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A false alarm over Twitter likes and retweets caused panic — but it was justified

Hold that apocalypse — the ratio still exists. But concerns that Twitter might ditch the “like” button altogether offer an important lesson about how people use the site.

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Fly, little birdie. Fly.
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Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Twitter users may be about to find out what Twitter is like when virtually everything people use it for has been demolished.

Then again, we could also be overreacting to a bit of social media-fueled hysteria.

On Wednesday, unconfirmed reports that Twitter was planning to essentially kill the like and retweet buttons by making them invisible spread throughout the platform, accompanied by a flurry of panic from Twitter users who recognized exactly how detrimental such a move would be to the site’s health, well-being, and community engagement.

But the reports may have been premature, and slightly inaccurate. And while Twitter later issued a clarification, it didn’t entirely settle the matter. Let’s break down what’s really going on.

Twitter is working on an app designed to improve conversation overall

Twitter has long been working on the release of a new mobile app, “twttr.” The app has a few specific aims, one of which is to make long, threaded conversations on Twitter easier to read. As you can see in the below screenshot — taken from a beta version of twttr by Vox’s sister site The Verge — a thread in the app will look similar to a typical threaded discussion on LiveJournal or Reddit, with successive reply strands being indented accordingly.

Casey Newton/The Verge

And if you look closely, you’ll notice that this change to the interface doesn’t leave any room, once you scroll past a parent tweet, for Twitter’s familiar like, reply, and retweet counters.

On Tuesday, Twitter released a prototype version of the app to a limited group of testers. Multiple tech sites reviewed it, but few if any seemed to consider the buried implications of the streamlined threads: no visible likes and RTs.

That changed on Wednesday, when miscommunicated news about the app began to cause alarm.

Misinformation about what’s happening to likes and RTs quickly went viral

On Wednesday, NBC News reported on some of the changes the new “twttr” app heralded. Although NBC did note that likes and retweets would be hidden “behind a tap,” it didn’t register the potential significance of such a change from users’ perspective, instead focusing more on changes to Twitter’s camera features. NBC also originally misstated that the app was removing the likes and retweets entirely, which added to the confusion and sent Twitter running to clarify its plans.

But many Twitter users immediately panicked over the idea that likes and retweets were potentially being removed altogether. One tweet that spread rapidly before its owner later deleted it suggested incorrectly that Twitter was removing these engagement stats rather than hiding them, and that the change was being rolled out across Twitter instead of “just” being tested in a prototype app currently only seen by a few people, with no guarantee of ever becoming part of Twitter’s core experience.

“Removing Retweet and Like numbers is HUGE and is sure to upset virtually everybody,” the user posted before realizing their mistake. But by that time, panic had already begun to set in:

And now, before we go any further, we need to take a step back — and a few deep breaths. Currently, Twitter’s plans to implement these changes as part of the new twttr app are unknown. And there is no indication that they will ever affect the larger site as a whole.

But there is still a reason to be concerned for Twitter’s like-based ecosystem. And given that concern, all the fears being expressed over potentially hidden likes and retweets have merit. Because hiding likes and RTs would, in essence, be the end of Twitter as we know it.

It’s madness to consider hiding or removing likes and RTs, but Jack Dorsey keeps talking about doing it anyway.

It’s highly understandable that many people read about Twitter “removing” likes and RTs and assumed the changes were about to take effect across the platform. That’s because Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been talking about his desire to get rid of the like button since last fall, supposedly in the name of “incentivizing healthy conversation.”

He first floated the idea at the Wired25 conference in October 2018, and then raised it again less than two weeks later at a private Twitter event, where he reportedly promised to delete the like button “soon.” This apparent promise, originally reported by the Telegraph, drew scrutiny from the media and plenty of backlash from Twitter users. It also prompted a swift demurral from Twitter itself, which issued an official statement noting that the platform had “no specific timeline for changes or particular planned changes to discuss.”

One Twitter communications staffer even walked back Dorsey’s “soon” timeline with an explicit negation:

But Twitter notably didn’t say that removing the like button was off the table completely. As a result, users’ concerns haven’t gone away.

