How Misunderstanding Retweets Can Get You Suspended From Twitter

There are two kind of retweets: editable retweets, and native retweets. Native retweets are what you get if you click “retweet” under a tweet on Twitter.com (or if you have your app set up to work that way). This post is about editable retweets, which used to be the only kind you could use on Twitter.

Retweet standards are about curator attribution. (When you’re looking at a tweet, the curator is the person who posted that tweet). Retweet standards build loosely on internet hyperlink standards, making them essentially two generations removed from old print standards (Print>Internet>Twitter). The most important thing to know is:

► Twitter reserves the right to suspend users for posting tweets without proper retweet attribution if done repeatedly. Here’s Twitter’s rule:

Post[ing] other users’ Tweets as your own” is a suspension-worthy violation of the Twitter rules.

1. Who should get credit…and how?

Everyone needs to get credit—the person who shared the information in a tweet, as well as the author and the site or publication. But the only thing you need to ADD to a tweet turn it into a retweet is the Twitter username of the curator. It’s perfectly okay to include the Twitter username of the content author or website in a tweet or retweet, it’s just not required. Here’s how and where everyone gets credit:

  1. Author — Example: The byline on a blog post. This credits the author, so it’s not necessary to include author username in the tweet. Author attribution takes place at the content level, on the website. This is an age-old standard that works as well on books as on blog posts.
  2. Content (Site/Publication) — The link in the tweet takes care of this, paralleling the hyperlink attribution standard within websites. It’s not necessary to include the site’s username in the tweet because the site has been linked to, and in fact most top sites now have custom short URLs that help identify them, e.g. http://amzn.to/e0SBqh.
  3. Curator — Attribution takes place by the addition of retweet syntax, identifying the source curator’s Twitter username(s). Of course, when you find content in some way other than in a tweet, you simply tweet a description with a link. It’s not necessary to try to find someone to attribute it to. It only needs to be a retweet if you found the content from someone else’s tweet.

So the first job of a retweet is to credit the person who made the tweet that led you to the content—the curator. The chain of attribution is Curator > Site > Author; this ensures all sources are credited.

What if the same person is both the author and the source of the tweet? Generally, we don’t add author names to tweets, since it just makes them longer—which means they get fewer retweets. We figure the author would prefer getting more traffic and retweets vs. seeing their name on the tweet. But for shorter tweets and in a variety of cases we add author names as /by @[AuthorName]. But usually not, especially since the author name is on the post we are linking to anyway.

So if an author has tweeted about their own work, only sometimes will we add the author username to the tweet. After all, we’re sending people to their post, with their byline on it! Under no circumstances would we include their username twice, i.e. RT @[AuthorName] /by @[AuthorName]

Advantages/Disadvantages of giving credit

The more usernames you put in a tweet, the more it helps people connect to those usernames— especially when they are the authors of the post being linked to. And I’m completely in favor of that. But in test after test, longer tweets get fewer retweets, so it’s a tradeoff for an account like ours where we get a lot of retweets.

UPDATE: In 2012, longer tweets still get fewer retweets in tests. But as more and more people are using Twitter’s native retweet button, it matters less, and I’m more and more inclined to include author names as long as I can find them, have the time to add them, and can easily keep the entire tweet under 121 characters.

2. How should users be credited in an editable retweet?

Retweet Glossary, Syntax and Punctuation is a good overview to familiarize yourself with.

Exact style here is not as important as maintaining the attribution chain leading to the original source. This means including all usernames when possible. The great thing about doing this is that you are making a connection with all those users by including their usernames. They will see your tweet because their username is in it.

This isn’t always easy, or even possible. The first step is to be as brief as possible, see “Tips and benefits of being brief when retweeting.”

Giving credit to multiple users

When you find a tweet that is already a retweet (that is, it credits one or more Twitter usernames), if you can edit the retweet into a new retweet that includes all curator usernames and still leave 19 characters of blank space, I suggest doing so. This how the retweet developed on Twitter. If you prefer to use a retweet function that does NOT allow editing, that’s okay too. But editable retweets also allow adding comments, besides bringing attention to the source curators, and are generally preferred by more experienced Twitter users.

