. That makes the practice difficult to study. The authors write: “There is no consistent syntax to indicate a retweet, attribution is inconsistent, the 140-character limitation and other factors prompt users to alter the original message, and adding commentary is prevalent. Furthermore, people use retweet language to reference content from other media and when paraphrasing others’ tweets. As a result, the text and meaning of messages often change as they are retweeted and the inconsistent syntax makes it difficult to track the spread of retweets.” Still, the closest thing to consensus seems to be the “RT @username” syntax; 88 percent of the retweets the researchers identified included an “RT,” versus 11 percent for “via” and five percent for “retweet.”

140 characters put constraints on retweeting. Twitter limits messages to that length so they will fit in standard text messages. But it can be awkward for users to retweet if what they’re hoping to rebroadcast already tops off at 140 characters and adding “RT @Oprah” would push it past the limit.

The paper identifies two different camps of retweeters: preservers and adapters. “‘Preservers’ emphasize maintaining the original intent, context, and content,” they write. “Those who fall into the category of ‘adapters’ are willing to remove various parts of the tweet to suit their own purposes.” Adapters often shorten a tweet by deleting or disemvoweling (removing all the vowels — a.k.a. dsmvwlng). Of course, editing introduces intellectual property issues: “In editing, a retweeter can change the intellectual ownership of the substantive content of the message, and retweeters sometimes serve more as ‘authors’ of ideas rather than ‘curators’ of others’ work.” This can lead to confusion over whose work is actually represented in a retweet.

[For what it's worth, we keep all our tweets at @niemanlab under 125 characters to allow for retweeting space. —Josh]

What gets retweeted? The researchers captured 203,371 retweets between April 20th and June 13th. Of those:

— 52% contain a URL (like http://www.niemanlab.org/)
— 18% contain a hashtag (like #iranelection)
— 11% contain an encapsulated retweet
— 9% contain an @reply that refers to the person retweeting the post

The link-heavy nature of retweeting makes Twitter a lot like link-aggregation sites like trending-topics list as a form of “collective group-identity making”
— In order to crowdsource information and tap into the knowledge or expertise of followers

The study also notes the tendency of marketers to “ego retweet,” or retweet a positive message a user has posted about their product.

Why retweet? “We identified many reasons why people retweet,” Golder told me, “but my favorite is that people are retweeting for ‘social action’ purposes. This is true in the use of Twitter in Iran, but also in trying to bring attention to any cause, or crowdsource information to help solve some problem.” Other reasons people retweet include:

— To amplify or spread tweets to a new audience
— To entertain or inform a specific audience, or as an act of curation
— To comment on someone’s tweet by retweeting and adding new content, often to begin a conversation
— To make one’s presence as a listener visible
— To publicly agree with someone
— To validate others’ thoughts
— As an act of friendship, loyalty, or homage by drawing attention, sometimes via a retweet request
— To recognize or refer to less popular people or less visible content
— For self-gain either to gain followers or reciprocity from more visible participants
— To save tweets for personal access

Is it journalism? Retweeting can also serve as an effective way to crowdsource information, which can help journalists garner more sources or data to include in their articles. But the easy spread of misinformation is also an issue. Golder addressed this in his e-mail to me: “Misinformation can be spread just as quickly as accurate information. When celebrities were dropping like flies [...] there were numerous false reports of other celebrity deaths, for example. But I don’t think we should confuse what Twitter users are doing for journalism; Twitter users aren’t generally trying to be journalists, they’re having a conversation.” As we saw during the Iran protests, while Twitter can be an enormous conduit of information, it’s also unclear what information was accurate, what was hearsay, and what was just plain invented.

“Twitter can be useful for journalists,” Golder told me, “in that they might be exposed to topics or events that they might not have encountered otherwise. But this is a place to start, not to stop. The old rules of checking sources and facts still apply.”

UPDATE, 3:15 p.m.: As you might expect, the @NiemanLab tweet linking to this post was heavily retweeted: 29 times in the first 30 minutes. Of those, 25 employed the “RT” format, while 4 opted for “via.” Fourteen of the retweets left the message more-or-less intact (those would be preservers), but 15 adapters edited the original tweet and/or added their own words. The best retweet was in Portuguese. —Zach

POSTED     July 23, 2009, 2 p.m.
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