I ran across this comic about forwarding emails at Hallmark’s ShoeBox Blog today, and even though it’s from 2007, it’s just as timely now.
Let’s face it: under most circumstances, forwarding an email is a bad idea. It’s the lazy way out. Somebody sent you some funny or interesting content, and you like it enough to share with your friends. What’s easier than clicking one button and going about your business?
Well, as time has shown us all, that wasn’t such a good plan. Forwarding emails is now considered bad etiquette; something the non-savvy and elderly do. It’s now associated with “mom and dad using the computer again”. Mostly, this is because the quality of the content is awful. How many times have you seen an email with a subject line that goes something like “FWD:FWD:FWD:FWD:FWD…”?
Enter the Twitter
Well here we are now, firmly ensconced in the golden era of the social media age. Twitter’s been around long enough to have a field of experts, its own culture, etiquette, and protocol. However, one aspect of Twitter feels sort of like a black sheep. It’s the retweet function.
“ReTweeting” is not something Twitter invented. Rather, it came from the same basic human behavior that created the “FWD:FWD:FWD:” phenomenon—sheer laziness. You see something you like, whether it be a funny Tweet that a friend posted or a link or a motivational quote. People would simply copy and paste it with the letters “RT” in front of it and the person’s Twitter handle behind it, like so:
“RT @primesuspect I’m fat, let’s party.”
The nice part about this is that the RT can provide context for your own commentary:
“Hahaha this guy is a riot to hang out with. RT @primesuspect I’m fat, let’s party.”
Back in 2009, there were some disagreements about protocol, over things like whether or not to put the word “via” in there, or to put the attribution at the front of or back of the Tweet, and so on.
Well, the RT became such a commonplace piece of Twitter behavior, that it became an actual Twitter feature—which solved that issue. In August of 2009, Twitter announced a native RT feature, which is what most of us use today. Some still use the manual cut-and-paste method, and tools like Tweetdeck allow you to choose which style of Retweet you want. Many people prefer the old style because it allows you to add commentary.
It’s been almost two years since the native RT went into effect, so what’s the consensus?
Back to the lazy board
Well, anecdotally, I’ll say that the RT function is something of a failure; the times I see it used are when people just want a one-click way to spread content. It’s the most low-effort form of “engagement” there is; your audience gets content (albeit, someone else’s), the person you RT’ed sometimes thanks you, and you look like a hero, right? The curator, indeed.
But there is no real engagement. There are people who do nothing but RT. Chances are, the thing being RTed is just something “funny” or cute, or a picture or a link to an event. It kind of goes against the very fundamental of Twitter, which asks “What’s Happening?” (and before that, it was “What are you doing?”). It doesn’t create conversation; rather, it essentially advertises.
The problem is: social media scoring services such as Klout and PeerIndex weigh RTs quite heavily when factoring one’s online influence. If you can get a bunch of people to RT your content, well that must mean you’re an interesting person, right?
Not really. Take a gander at some of the worst offenders. There are Twitter clickfarms that do nothing but have a pool of user accounts that RT each other and then RT specific Tweets for paid clients. They can sell that: “Look, we got 3,000 people to retweet a link to your website!” But, all those clicks are worthless: They’re sometimes not even real people.
The question, as most things with Twitter, comes back to one of engagement. If a person RTs something, does that actually create any value for you? Does that sell your product or get a customer in the door? RTs show up as messages from people you don’t know and don’t follow on Twitter. Therefore, one is much more likely to ignore the message—most of the time it just looks like clutter in your timeline.
I think time will tell the story on this one: RTs will go the way of the Forward; they’ll be seen as an occasionally useful feature that is for older or non-savvy users. I only hope that scoring services don’t continue to focus on RTs as a heavy metric.