James Governor's Monkchips

Be Kind, Retweet… On the timeless way of building networks

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Jeremiah has a nice post about the retweet phenomenon in twitter (much like via: in delicious, another convention/function established by the community rather the platform provider).

As a result, the most powerful activity within Twitter is to watch the “Retweet” phenomenon. A retweet is when one individual copies a tweet from someone in their network and shares it with their network. It’s perhaps the highest degree of content approval, it means that the content was so valuable and important that they were willing to share it with their network –causing it to spread from one community to the next –retweets are the core essence of the viral aspect of content spreading.

I am not sure retweet is the most powerful activity on twitter, although Jeremiah and Shel both believe so, and would probably have argued the toss had I not seen a marked uptick in my followers this weekend. Tim O’Reilly has been retweeting me a lot lately, thanks to the Twhirl button. Tim says:

As one of the most prolific retweeters around, I want to give a shout out to twhirl for encouraging retweet behavior by giving a simple button to do it. I don’t think I would ever have adopted retweeting with such gusto without that easy feature.

This example illustrates just how important architectural choices are in creating viral applications.

What’s so wonderful about twitter is that its minimal interface has led to an explosion of user and third-party application innovation. It’s a bit like what Alexander Pope said about writing in rhymed couplets: the limits of the form made his creativity shoot out, as water from a fountain.

Ironically given this is really a post about link economies Jeremiah’s blog doesn’t appear to support permalinks for comments, which i must admit surprises me a bit. But back to twitter and retweets.

I twittered:

why don’t the oil companies bail the auto manufacturers out? they are a crucial distribution channel, and help keep the price of gas up

And Tim followed up.

Clever: @monkchips: “why don’t the oil companies bail the auto manufacturers out?”

It was later in the day when I searched Twitter for @monkchips replies and mentions that I saw writ large that the right tweet really could cascade through a network, potentially picking up new followers as it went. So that’s a page a half of people, engaged with my idea through Tim.

Retweeting is indeed a powerful mechanism, though it would be good to see the convention more standardised – the right tool probably needs to emerge to help formalise the idiom. Jeremiah indirectly points to a lack of standardisation like so:

In fact, in a very primitive way, you can see those that are repeating the content of others, for example Tim O’Reilly’s content. See this search query showing “Retweet @timorelly“, or “RT @timoreilly” (an abbreviated version).

Sometimes people use “retweeting @timoreilly. Another problem with retweets is that they are often much longer than the original (pesky long twitter names!), thus requiring edits.

I will continue to tweet, and retweet, and thanks to all those who retweet me.

For me the most interesting angle about retweeting is the point in the intro. Its really a language convention that the community created. Bottom up phenomenon are always interesting, and tend to happen in what I jokingly call Poor Internet Applications. Small Pieces, Loosely joined foster innovation and allow users to make paths and establish conventions rather than having them forced upon us. This is the Timeless Way of Building Social Networks. Sloppy is good. Don’t tell me its “just a feature” – so is a comma, or a vowel, but that doesn’t make them any less useful in the language.

The still above is of course from the awesome Be Kind Rewind, Michael Gondry’s meditation on the nature of creativity in the age of digital


  1. I love it that you hybridized Christopher Alexander, Tim O’Reilly, and Michel Gondry all in one post!

    (And TO’R has it exactly right: that Twhirl button makes all the difference.)

  2. Great post – I use the ♺ symbol to save space on retweeting (you can cut & paste it into Twhirl to make the button work), but that still doesn’t help with the long user names!

  3. I respect the folks who retweet on merit,
    and do not just retweet other “A-list” types,
    or less known users always retweeting well known
    personalities, yet not their own peers.

  4. […] How important architectural choices are in creating viral applications? Very important in encouraging retweeting for example, from James Governor’s Monkchips blog: […]

  5. Love this post, James. Retweeting is a great viral tool that both broadcasts an idea further and gives cred to the person it came from.

    Now let’s just get the RT concept entered into the core Twitter FAQ so that it’s more accessible for newbies to the service…

  6. Retweeting is the equivalent of the trackback in the blogosphere. An important idea in terms of propagating information through the network much like trackbacks.

  7. Ed,

    Its worth repeating. If your friends waste time with power retweets, unfollow them. Isolate and destroy. Use the power of the flexible network.

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