Twitter: Why the different types of retweet?

One of my oldest, dearest (& baldest) friends has recently joined twitter. He’s had an account for a while but (and this is not unusual) it’s taken a while for him to come around to the idea of Twitter. He’s asking lots of spot on questions & one which came up is something I’ve meant to blog on for a while.

Why the different types of retweet?

Fair dos, this must be really confusing to new users!

Before we get to the heart of the answer we need to start with some basics.

With twitter you follow people which means you can see their updates; these are the people you are following. You can also (hopefully!) have followers; these are the people who follow you and see your updates.

Following / Followers

Following / Followers

It’s funny how maths lessons from back in school come back to haunt you. Above is a diagram which shows off the concept of following & followers. Twitter is often called an asymmetric social network: the people who you are following and the people who are following you may well be two completely different audiences; put another way; someone can just follow you*; you don’t have to follow back. However, there is typically an overlap (an intersect), a set of Twitter people who you are following and who are following you back.

(*Protected accounts aside).

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You could argue that the key point of any network is to spread messages. In the terms of the above diagram, that means the network is successful if messages from the people you are following get pushed across to your followers. Content which is shared like this is seen by more people, simple as that. And we all want our stuff to be seen more right?

And what we are talking about here is at the heart of the term viral; we’ve even heard the phrase “going viral“. That simply means that the content is so shareable that lots of folks are willing to shift the message from the following to their followers.

The mechanics of retweeting

If you are using the official Twitter app on (say) iPhone and you see a tweet which you want to shift to your followers, you click the double arrow “retweet” button (circled) and see something like this:

Official Twitter IOS app ('retweet' circled)

FIG1: Official Twitter IOS app (‘retweet’ circled) the typical retweet icon, sort of a double arrow.

When you click that button you are given two options: retweet and quote tweet – what’s the difference? (Note: Isn’t this the point I should have got to 500 words ago?)

Quelle Difference?

Back in the day there was only one method of retweeting. The “RT”, sometimes called the “old school” or “old style” retweet. Let’s take a look at one:

@Isabelle obviously saw a tweet from @theaussienomad (someone who she is following) and thought it was worth sharing with her followers.

Before we had tools to help with retweets, this painful process would have happend:

  1. Isabelle would have copied the text of @theaussienomad’s tweet into a new tweet window
  2. She will have moved the cursor to the front of the tweet window and added an RT{space} at the front.
  3. She will have clicked [TWEET]

Sounds a little painful? Yeah, back in the day it was a bit. Isabelle actually used Tweetdeck to retweet this so there was no copying and pasting as it does that for you.

It’s important to note that the “RT” at the front of the tweet, whilst obviously standing for “RETWEET”, is not some sort of special twitter command; it is just a convention (and a dwindling one) which grew up. You sometimes see a “.” at the front (2 less characters then “RT “, efficiency is important in Twitterland). Any character(s) which stop a username beginning a tweet will do the trick (remember that if a username begins a tweet then it becomes a reply which is a lot less visible than a normal, public tweet).

The official Twitter mobile apps have the “quote” tweet option. Achieves the same affect but puts a ” mark around the tweet. Why they didn’t adopt the more common RT style is beyond me.

So with this old style retweet you are basically creating a new tweet. And that is the issue for some people, because you are essentially copy & pasting (whether you use a tool or not), you could alter the tweet entirely, you could change the message. True, but let’s not panic here – there are very legitimate reasons for altering the text to the tweet. Let’s take a look at this example from Aral Balkan:

…and the original tweet here

So he’s used the old style retweet to add a cheeky comment on the end.

Adding your take on a tweet, whether positive or negative is a key reason for the popularity of the many old styles off retweet.

The New Style Retweet

I still call this “new style” as I’m an old git but, in truth, it’s been around since about 2009. You’ll also here it called the “native retweet”.

Twitter saw that folks had adopted this “RT ” convention (remember this was something the audience invented, it was nothing to do with Twitter per se) and decided that they wanted to create their own version.

The official twitter version is what happens when you click the “retweet” option in FIG1 rather than “quote”. Clicking retweet would produce a tweet like this:

Example of a tweet I retweeted

Example of a tweet I retweeted

The above tweet is something I retweeted yesterday; it’s actually a whacky story so here’s the link.

Note a few key things about this native retweet:

  1. I cannot edit the tweet. There is no ability to amend the text or to add to it.
  2. Andy’s profile appears in my tweet stream alongside my updates; my followers will see his account (but will see that I retweeted it – note the “Retweeted by Joel Hughes” in the image). This obviously raises the profile of the authoring account more than old style RT.

If I were a betting man then I’d say that Twitter rolled out native retweets because it makes the platform much more attractive to brands. Brands don’t really want their messages mucked with. And furthermore, the official retweet approach takes the guess work out of tracking retweets; Twitter want to show brands metrics on how tweets can go viral; to do so they need the retweet capability boiled into the core Twitter platform.

Which one should I used?

Good question!

I like the native retweet and use it a lot because it is so dang simple.

However, the old style is still very useful (and I use it) because I get to add a comment on the end. And my (admittedly not scientific) tests show that a comment at the end (e.g. “Must read!”) really adds weight and makes it more clickable.

There is another good reason for using the old style retweet though: visibility.

If someone uses the new style/native retweet then the Twitter website and the official Twitter apps do a good job of showing that in the “Connect” tab:

Screenshot of official Twitter app; see retweet at top

Screenshot of official Twitter app; see retweet at top

In the above screenshot of the official Twitter app you can see Aimee has retweeted me at the top.


Not everyone uses the official Twitter apps or the Twitter website; there’s a whole galaxy of apps out there. My personal faves on my iPhone are Tweetlist and Tweetbot.

Now, for whatever reason, these other Twitter apps do not do such a good job of showing native retweets in the Connect (or “Mentions”) tab.

E.g. take a look at the Mentions column as viewed on Tweetlist on my iPhone; there’s no reference to the fact that Aimee retweeted me yesterday.

Mentions column on Tweetlist

Mentions column on Tweetlist

So the upshot is that there is a potential lack of visibility if you use the new style retweet. Not lack of visibility with your followers; no, they’ll see it fine. But lack of visibility when it comes to the actual author of the tweet. This may or may not be an issue to you but if you are to go to the trouble of retweeting someone then the author may as well be aware of it; it is a compliment after all.

I’m guessing that these other apps like Tweetlist and Tweetbot will catch up and show this more advanced Connect view which gives better visibility to retweets etc. Quite why they have not done it so far probably means that Twitter are actually making it hard for them to do it – the swines they are!

The End

Ok, well that turned into much more of a rambling post than I attended but I hope that helps.

Oh, I forgot to say that the Twitter website itself does NOT have a “quote” option for tweets; you can only use the native retweet facility*. That itself shows you that they would prefer use to use the new style only.

(*However, there are some clever hacks around this. E.g. you can install this Chrome browser extension and then your Twitter web will have classic RT, clever huh?)


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