The developer who built the retweet button for Twitter now regrets it, saying that it ‘handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon’ — and the company’s product head at the time agrees…

Buzzfeed interviewed developer Chris Wetherell.

“We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon,” Wetherell recalled thinking as he watched the first Twitter mob use the tool he created. “That’s what I think we actually did.”

Wetherell, a veteran tech developer, led the Twitter team that built the retweet button in 2009. The button is now a fundamental feature of the platform, and has been for a decade — to the point of innocuousness. But as Wetherell, now cofounder of a yet-unannounced startup, made clear in a candid interview, it’s time to fix it. Because social media is broken. And the retweet is a big reason why.

The retweet button was built with the best of intentions, said Wetherell. The idea was that those with more followers would give greater voice to those from underrepresented communities. And it did do that job.

But the small difference between having to copy and paste a tweet, and simply hitting a retweet button, had surprisingly big consequences.

Copying and pasting made people look at what they shared, and think about it, at least for a moment. When the retweet button debuted, that friction diminished. Impulse superseded the at-least-minimal degree of thoughtfulness once baked into sharing. Before the retweet, Twitter was largely a convivial place. After, all hell broke loose — and spread.

Facebook copied Twitter, with the Share button, and the fake news phenomenon was born — along with giving greater visibility to hate speech.

Solving the retweet button problem

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and the company’s former product head both see the problem, too.

“Definitely thinking about the incentives and ramifications of all actions, including retweet,” said Dorsey. “Retweet with comment for instance might encourage more consideration before spread.”

Yet emphasizing that retweet with comment won’t necessarily solve Twitter’s ills. Jason Goldman, the head of product when Wetherell built the retweet, said it’s a key source of Twitter’s problems today. “The biggest problem is the quote retweet,” Goldman told BuzzFeed News. “Quote retweet allows for the dunk. It’s the dunk mechanism.”

Putting the genie back into the bottle is hard: Losing the retweet and share buttons altogether isn’t realistic at this point. But there are potential solutions, like removing retweet functionality from those who regularly retweet hateful posts and fake news.

David Rand, an associate professor at MIT who studies misinformation, also has an idea.

Preventing people from retweeting an article if they haven’t clicked on the link. “That could make people slow down,” he said. “But even more than that, it could make people realize the problematic nature of sharing content without having actually read it.”

One rather lovely idea from Robin Sloan (via Alex Hearn) is for “slow” social media. Limit the reach of a post to 10,000 people, or allow it to eventually reach a million, but take time to do so.

What’s your view on the best way to address the issue? Please share your ideas in the comments.

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About the Author

Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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