The man behind Twitter’s “Retweet” button—which is pretty much the foundation of the whole site—now thinks he screwed up big time, telling BuzzFeed News in an interview that he recalled thinking, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”
“That’s what I think we actually did,” added Chris Wetherell, the developer in question.
Wetherell, who helped build the now-defunct Google Reader platform before he joined Twitter in 2009, told BuzzFeed that at the time, adding the function seemed like a simple way to streamline the process of spreading another tweet. Before the retweet button, users had to manually copy other tweets, such as in the shining example below:
According to BuzzFeed, Wetherell said that Twitter staff working on the feature in 2009 were more concerned about its utility in situations like “earthquakes” and fully unprepared for how it would change engagement on the platform:
“Only two or three times did someone ask a broader and more interesting social question, which was, ‘What is getting shared?’” Wetherell said. “That almost never came up.”
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.”
As other tech companies cloned or introduced their own versions of the feature (i.e., Facebook’s introduction of the mobile share button in 2012 and subsequent focus on juicing the news feed with shareable content), Wetherell began to have second thoughts. Specifically, second thoughts about human nature as he watched hordes of far-right whackjobs rally around the anti-feminist Gamergate campaign on Twitter in 2014.
“It was very easy for them to brigade reputational harm on someone they didn’t like,” Wetherell told BuzzFeed. “Ask any of the people who were targets at that time, retweeting helped them get a false picture of a person out there faster than they could respond... It dawned on me that this was not some small subset of people acting aberrantly. This might be how people behave. And that scared me to death.”
Wetherell added, “I remember specifically one day thinking of that phrase: We put power in the hands of people. But now, what if you just say it slightly differently: Oh no, we put power into the hands of people.”
Of course, Gamergate was a comparative bump on the road to our ongoing national nightmare, in which misinformation spreads almost as fast as internet infrastructure is capable of sending it and the leader of one of the world’s most powerful countries regularly sends unhinged, racist tirades through the platform Wetherell worked on. Twitter and its ilk, for their part, have continued to do pretty much nothing about this.
Wetherell added in his interview that he believes it’s too late to simply reverse course on social sharing functions because it might simply incentivize other methods of gaming platforms, like paying power users with huge followings to artificially boost content. He suggested that a better switch might be for social networks to moderate entire audiences at once, such as revoking their sharing functions en masse. Other options mentioned by BuzzFeed include experimenting with a hard cap on the number of retweets a post can get. (The prospects that platforms would kneecap the sharing functionality core to their ad-supported business models or risk infuriating certain political movements seem rather bleak, but hey.)
Don’t worry too much, though. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, always one for meaningless babble and vague commitments to having further conversations about the ongoing conversation, told BuzzFeed that Twitter is “Definitely thinking about the incentives and ramifications of all actions, including retweet.”
Dorsey suggested that Twitter could instead perhaps emphasize the quote tweet function: “Retweet with comment for instance might encourage more consideration before spread.” Spectacular.