Man Who Built The Retweet : “We Handed A Loaded Weapon To 4-Year-Olds”
Developer Chris Wetherell built Twitter’s retweet button. And he regrets what he did to this day.
“We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon,” Wetherell recalled thinking as he watched the first Twitter mob use the tool he created. “That’s what I think we actually did.”
Wetherell, a veteran tech developer, led the Twitter team that built the retweet button in 2009. The button is now a fundamental feature of the platform, and has been for a decade — to the point of innocuousness. But as Wetherell, now cofounder of a yet-unannounced startup, made clear in a candid interview, it’s time to fix it. Because social media is broken. And the retweet is a big reason why.
After the retweet button debuted, Wetherell was struck by how effectively it spread information. “It did a lot of what it was designed to do,” he said. “It had a force multiplier that other things didn’t have.”
“We would talk about earthquakes,” Wetherell said. “We talked about these first response situations that were always a positive and showed where humanity was in its best light.”
But the button also changed Twitter in a way Wetherell and his colleagues didn’t anticipate. Copying and pasting made people look at what they shared, and think about it, at least for a moment. When the retweet button debuted, that friction diminished. Impulse superseded the at-least-minimal degree of thoughtfulness once baked into sharing. Before the retweet, Twitter was largely a convivial place. After, all hell broke loose — and spread.
In the early 2010s, Facebook’s leadership was looking for ways to drive up engagement. Having previously failed to acquire Twitter, they looked to its product for inspiration.
The allure of going viral via the retweet had drawn publications, journalists, and politicians to Twitter en masse. And their presence shined most prominently during the 2012 election, a big moment for Twitter and a relative dud for Facebook. So Facebook, in a now all too familiar move copied Twitter, adding a trending column, hashtags, and a retweet clone.
In 2014, Wetherell realized the retweet button was going to be a major problem when the phrase “ethics in game journalism” started pouring into a saved search for “journalism” he had on Twitter. The phrase was a rallying cry for Gamergate — a harassment campaign against women in the game industry — and Wetherell, after seeing that first batch of tweets, watched it closely.
As Gamergate unfolded, Wetherell noticed its participants were using the retweet to “brigade,” or coordinate their attacks against their targets, disseminating misinformation and outrage at a pace that made it difficult to fight back. The retweet button propelled Gamergate, according to an analysis by the technologist and blogger Andy Baio. In his study of 316,669 Gamergate tweets sent over 72 hours, 217,384 were retweets, or about 69%.
The game took another dark turn during the 2016 presidential campaign, when impulse-sparked sharing caused outrage and disinformation to flourish on both Twitter and Facebook. It’s one thing to copy and paste a link that says Hillary Clinton is running a pedophile ring in the basement of a pizza shop — and share it under your own name. It’s another to see someone else post it, remember that you don’t like Hillary Clinton, and impulsively hit the share or retweet button.
“We have some evidence that people who are more likely to stop and think are better at telling true from false,” David Rand, an associate professor at MIT who studies misinformation, told BuzzFeed News. “Even for stuff that they are motivated to believe, people who stop and think more are less likely to believe the false stuff.”
The benefits of creating such content accrued disproportionately to the fringe. When someone retweets something, they’re sharing the content with their followers, but also sending a signal to the person they’re amplifying, said Anil Dash, a blogger and tech entrepreneur. The more fringe the original tweeter, the more valuable the retweet.
“If I retweet the New York Times, they don’t care,” Dash said. “But extreme content comes from people who are trying to be voices, who are trying to be influential in culture, and so it has meaning to them, and so it earns me status with them.”
The pursuit of that status has driven many Twitter users to write outrageous tweets in the hope of being retweeted by fringe power users. And when they do get retweeted, it sometimes lends a certain credibility to their radical positions.
The retweet and share, in other words, incentivize extreme, polarizing, and outrage-inducing content.
A full rollback of the share and retweet buttons is unrealistic, and Wetherell doesn’t believe it’s a good idea. Were these buttons universally disabled, he said, people could pay users with large audiences to get their message out, giving them disproportionate power.
"Oh no, we put power into the hands of people.”
To rein in the excesses of the retweet, Wetherell suggested the social media companies turn their attention toward audiences. When thousands of people retweet or share the same tweet or post, they become part of an audience. A platform could revoke or suspend the retweet ability from audiences that regularly amplify awful posts, said Wetherell. “Curation of individuals is way too hard, as YouTube could attest,” Wetherell said. “But curation of audiences is a lot easier.”
Another solution might be to limit on the number of times a tweet can be retweeted. Facebook is experimenting with an approach of this nature, although not in its main product. Earlier this year, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, limited the number of people to which a message could be forwarded to five at a time, in response to quick-spreading rumors and disinformation. “The forward limit significantly reduced forwarded messages around the world,” WhatsApp said in a blog post. “We’ll continue to listen to user feedback about their experience, and over time, look for new ways of addressing viral content.”
MIT’s Rand suggested another idea: preventing people from retweeting an article if they haven’t clicked on the link. “That could make people slow down,” he said. “But even more than that, it could make people realize the problematic nature of sharing content without having actually read it.”
Whatever the solution, Wetherell looks at the retweet very differently than he once did — a lesson that he thinks has broader implications. “I remember specifically one day thinking of that phrase: We put power in the hands of people,” he said. “But now, what if you just say it slightly differently: Oh no, we put power into the hands of people.”
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