Twitter may fundamentally change how retweets and mentions work

Twitter leadership has made it a goal of the last few years to be more transparent about its decision-making and to provide more detailed road maps for when new features and other big changes come to the platform. Just look at CEO Jack Dorsey’s rather epic multi-tweet Facebook takedown when he announced the platform’s political ad ban last week.

In that spirit, Dantley Davis, Twitter’s vice president of design and research, yesterday evening released a list of features he says he’s excited to “explore” in 2020. They include some fundamental changes to how Twitter functions, in particular how the retweet works and how freely users are able to pull others into their conversations with or without their permission.

While Davis says he’s “looking forward to” these features coming in 2020, it doesn’t seem likely that he’s officially announcing them. Twitter’s product gurus are being more outspoken as of late about in-progress or just plain experimental ideas, but they could be announced at some point in the future. (In a follow-up tweet, Davis refers to them as “ideas he’s excited to explore.”

There are two that stand out the most. The first is the ability to disable a retweet on your tweet. That could help prevent its spread throughout the broader Twitter network, in the event you’re concerned malicious people or other bad actors want to signal boost it as a way to direct negative attention your way. In other words, it’s an anti-harassment feature.

Short of making your account private, which may not be in your best interest if you’re a public-facing individual (like a journalist or artist) or a bona fide public figure, this may be a useful tool in helping blunt the viral spread of a tweet you feel is being misinterpreted or wielded against you for reasons unrelated to the actual content of the message. This of course would not stop people from going to your profile and looking at the tweet there. But it does seem like a genuinely smart approach to promoting healthier conversations and reducing toxicity.

The creator of the retweet button, software developer Chris Wetherell, told BuzzFeed News in an interview this past summer that the feature, developed back in 2009, was akin to handing “a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.” He says Twitter did not think through the implications of creating a button that could boost the reach of any post regardless of context, and that the retweet button may have made the platform worse off overall.

Dorsey even told BuzzFeed he understands the sentiment. “Definitely thinking about the incentives and ramifications of all actions, including retweet,” he said at the time. “Retweet with comment for instance might encourage more consideration before spread.”

The other feature Davis mentions that’s especially noteworthy is the ability to prevent other users from mentioning you without your permission. That could also change how Twitter functions, if suddenly you were no longer allowed to tag people in threads or dunk tweets without getting their express approval beforehand. Again, this looks a lot like an anti-harassment feature.

Call out culture is still a foundational element of the discourse on Twitter, and publicly mentioning a user in a tweet criticizing them allows the people who view the tweet to more easily follow suit. It provides them a link to your profile, and it ensures that every reply they make also shows up in your mentions (depending on your settings).

That can result in a huge flood of negative mentions that make Twitter effectively unusable and, often, a miserable and unyielding source of online vitriol. Although Twitter has better filtering and moderation tools built in these days to help reduce the visibility of negative tweets, it’s still not great to face a barrage of harassment in your mentions tab. Being able to cut that process off entirely would be a fascinating experiment in personal moderation that could have profound platform-level effects on how people communicate on Twitter.

That said, these aren’t official features. Davis wrote a follow-up tweet indicating the company may not even be actively working on any of them quite yet. He says Twitter is soliciting feedback from the community on what it should prioritize and ways to safely implement certain features without messing up other parts of the product that do well today.


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