Twitter functions

Although limited to 140-characters, a retweet (RT) could become a powerful piece of content to be consumed and shared. Notwithstanding “why users embrace retweeting, through broadcasting messages, they become part of a broader conversation” (Boyd et al.[1], 2010, p.10).

twitter_functionsBruns and Stieglitz[2] (2014, p.70-73) discuss the basic functions and metrics of Twitter. A tweet body itself includes the author (username), a timestamp and the sender’s profile picture. The body may also include one or multiple hashtags, a reference URL(s), one or multiple @mentions, and the tweet origin, either is genuine (generated by the user) or retweeted by another user.

Boyd et al. (2010) examined retweeting, one of the major Twitter functions, as a “conversational practice” (p.1), which is strongly connected to “authorship, attribution, and communicative fidelity” that “are negotiated in diverse ways” (p1).

Seen as an equivalent of email forwarding, retweeting is “the act of copying and rebroadcasting” that is at the heart of building a “conversational ecology” (p.1) on Twitter. According to the authors, retweeting purposes are twofold:

1) information spreading and

2) validating what other say and/or engaging with the others.

Given the nature of Twitter and its attributes, retweeting may raise concerns about “authorship, attribution and communicative fidelity” (p1). Given the simplicity of Twitter functions, messaging could be both an asset and a drawback.

To support this statement, based on their case study and empirical research, Boyd et al. (2010, p.5) identify two ways of retweeting behaviour:

1) either by preserving or slightly editing the tweet content (where then authorship as such is questionable) and

2) shortening the content through deletion.

The authors also looked at the reasons why people retweet. They listed ten such reasons:

  • to amplify or spread tweets
  • to entertain
  • to add comments to a tweet
  • to make one’s presence as a listener visible
  • to publicly agree with someone
  • to validate others’ thoughts
  • to prove friendship and loyalty
  • to refer to less popular people/content
  • to gain followers or reciprocity from more visible users
  • to save tweets for future personal access (Adapted from Boyd et al., 2010, p.6).

Even though Twitter expanded its functions in the past few years, the platform still bears some ambiguities that imply content modification, authorship acknowledge and “communicative fidelity”, on one hand. On the other hand, given these attributes, Twitter has become a transparent platform where content is public and accessible to anyone.

Bruns and Stieglitz[3] (2012) carried out a comparative study that focused on more than 40 cases covering major topics and events on Twitter: elections, natural disasters, corporate crises and others. Based on the research outcomes and a number of communicative metrics they conclude that “thematic and contextual factors influence the usage of different communicative tools available to Twitter users, such as original tweets, @replies, retweets, and URLs” (p.160) while the communication patterns employed in the context of major topics and events are steady.

“Twitter activities […] appear to be governed by a number of standard practices” (p.178) where Twitter users tend to find, share and re-share breaking news and other “acute events”. Twitter is the “backchannel” where “original commentary [… ] does not engage with the tweets of the others” (p.179) or offer links to additional information. Data gathering implied capturing 40 hashtag datasets covering a wide range of major topics and events, by using yourTwapperkeeper, a tool, which was apparently discontinued by Twitter in 2011.


[1] Boyd, D. et al. (2010), Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter, HICSS-43

[2] Bruns, A. and Stieglitz St. (2014), “Metrics for Understanding Communication on Twitter in Study” in Weller K. et al. (eds.), Twitter and Society, New York, Peter Lang Publishing

[3] Bruns, A. and Stieglitz, St. (2012), Quantitative Approaches to Comparing Communication Patterns on Twitter, in Journal of Technology in Human Services, 30:3-4, 160-185


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