Twitter’s Retweet Experiment Will Make You Rethink Your Favorites

In its latest effort to engage newbies, Twitter is sharing “favorite” tweets on some accounts as if they are re-tweets. It comes on the heels of another experiment earlier this month that displayed suggested follows in your timeline, similar to ads.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo hinted at timeline changes in the past, so the new features aren’t entirely unexpected. The company is trying to attract and retain users, something it has historically struggled with—showing new users favorites and suggested follows from friends could encourage those new eggs to get involved.

For Twitter power users however, that’s a problem. 

Most veteran Twitter members maintain well-tailored Twitter accounts. We carefully prune our accounts so we follow only the people and topics we truly care about. Many of us keep the number of people we follow as small as possible to prevent Twitter from becoming a cacophony of information. The tweets we choose to “favorite” won’t necessarily mean anything to anyone else. Favorite tweets can be a bookmark to follow up on a tweet later, an acknowledgement of a good joke, or a “thank you” or thumbs up to a tweet we appreciate. 

Retweets, on the other hand, are explicit. When someone retweets into a timeline, it means he or she believes it’s a tweet you should see. By displaying favorites as retweets, Twitter is changing the entire experience. Now, we’ll have to ask ourselves, “Would I want someone to see that I favorited this?”

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It appears Twitter is taking parts of the Activity feed—the timeline that shows the most recent favorites, retweets and @-replies from people you follow—and putting them in the Home timeline, traditionally reserved for tweets and retweets from people you follow.

Breaking Down Barriers For Discovery

The thing veteran users may forget is that Twitter can be hard to understand. Twitter’s basic premise—sharing in 140 characters or less—seems pretty obvious. For newbies however, Twitter looks like its own highly insidery portion of the Internet where news is broken, protests are staged and memes are created.

When someone new joins Twitter, he or she is becoming part of a public social network with 271 million users. The vastness and the quirks can be overwhelming, and for a someone who is new to the noise, it might not be worth learning to use.

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To encourage new users to stay and find interesting people and things to follow, Twitter is serving up tweets from other users, and betting that they will find them interesting because someone they follow does.

For people who have become accustomed to using Twitter in a certain way, seeing tweets from people you don’t follow may be jarring. But it could also prove to be an opportunity to discover communities and interests you didn’t know existed outside your own personal Twitter bubble. Fans of serendipity might like it; people content with their current Twitter feed will not.

How Do I Avoid This?

If you don’t want to see random tweets popping up in your timeline, it’s easy to avoid. For now these tweets only seem to appear in the official Twitter applications and services, so if you don’t want to view errant tweets, use a client like Tweetbot on iOS, Fenix on Android, or TweetDeck on the Web.

Twitter is constantly experimenting, so it’s unclear whether favorites will become retweets in the future. And even if they do, there’s little users can do besides gripe about the changes on the very service they’re complaining about.

Lead image by Bernard Goldbach

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