The Power of the Retweet

[This was first published at AMPed.]
I’ve discussed Twitter in a variety of capacities on AMPed but mainly within the context of using mashable technologies that include Twitter, but I have not discussed a feature of Twitter that sometimes is overlooked – retweeting.
What exactly is retweeting? Retweeting is taking a tweet that was originally sent by one person that you follow and you in turn forward it on to your own followers, usually with an added comment so that the new tweet would look something like this:

Awww RT@stephenfry Plus *eyelidflutter* Steve Jobs said “Hi, Stephen” *swoon*.

In this case I’m commenting on a tweet originally sent by @stephenfry, whom I follow and in turn, I forwarded that tweet to my followers along with my comment. Because of the format of the tweet, it is generally understood that everything before the “RT” is by me and everything after the “RT” is by the originating author. And this is accepted as the norm in Twitter communication for since time immortal (or 2006).
It is exactly like email forwarding, with the exception that you cannot selective choose who your retweet goes out to, it has to go out to all of those that follow you or none at all.
When Twitter first came to being, it didn’t have an official re-tweet option, at least not on A lot of the retweeting that went on was done by hand, meaning simple cut and paste with formatting to make it fit within 140 characters. As Twitter, and obviously by extension tweeting, became more popular, applications and websites like HootSuite, Seesmic and TweetDeck started building tools within their clients to make retweeting easier, thus no more cut and paste! One could simply select the option to retweet a tweet and the application would do the formatting for you.
But then, everything changed. In the fall of 2009, Twitter announced they were going to do something a little bit differently: change how people retweeted. This may not seem like earth shattering details but in the context of how people use Twitter and for people who use, it was a big deal.
Here is what they did:
For ages, applications were already incorporating ways for people to retweet content, allowing people to style how they disseminated the information as seen by my example above., sometimes late to their own party, decided to shake things up by adding a retweet option natively into the website. What this option did is that if you were reading your Twitter timeline on and saw something you wanted to retweet, the retweet option would re-post the tweet for you but as it originated from the author, with no option to restyle it or adding commentary. So, if I retweeted my example from above to my followers, what they would see is the tweet as it was originally sent by Stephen Fry with “retweeted by” appended on. The interesting thing about this new option is that for those who ALREADY follow Stephen Fry on Twitter, they would not see my retweet since it already appeared originally in their timeline.
Applications and websites have started incorporating this option into their software, giving users a choice to do it natively or to add commentary.
Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter, explains the rationale behind the the new format and the ideology of how retweeting emerged organically.
So now that we’ve covered what retweeting is, how it’s used and how to use it, what exactly makes it powerful? There are a number of reasons (in no particular order):

  1. It introduces new users to your followers that they may not already know. For example, there are a number of Twitter users who have become massively popular due to the viralness of retweeting, such as @ArchivesOpen and @UkNatArchives. The viralness of a Twitter account is not limited to an account that is for pure entertainment, as news & culture magazins, think tanks, research groups and individuals that I do not follow have appeared in my timeline, retweeted by people who think that information is interesting or useful.
  2. It draws attention to a particular action, ideology or commentary that you believe in and want to share with your followers.
  3. It illustrates something you agree or disagree with, but sharing the orignal tweet with your own commentary, thus drawing attention to something that may not have been noticed before.
  4. Retweeting gives credit to sources, which again goes back to expanding your social network, either professionally or personally.
  5. It creates conversations with your followers by them retweeting or responding directly to you about your retweet or by retweeting a tweet that originated from yourself.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg and there could be a series on the power of retweeting, but for now we’ll just cover the basics to lay the foundation on becoming a better tweeter. By understanding why people use retweeting, how to use it, what it does and why it can be so powerful gives you a better foundation to be a better tweeter and at the end of the day, isn’t that what everyone wants?