And many of those concerns are valid, because some of the rumored changes, if they do come to pass, would fundamentally alter Twitter’s purpose.

Simply removing likes would be bad. But even just hiding both likes and RTs could be apocalyptic.

The ongoing conversation about creating healthier discourse on Twitter hasn’t exactly been served by the confusion surrounding the fate of likes and retweets. In particular, there are several slight differences between what Twitter has actually proposed in the past, what it’s currently doing, what it could feasibly do in the future, and what Twitter users think it’s going to do.

The idea of removing likes altogether — the idea that Dorsey first floated in October — was about completely removing the ability to like a tweet. It’s a fraught idea; among many other reasons I’ll get to in a moment, the Twitter like is multifunctional, serving as a way to passively response and interact as well as a bookmarking, scheduling, and notation tool.

However, just ditching the like button would still allow users to retweet and signal-boost important conversations — meaning the basic ecosystem of the site could theoretically continue to live on without too much infrastructure collapse.

The envisioned change that Twitter users foresaw in the prototype twttr app, however, was one in which both likes and retweets would continue to exist but would be hidden from public view by default. While the app allows users to view these stats by tapping to reveal them, remember that most people didn’t realize this at first — and panicked because they thought these features had vanished.

Hiding likes and retweets is arguably a much more destructive change, because it diminishes Twitter users’ ability to elevate some voices and opinions over others. Retweets and likes have always been crucial tools that allow the greater Twitter community to drown out trolls and other detritus, while simultaneously helping good conversations, viral moments, and underprivileged and marginalized voices gain attention.

If those tools are hidden by default, it stands to reason that virality on Twitter would cease to exist.

The same is true for the fabled “ratio” — the relatively young but widely beloved Twitter meme that involves shading the hell out of tweets that get far more comments than likes and retweets — essentially a snarkier version of a community’s collective downvote. Without easily visible tallies of likes, comments, and retweets, users wouldn’t have a clear indication of when a tweet or a conversation was causing controversy or becoming extremely unpopular. There would be no simple way to tell, for example, exactly how much people on Twitter dislike Paul Ryan, or when a tweet you posted is bad, actually.

Without a demonstrable feed hierarchy, every tweet, every opinion, and every response to that opinion would be rendered equal. And egalitarianism is exactly what Twitter users don’t want.

As anyone who’s spent more than five seconds on the internet understands, all opinions are not created equal. Twitter already has a very well-documented problem with harassment. And while Dorsey seems to think that removing the like button would offer a better, healthier way for people to interact across polarized ideological divides, to many users, the idea of putting trolls and bad-faith debaters on a more equal footing with their targets sounds more like a nightmare.

Plus, hiding likes and RTs would potentially alter so many tiny things about how Twitter functions that it’s difficult to even comprehend them all. For instance, if you’re friended by someone with 10,000 followers, a good way to tell if those followers are mainly bots is to survey the user’s engagement stats; if none of those 10,000 followers are liking their tweets, those users are probably bots, and the follower may also be a bot. Without the ability to quickly gauge how many likes and retweets someone is getting, it becomes more difficult to identify fake Twitter profiles.

Or consider the split-second decision process you go through when deciding whether to amplify someone else’s tweet by retweeting it. If you’re like me, you tend to shy away from retweeting something that’s already gotten thousands of retweets, for fear of being repetitive or boring and clogging up the Twitter feeds of your followers with a tweet they’ve already seen multiple times that day. Without the RT count being visible, that entire decision process goes away, for better or worse.

These small but meaningful ripple effects could fundamentally alter Twitter as we know it.

It bears repeating again that all these changes are rumored and speculative, and there’s no solid evidence that a major diminishment of Twitter’s engagement features is on the way.

But if Twitter users’ worst fears are eventually realized, it wouldn’t be the first time that a social media company either misunderstood or ignored what its users loved about the site and made changes that drastically altered those users’ experience. The current Twitter hysteria may be a false alarm, but it’s rooted in very real and very valid concerns.

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