Also, putting the usernames at the beginning of a reweet makes it hard to see the content portion of the tweet. I recommend for retweets with multiple usernames putting them at the end. For tweets with one username I think it’s also best at the end, but sometimes putting it at the beginning is a nice way to highlight the user.

3. How much can I modify a retweet?

If a tweet is edited to change its tone, viewpoint or meaning at all, it’s no longer a straight retweet. Don’t change tone or meaning of a tweet and then put it out as a plain vanilla retweet. Politicians are famous abusers of this, trying to make it look like their opposition said something they didn’t and then claiming they are “just retweeting what they said.”

If you want to retweet and add a comment, that’s fine. Putting the language of the original tweet in quotes helps. And using a different abbreviation (see #4 below) may be called for. There are also a number of services that allow you group collections of tweets into a single URL. This can be helpful if you need to comment on a conversation, or collection of tweets.

However the clearest option is often to link to the tweet itself (see section five below for how to). But starting with a regular, editable retweet and then carefully adding your own comment is often easiest.

4. What are some common errors?

► Thinking that the tweeter/retweeter is the blog post author

Don’t retweet someone and state that they are the author or thank them for a writing a post until you have confirmed who actually wrote it. Websites that don’t make the link to the site’s or author’s Twitter account very clearly visible are missing an opportunity, and creating a situation that can lead to confusion. I regularly see tweets thanking a retweeter for writing a post they didn’t write.

► Overlooking the community-building aspect of Twitter

Some feel that, regardless of Twitter’s rules, the content source or author are much more important than the curator. These people overlook the value of Twitter as an information network, and denigrate the role of curator, even going so far sometimes as to remove retweet credit and replace it with site or author credit.

Even if you don’t believe in crediting the curator (and aren’t concerned about having your account suspended), realize that you can curate connections as well as information on Twitter. Simply being generously inclusive with usernames in your tweets has the natural side effect that your tweets will be retweeted more because people will pay more attention to your tweets, and feel more generous towards you. The best part? Taking the simple steps to be inclusive with usernames begins to build a community.

The value of a Twitter community comes in many forms, but two dramatic examples are the $11,000 tweet and raising $13,000 in 48 hours for a friend (actually nearly $17,000 was raised). And as I write this, a Twitter user has just asked for “11 cents from 1,000 people for something stupid” and with no more description than that, has raised over $300 in just a few hours.

► Other errors

I’m going to add to this list, but I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences! Leave a comment and I’ll add the best ones to this blog and link to you. (Knowing myself, I don’t want this post to sit aside for weeks until I can get back to it and fill out this section on common errors.)

5. When should I favorite a tweet instead of retweeting it?

You can use the tweet favorite function anyway that works for you. But you should know there is a large group of users on Twitter who “vote” for each other’s tweets by favoriting them. This informal group mostly relies on humor, and their goal is to get their tweets shown on the “leaderboard.” The leaderboard is a list of the latest, most favorited tweets at sites that keep track, such as Favstar.fm and Favotter.

However, Favstar is starting to incorporate other ways besides just “most favorites” of measuring which tweets should be highlighted each day. Nevertheless, realize that many writers of humorous tweets greatly appreciate having their tweets favorited by you :)

6. Are there exceptions?

There are unusual situations sometimes, for example when a website finds it’s content by searching through tweets, and provide some information about the tweets. Some websites make it hard to get at the original tweet information. Other times users tweet things as their own, violating retweet standards, and by retweeting them you are leaving out correct attribution. For example, for interesting quotes about Twitter, I usually do a search of Google realtime to try to see if the original source is someone other than the person who tweeted it.

People can get confused sometimes because they write a blog post, tweet about it, then see other people tweeting about without crediting their tweet as the source. This can mean that the people found the original tweet and are failing to give retweet credit. It can also mean they found the blog post in an search, or subscribed to alerts or feeds that notified them of new posts. That’s how we find most of our info. The reason is that tweets don’t tell me if the info being linked to is new, but feeds and searches do. So I don’t read a lot of tweets, because a lot of them are to old posts.

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