The Origin of the Retweet and other Twitter Arcana
Sometimes you blink and a decade goes by. In this case, it is well on 12 years. I thought I would get this down on paper before I forget it all.
Twitter is certainly the oddest amazing story I’ve been able to witness up close in my 25 years in tech. It has been covered at length in so many places and in such detail since its surprise ascendancy at SxSW in 2007 that sometimes now it is hard to remember the first year when it was an aspiring SMS service that was missing a vowel. Back then, “tweet” or “tweeting” wasn’t a thing. You “twittered” and you actually thought extra hard when you did because you were sending a text to an unknown number of people and for some of those recipients that twitter SMS was a surcharge on their phone bill!
I’ve always adopted a stance Ev articulated well at some point — that “nobody actually invents anything on the Internet” recognizing that instead you build on what is already there. I distinctly remember the day when after watching Dick Costolo give a pre-IPO roadshow presentation I was struck when Chris Sacca introduced me to someone as the “guy who invented the retweet.” Sacca is a preternatural marketer. It was generous, innocuous, and very concise but it made me a bit uncomfortable because I am, well, pedantic. Nevertheless, I took (albeit uncomfortably) the moniker and assumed a form of creation myth which now years later I’d like to unpack.
Because, the thing is. I didn’t invent the retweet in use today.
Invention is a funny thing because it presupposes a bunch of notions of products or features as they exist currently and misses out on the herky jerky nature of product evolution. So for me it is more accurate to think of invention as original ideas or concepts that go through a design process until they mature (and really, then, you end up back with precisely Ev’s point).
For instance, Chris Messina is commonly identified with the hashtag invention. But when you dig deeper on the evolution of that Twitter feature you see that the concept of grouping objects by tag was well established by Flickr and delicious and what Chris really wanted was a mechanism to do that for twitters/tweets. He was sharp enough to propose a spec with the right character (#) to do that!
His suggestion was more of a design refinement because by that time there were already instances of users including tags inside of tweets with clumsier syntax. For example, here is “Tag: pirillowedding” from another original Twitter influencer, Scoble .
Though Messina’s economical improvement gained adoption it was entirely without function. Twitter had no search and no way of listing those new hashtags for some time. They were first implemented in 3rd party clients. And over time the hashtag has exploded in ways far beyond its humble organizational origins. I mean, who would have imagined a gesture for the hashtag? So too have the design improvements (autocomplete, trends, and visual styling).
The retweet too followed its own circuitous route. In this case, the concept came to me on the eve of SxSW because some of the Web 2.0 companies at that time had banded together to throw a party.
I wanted to get the word out.
Now, to put this into context, think Nokia phones and think cycling through numbered buttons to find alphabetical characters (unless you figured out T9). Also remember that there were only a handful of businesses on Twitter! The notion of “marketing” was a foreign concept for this shiny new toy that was a status update tool.
I sat there at my laptop thinking about what a fun party (8-Bit!) we were going to throw and had this idea that I should twitter something about the event.
Then, I thought, well, only a handful of people would get my twitter.
But wait. What would happen if those people repeated the message and then those recipients repeated it again?
Whoa! The whole thing made me excited and nervous all at the same time. In my mind it looked like a twitter echoing out into the wild, and hence the utilitarian if inelegant name: “twitter echo.”
The idea was so foreign that I worried it would break something and I felt like I should clear it with the Twitter folks first. So I actually wrote an email.
Which in hindsight I love because I sent it to 4 people. At the time it wasn’t entirely clear who was in charge. It was Ev’s incubator and he had been gracious enough to allow me to work in the space (at the time on a calendar called 30 Boxes that was probably an order of magnitude higher in popularity — we had been in Time magazine!). I added Jack because it seemed like he was developing the product. Biz was included there because he was the most social and interested in new ideas for the product. And the new guy, Goldman, who just seemed like he had his shit together. I probably should have cc’d Jeremy because he would have been cleaning up any mess.
Well, the 8-Bit party was a massive success.
The twitter echo pissed off some people and made me nervous that it was more like a spammy email blast than the explosive network information pathway that I had imagined. So I moved on.
The design improvement phase to the original echo took some time. The first “retweets” were literal re-posts by people who botched keying in a message. For anyone at SxSW in 2007 it was evident that the SMS UX was not scalable and that a pull version of Twitter on mobile was essential. It was so bad that after listening to Lane Becker gripe at 8-Bit, my business partner Nick and I went back to the hotel and wrote the first mobile version of Twitter (WAP!) while at SxSW.
Couple a mobile pull implementation with the desktop client Tweetie and a new context for using Twitter as a persistent stream started to emerge. And with that, more experiments. At first there were the ICYMI reposts of someone’s own tweet. And later those first instances of information breaking out of closed follower groups when a repost of other people’s tweets with the word “retweet” in front surfaced. These were in turn improved with a shortening to “RT.”
It was at this point that folks like Tim O’Reilly embraced this modality and made it both acceptable and utile. Twitter became the essential news pulse for Tech and the Bay Area. Vibrant 3rd party clients at the time were able to steadily improve on the design by prepending RT and making the feature more commonplace.
It would take years before Twitter adopted the concept and commited to taking it mainstream. But eventually it became core to the UI and the visual representation as a measure of a tweet’s value.
So there it is, the long story of the “invention” of the retweet.
I imagined or originated the concept of information traveling along a growing asymmetric network path, and at that moment in time, it was pretty rad.
I will boast that the concurrent insight I am more proud of is that while everyone early on was hell bent on shrinking URLs to conserve characters, I was obsessed with unwinding them. Finding the hidden content behind the link and representing that with text and media. That insight was the antecedant to the ubiquitous Twitter or Open Graph cards, even the embeds in this Medium article! You can see the earliest instance of this with the Flickr url replaced with an image in the mobile feed above.
That was one of those ideas that fit nicely into Ev’s notion of the obvious.
So here’s to the retweet, at 12.
For the record, I would love to see the retweet continue to evolve — lose the publicly visible metric counts. I’d require validated human accounts to use the feature. Maybe even have a limited number at your disposal before you have to pay. 😱
Twitter remains a beloved service and brand even if the behavior and feedback loops in the service fall short of lofty expectations and sometimes even human decency. I remain optimistic that Jack and Biz and others can keep evolving and refining the service and acting in concert with the community.
Or I guess, more succinctly, I hope that they keep inventing Twitter.