Seeing how our propensity for human error runs at least as deep as our collective obsession with social media, a feature that's often been kicked around as a suggestion for Twitter is an 'edit' button—the ability to edit tweets after they've already been sent out into the ether. While it originally seemed like the kind of thing that tech-minded writers loved to banter about amongst themselves and little more, the idea gained new life this week when Matthew Keys reported that Twitter was actually taking the suggestion to heart.
There's no telling how a new feature like "editing" would pan out, of course—just last week, for instance, Twitter removed and then reinstated one of its core features in less than twenty four hours. But given Facebook's introduction of a similar revisionary measure for its status updates earlier this year, it's interesting to consider what an "edited Twitter" would actually look like. From the description Keys gave in his report, the practice of editing tweets sounds sounds very similar to rejiggering Facebook posts:
Once a user publishes a tweet, an ‘edit’ feature will be present for a limited amount of time (Twitter is still currently working out the length of time the feature would be available). The feature would allow a user to make ‘slight changes’ to the contents of a tweet, such a removing a word, correcting a typo or adding one or two additional words.
It's easy to see how this appeals to Twitter as a business. Journalists—a group that Twitter has set about courting ever since it began its searching for a news director last year—will appreciate it because it makes the incessant tweeting that's now become a professional necessity much easier and potentially more ethical. Brands and brand-conscious celebrities will love it, too, because while it might not give them the tools to erase something like that SpaghettiOs Pearl Harbor tweet, it will at least help shave off some of the rough edges of other snafus.
But still, company twitter profiles and hyperactive bloggers are a small subset of the larger Twitter universe. What would this mean for the rest of the network? Removing errant typos is always nice, but the backtracking that's required to edit something seems anathema to the very experience of using Twitter.
The best description of how Twitter works came from the person that first convinced me to sign up for the service in 2011. "It's like being at a big party," she said. "You overhear a lot of things, you say things that are overheard. You can just listen, or you can try to start a conversation."
Twitter's mobile notifications certainly work this way. My phone now regularly buzzes to tell me when a group of people I follow just followed someone (or something) new or retweeted the same tweet. It gives me a funny impression of the Twitter bird nudging me on the shoulder to say, "you won't believe what just happened" and pulling me into the other room to see. Maybe it's something about Beyoncé dropping a new album all of a sudden or Alec Baldwin going off on whomever he can't stand that day. Either way, it brings you back to the thrall of school lunchroom drama: you don't want to look away because it's more fun to stay and watch—or even join in yourself.
This is the kind of immediacy on which Twitter thrives. It often gives rise to human intrigue and comedy compelling enough that you almost forget the inherent absurdity of your phone buzzing to tell you that a bunch of @-symbols just did something to another @-symbol.
Editing statements after the fact, in this regard, is like trying to "edit" something you say at a party—you can rephrase or correct something for the people who are still paying attention, but you can't literally turn the clock back on whatever offensive or stupid thing you just said. It betrays Twitter's relentless forward momentum by trying to move backwards.
Of course, there's a more serious concern here that Mat Honan identified in a piece for Wired imploring Twitter to add exactly the kind of edit feature it could now be considering: the unique ability that the social network has to amplify misinformation in times of crisis like the Boston Bombing or Hurricane Sandy. The standard counter-argument to this would be to suggest as many have that Twitter ultimately functions as a "truth machine." Irrespective of one particular inaccuracy or another, the argument goes, the aggregate of all Twitter-users will ultimately suss out the truth by acting as a legion of fact-checkers.
Whether or not you buy that, however, there's a more basic question here: would editing tweets actually resolve many of the inaccuracies that spread across the service? To return to the hypothetical party, once one person screams, "FIRE" in a crowded room, panic would ensue no matter what he or she says next. The real correction in such a case would be to stick around and see for yourself what happens next. And at least on Twitter, that's not that hard to do.