three grumpy observations from a Twitter researcher on requests for 'quote toots'
Over the past several weeks, I’ve noticed a lot of conversations about Mastodon’s lack of a feature equivalent to Twitter’s “quote tweets.” To be honest, I don’t really care about the lack of a “quote toot” feature, and I’ve done my best to steer clear of these conversations (though I did note while writing this post that it caught the eye of Mastodon’s founder in a big way). I gather that these conversations been around for a while, but I get the sense from my own feeds that there’s been a notable recent uptick. That uptick has meant that it’s been difficult to avoid them crossing my feed, and so even without trying, I’ve had a few thoughts about “quote toots” that I think might be worth sharing.
As I’ve already made clear, I’m intentionally not well-read on the conversations that are happening about a quoting feature on Mastodon. It follows, of course, that I’m not well read on the reasons for it not already being a feature; thus, I have no interest in commenting on the validity of those reasons. Likewise, I haven’t spent a lot of time considering the arguments that people are making in favor of adding it as a feature, so I won’t be evaluating those arguments here. None of this is to suggest that those particular conversations aren’t important (though again, I don’t terribly miss this feature), just to establish that I’m writing about this from a different perspective.
That perspective is as someone who’s been a Twitter researcher since 2014. More particularly, I’m a digital traces researcher—I’ve spent a fair amount of time since then collecting tweet data from the Twitter API (through third-party tools). I’m certainly not the most accomplished or most knowledgeable Twitter researcher out there, but I’ve spent enough time working with Twitter data and reading other Twitter research that I think I have a few historical and technical observations to make:
1) quote tweets haven’t been around all that long
One of my favorite things about being a Twitter researcher is the way that our work unintentionally serves as a history of the platform. I don’t remember exactly when Twitter rolled out quote tweets as an official feature, but I know that I can eyeball it based on when I started describing it in my research. In this 2016 paper, for example, my colleagues and I noted that the new quote tweet feature was starting to replace the “MT” (modified tweet") convention that was present in our data. Before quote tweets existed, folks would copy the username and text associated with another tweet, paste it into their own tweet composition interface, and do some light editing of the original text so that they could preface it with comments of their own and with an “MT”—all to make the process more clear.
More on user conventions vs. official features in a second, but given that this paper was published in 2016 based on data collected in 2014, it’s not hard to estimate that at most, the quote tweet feature has been around for only half of Twitter’s existence. It would be fallacious to argue that because a feature is (relatively) new, it’s not really useful, but I think it’s worth noting that people used Twitter and found value in the platform without a quoting feature for about a decade. If this wasn’t a make or break feature on Twitter, it seems silly to me to suggest that it would be for Mastodon.
2) most key Twitter features started as user conventions
In fact, it’s worth remembering that many features that are now seen as core to the Twitter experience (and have been presumably been built into Mastodon from the get-go) began as user conventions, not technical features. I don’t have any primary perspective on this (I joined Twitter in 2010, by which all of these had been built into the Twitter infrastructure), but there’s good documentation of how features like @-mentions, hashtags, and even retweets began as grassroots efforts to add additional semiotic and functional weight to 140-character tweets. Only later, when they got enough traction, did Twitter bother to create them as the “features” that we know today.
In fact, if memory serves (I don’t know of any writing on this), quote tweets began as this kind of convention as well, which leads me to my final observation:
3) there’s nothing stopping people from quote tooting right now
If you ever collect Twitter data from the API, you’ll notice that under the hood, a quote tweet is actually no different than any other tweet with a URL in it. At the risk of some exaggeration, the “quote tweet” feature is actually more aesthetic than it is technical. As retrieved by the Twitter API (and, therefore, presumably as stored in Twitter’s databases), a quote tweet is simply a tweet that contains a URL to another tweet in it. Granted, Twitter’s made a lot of changes to the platform infrastructure so that those quoted tweet displays alongside the quoting tweet—and so that those quoting tweets get counted in analytics—but you don’t need an official quote toot feature to do quote toots.
In fact, my recollection is that this is how they started. MTs were always kind of awkward, and Twitter plays fast and loose with how URLs count toward character counts, so I remember a brief period of time where people would grab the URL to a tweet, drop it in the tweet composition interface, and then add their own comments. It took a few more seconds to both compose and read these tweets—because there weren’t buttons to automatically do it for you—but it wasn’t that hard. In fact, I seem to remember a semi-viral chain of people doing this to tweet after tweet, adding intentionally outrageous clickbait-style comments to each of them to get you to click on the next one; in this particular case, the lack of an in-tweet display for the quoted tweet was a feature, not a bug.
So, if you want quote toots in Mastodon, go ahead and start! The Mastodon web interface and the Mastodon client I use both have ways to copy the link to a post—I’ve actually seen at least one account do this to call out a post they thought was dumb… in exactly the same way that a quote tweet would have worked. It will take you a bit more effort to compose your post, and it will take your audience a bit more effort to see what you’re commenting on, but no more than it would to link to any other source.
I’ve veered a lot more into grump in this post than I originally meant to, so I think it’s worth a brief summary of what my point here is. It’s not that I’m necessarily in favor of or against of quote posts—I haven’t followed those conversations, and I’d like to read up before I develop my own opinion. Instead, it’s more about larger perspectives and platform dependence.
To be honest, the clamoring for quote toots and the arguments that it’s a major deficiency of Mastodon have all surprised me—and not necessarily in a positive way. As I’ve described above, it was a relatively new feature on Twitter and it can be done even without official feature status. Maybe this has been brought up a lot in the conversations that I’m intentionally avoiding, but in the posts that have crossed my feed, no one seems aware of either of these points. I get that I’m a social media researcher who follows these sorts of things more than many users, but if there’s one thing that my social media research experience has taught me, it’s that we need to pay more attention to the social media platforms that we use. We ought to remember the history of the changes they make, and we ought to try to understand how they work—both of these help us be more aware of the way that social media platforms actively shape how we use them, not just the other way around.
Of course, Mastodon isn’t like Twitter, or other social media platforms, and I don’t mean to overlook that in making this comparison. In fact, in a roundabout way, it’s kind of the opposite: More than any of its individual features, the big thing that separates Mastodon from Twitter is a radically different view of how social media works. It’s non-profit, it’s decentralized, it’s interoperable, and it’s hackable. If all of those considerations get lost in a squabble over quote posts, it seems to be that we’re missing the important opportunity that comes from a major shift away from Twitter towards things like Mastodon.
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