The Official Word From Twitter regarding the Experimental “Retweet with Comment” Feature
I’d like to thank everyone who tweeted links to, and otherwise shared, my previous post regarding Twitter’s new experimental “retweet with comment” option.
As those of you who read the original post will know, Mashable noticed the new feature, and published a story saying that to facilitate a greater number of characters for comments on a retweet, the original tweet would be rendered as an image. The Mashable reporter sought further information from Twitter, but Twitter adhered to its policy of not commenting on experimental features, and declined to comment.
Today, I was contacted by a spokesperson for Twitter, who wished to offer some clarification. The feature is still experimental, but Twitter chose to make an exception to its “no comment” rule on experiments, because of the concern the feature as described was creating in the blind community.
Twitter often tests experimental features on a small number of randomly chosen users. Due to the random nature of that process, Twitter has no way of knowing whether the feature is currently available to any blind users. If it is, it would be completely accessible via Twitter’s website. The tweet is not rendered as an image, and if you were to read the tweet on the website, you’d be able to read the comment and the tweet, just as you could with the older feature that was confined to 140 characters.
Twitter says it is aware blind people use the service, and it is committed to making Twitter accessible to everyone.
I’m very grateful to Twitter for reaching out, making an exception to the rule, and providing what is most reassuring clarification.
We don’t yet know whether this feature will become one of those experiments that end up as a mainstream function. For whatever reason, there appears to have been a little resistance to this among some sighted users too, although it’s fair to say any change will have its detractors.
If the new feature does go mainstream, one would expect that third-party Twitter clients may need updating to support it properly. I’m relaxed about this. We should promote accessibility, but we can’t expect a social network in a fast paced, competitive environment to be in a time warp.
I’d observe that this is a reminder to all of us that if we choose to use clients other than those provided by Twitter itself, we need to make sure those clients are being actively developed and maintained before we become too dependent on them.
Although the Mashable story was incorrect, one can understand why a tech journalist would draw the conclusion that if there is a 140-character limit, and nearly all of those 140 characters are free for commenting, maybe Twitter is achieving that by rendering the original tweet as an image. In fact, Twitter appears to be using a technique similar to that used when expanding a short t.co URL to its original form.
This issue does raise a wider question about the wisdom of declining to comment on experimental features. I’ve been in product management long enough to know that there are many features which are tried, tested internally, and discarded for a range of reasons. But once people start seeing a feature being rolled out publicly on a social network, albeit to a small number of users, it’s going to be newsworthy if the feature is radical or significant enough. Lack of official comment leaves a vacuum that will inevitably be filled by educated, and sometimes uneducated, speculation.
Nevertheless, a big thumbs-up and thank you to Twitter for setting our minds at rest.
It’s reassuring that Twitter is so cognisant of accessibility issues. I often think of accessibility as being a little like crystal. It’s carefully crafted, and extremely easy to break. So we must always be vigilant and ensure that any feature that may impact our user experience if implemented incorrectly is being designed inclusively.