Retweeting started off as a shorthand way to share an idea on Twitter with your network. It’s become a big deal to some people who see it as another way to spread linkbait. I’ll go over what the RT is supposed to be, and then we’ll discuss what happens when it becomes linkbait.
What is a RT (retweet)
Retweeting is a way to expand the reach of a thought, link or idea. If someone with a network of 20 tweets about something brilliant, I can retweet it to my own network of thousands and help get their idea heard. The intent is to save the retweets for the truly valuable, humorous or newsworthy items, and not for things like Magpie advertising links and the like.
You know you are seeing something being retweeted when you see RT (conventional abbreviation) at the beginning of the tweet. The reason the RT is at the beginning is both to clearly indicate up front that the idea is not original and to escape the cage of the @ reply. By prefacing an @username with an RT (or any other character, for what it’s worth), you allow your network to see it whether they follow that person or not. If you start your RT with the @username only those who already follow the person can see it, defeating the purpose.
As with anything, when an idea is working perfectly well as it is, people feel the need to mess with it and “make it their own” or “become a thought leader in their space” or whatever horse nugget reason is currently being brandished. To that end we now have a variety of ways to introduce a retweet in addition to the simple, and short, RT. You will also see tweets with the word “via”, “from”, “auth” etc in them. These are all fine, and also indicate who the originator of the idea was. They just waste more characters doing so.
There are a few traditions around the art of the RT. Mainly these are intended to give the author credit in a clear way, and to keep the content of the RT in its original context. The first and foremost of these traditions is to always keep the original author username in. Often, you’ll get a RT that has been passed on several times. Some people may want to get “kudos” from whatever “big name” tweeter who is part of the RT chain by leaving their name in instead of the originator. Not cool! If you find that you have to delete @usernames to make room, the one who said the original tweet is always the one you leave in.
Shortening a RT is often required. If you learn to tweet in 120 character nuggets, you are easier to RT, but often a thought is more comfortable when it takes up more space. To that end, people who RT you may have to do some abbreviating. When in doubt, always keep the context! Do not abbreviate a RT in such a way that it supports your view as opposed to the author’s. Not cool! Some suggested abbreviations: using the number 8 for the “ate” sound in a word; using TwitterKeys pictures in place of some words; using U (you), B (be), 4 (for), 2 (to, too, two) and other text message abbreviations in place of some words; using contractions where possible (and removing the ‘ if needed), etc.
A question I get often is “what is a ratio of RT to tweets”. My answer there is that your stream should feel engaging and conversational if possible – if it is a wall of RTs it looks like you never have an original thought in your head. Space them out a bit.
Recently, the popularity of Twitter has led to some interesting RT issues. A few to look out for:
The tendency for spammers and fake conference throwers and other nefarious characters to RT a fake RT as if it came from a “thought leader” or someone they think is an influencer for some reason, when in fact the person never said that at all. So far this has happened to me twice, to Chris Brogan a few times, and to a handful of others. This is done to give false validity to their site, which usually is selling something. Think about it – if you see one of these and know our usual tweet style, you’ll know if the person would have actually said that or not. Most of us watch for these and try to reply with an “oh I don’t THINK so” of some kind when we can as well, so watch for those also. Chris is the only one I know of who got a RT that he’d be a speaker at a conference before he even knew the conference existed.
RT spam. I hate this one. I have actually fallen for it once now in spite of all my time on Twitter because I’m so darn busy. What happens with this is a link will be prefaced with something in front of it that sounds like breaking news, and get picked up by someone in your stream. If you are like me, you have a small, small number of people whom you trust so explicitly you grant them your trust and may RT them without reading the link until later. In the case of my RT, it was “news” about the iPhone 3G S, which I follow as a Mac user, and it was in a very trusted friend’s stream. Turns out it went to a site selling some fly-by-night pills. YUCK. I am fortunate that I have an involved and active network who alerted me immediately to what had happened, generating an immediate take down and correction from me, but if you are just starting out, you may not have built up that help yet. To that end, read the links first.
RT flash mobs. This often, but not always, falls under the bitchmeme category. A bitchmeme is when a large number of people “pile on” to an issue without fully understanding the facts, then cause it to spread like a nasty little virus of negativity across the internet. Examples of recent bitchmemes include things like Motrin Moms. The RT flash mob is not always negative. Often, the intent behind it is a good cause, like the recent support for #iranelections on Twitter. You can see this in the many, many hashtags (and sub hashtags, now, which is a whole OTHER post coming later) and green avatars popping up.
Most of the time the RT flash mob is totally harmless – the first wave of unchecked information flies past, then about 12 hours later the second wave of corrected or enhanced information comes by, then you can expect at least two more floods to your Twitter stream as the correct information and the emotional reactions occur, all spaced out in 12 hour intervals, and varying global time zones. It tends to take about 4 – 5 days for the average RT flash mob to dissipate (a current example is Steve Jobs’ liver replacement, which I am affectionately calling the iLiver, and which is nearing the end of stage one. Expect corrected information to flow along today). For some reason, unless the RT flash mob is based on a breaking news story during the week, like the #iranelections, these seem to happen most often on the weekends.
In the case of #iranelections and other sensitive global events, the RT flash mob can cause problems. People were retweeting sensitive information without thinking, like the Twitter names of the people who were tweeting from inside Iran, for example. Then in the second wave, people on Twitter were changing their location to confuse Iran officials who were monitoring. This mainly served to confuse third party apps who depend on the Twitter location to work well. Then we had a wave of green avatars in support of #iranelections. Although these are intended to show solidarity with all of those in Iran seeking change, the color is party specific and has caused a stir because of that. You can see how each wave builds on the last.
I think the RT has value in drumming up immediate global awareness and support for both local and global issues as they occur. I love the attention and support the people of Iran are getting for their cause. My words of caution for the next RT flash mob is to do five minutes of research before you click that RT button in your Twitter client, or before you copy paste on the web. Just the briefest of pauses can help stop bad information from going out. Also, if you see a good RT flash mob happening, like the #blamedrewscancer movement (which has moved from “flash mob” to “meme” now, and will have a longer shelf life because of it), spread it around. We need more good things.