Why adding a feature to edit tweets after the fact might not be such a good thing

Every time a major news event happens, and reports start flying around the social media-sphere about the details of the shooting or earthquake or whatever it is, Twitter (s twtr) comes under fire for helping to spread inaccurate news, as it did during Hurricane Sandy and the Boston bombings. In some cases, those tweets are just mistakes sent in the heat of the moment, and the author is unable to take them back — but what if they could edit them after they were published?

According to a report from former Reuters social-media editor Matthew Keys, Twitter is considering a new feature that would allow users to edit a tweet after it had already been sent (Keys left Reuters after being charged with helping the group Anonymous hack a former employer, and has set up his own news site).

For what it’s worth, my own sources — who are usually fairly knowledgeable about the situation — have said that Twitter is not actively working on such a feature, although they wouldn’t rule out one appearing in the future.

Given the number of times that I personally have tweeted something and instantly regretted it — either because I made a typing mistake, or included the wrong Twitter handle for someone, or a hundred other potential errors — such a feature would undoubtedly be popular with many users. But at the same time, I have to wonder: Would it really work? Is it actually necessary? And would it somehow change the nature of Twitter in important ways?

Tweets and retweets could be corrected

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Keys says in his blog post that several sources “close to the project” told him Twitter is making the new feature a top priority — in part because it is trying to expand its relationship with media organizations and credibility as a platform for news delivery would presumably be helpful in doing that. As Keys described it:

“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.”

From the perspective of a news outlet — or anyone acting as a journalist, whether professional or amateur — the best part about this proposed feature is that according to the sources Keys spoke to, the edited version of the tweet would be replicated throughout the Twitter network: in other words, the updated version would replace the previous one anywhere that the original tweet appeared, whether it was retweeted or embedded or cross-posted.

What happened to the idea of a stream?

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In many ways, an editing feature wouldn’t be a big change. Facebook and Google+ both allow you to make changes to an update for a short period of time after you post it, so Twitter would just be adding something that already exists elsewhere. But at the same time, I have to wonder whether the inability to alter a tweet isn’t one of those things that makes Twitter what it is — for better or worse — just like the artificial restriction on the length of a tweet. The whole idea of Twitter is that it’s a stream of content that flows by, and you check in periodically and then the stream continues to flow. It is the essence of what Robin Sloan meant when he described “stock and flow.” And mistakes are part of that, like eddies in the stream.

So when mistakes are made, what do we do? We correct and retweet, or we just move on and update. And in many ways those are all unsatisfactory, because we know the original error is out there — and as Craig Silverman of Regret The Error has noted, the mistake often travels quite a lot farther than the corrected update. But even if Twitter gives us the ability to turn back time and edit the stream briefly, it will only affect native retweets, not the copy-and-paste or manual kind.

In the end, even if it did work across the entire network, I still think we would be giving up something beneficial — and that is the knowledge that even though Twitter is a news platform, it is messy and often incorrect and imperfect, just like its users. And that is worth being reminded of.

Note: This post was updated on December 17 with comments from sources who were skeptical of Keys’ report about the new feature. Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Hirurg and Flickr user Shawn Campbell and Shutterstock / noporn