Why an edit button for Twitter isn’t as easy as it looks

Most Twitter users have experienced this: you fire off a quick tweet, realize it has a typo, then get angry that you can’t click “Edit” to correct it. Twitter users have been asking for an edit button for years.

Elon Musk, who recently bought shares of the microblogging platform and made a bid of $48 billion (about Rs. 3,67,080 crore) for the entire company, asked his $82 million of subscribers if they wanted an edit button. His (deeply unscientific) poll drew 4.4 million responses, with 73% in favor.

Other social media platforms allow you to edit posts after you send them. It looks like it would be a simple feature to add – so why isn’t Twitter doing it? Well, the time may finally have arrived. Regardless of Musk’s poll, Twitter has confirmed that an edit button may be in the works. Enterprising users have even found a few clues as to what it might look like.

So what is it? Why is Twitter so opposed to an edit button? The answer might be that it’s not as simple as it looks.

The first thing to know about tweets is that, unlike posts on many other platforms, there’s basically no way for Twitter to remove them after they’ve been sent. The reason for this is that Twitter has something called an application programming interface (or API) that allows third parties such as other apps or researchers to download tweets in real time.

This is what powers Twitter clients such as TweetDeck, TweetBot, Twitteriffic and Echofon, which together account for some 6 million users.

Once third parties have uploaded tweets, Twitter has no way to retrieve or edit them. It’s a bit like an email: once I send it and you download it, I have no way of deleting it from your machine.

If a user were to edit a tweet, the most Twitter could do is send a message saying “please edit this tweet” – but the third party could choose whether or not to do so. (This is currently what happens when tweets are “deleted.”) Cats and Dogs More importantly, an edit button can have unintended consequences and be weaponized.

Consider this. I, a cat lover, decided to tweet “I love cats!” So you, being a cat lover too (because why wouldn’t you be), decide to quote my tweet, agreeing “Me too!” (Remember when Twitter was so innocent?) Now what if I edit my original tweet to say “I love dogs”? You are now being misrepresented as a dog lover, and when your cat loving friends see this (which they will see when I reply to your tweet, mentioning them all), they will disown you.

Yes, it’s contrived, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the edit button could be used in this way, especially by things like robot armies. Will Twitter users be happy to trade this possibility for the convenience of correcting typos in their tweets? ‘Warts and all’: a bug or a feature? Twitter has built its reputation on being the most “real-time” social media platform – the place where earthquakes are reported faster than by scientific instruments. However, for many people, the “warts and all” nature of Twitter posts is starting to look like a bug, rather than a feature.

Will an edit button change Twitter’s unique branding? There may be ways to improve this, such as only allowing changes within a short period of time after publishing, but that’s definitely a business consideration.

More generally, the design of media platforms shapes the type of discussion that takes place there.

The presence of ‘Like’ and ‘Retweet’ buttons on Twitter encourages users to create content that will entice others to click those buttons, and further spread their content. This, in turn, shapes the nature of the conversation that occurs on the platform.

Similarly, websites use algorithms and design to “push” users in particular directions, such as to buy a product.

There is a rich body of research on how discourse is shaped by the design of social media platforms, which establishes that every “affordance” given to a user affects the conversation that ends up taking place.

This means that beyond fundamental technological challenges, Twitter must consider the possible unintended consequences of seemingly simple changes – even at the level of a humble edit button. The medium shapes the message, and Twitter needs to think carefully about the kinds of messages they want their platform to shape.


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