TechTalks: What is the fuss over Twitter's 'missing' edit button?

10 May 2022

Straits Times, 10 May 2022, What is the fuss over Twitter's 'missing' edit button?
The road to Elon Musk's storied $44 billion acquisition of Twitter was paved with frustration, mainly with the platform's edit button. Or rather, the lack thereof.

The tech titan more famous for his electric car giant Tesla and drilling outfit The Boring Company is an active and long-time Twitter user. His main bugbear with the platform is the inability to edit posts. With his acquisition, he has announced his intention to introduce this long-omitted feature.

Indeed, Mr Musk had in early April polled Twitter users on their desire for an edit button, attracting over 4.4 m votes, of which 76% have voted 'yes' to date. Clearly, it is a sore point with a sizeable proportion of the Twitterverse.

Meanwhile, non-users of Twitter must be puzzled as to why an innocuous edit function, a mainstay on many other social media platforms, should be such a point of contention for Twitter to begin with. Indeed, the approaches to editability and edited content varies across the different platforms.

On LinkedIn, you can edit the text on your post as many times as you like, but you can't replace photographs. Edits are neither recorded nor available for review.

On Facebook, you can amend your text and change photographs and videos, but the different text edit versions can be viewed via clicking a button on edited posts that are discreetly labelled as such.

Currently, Twitter users have no choice but to delete their entire tweet and repost if they wish to update it. However, this means losing all traction on the original post including likes, retweets and replies. These are all precious "commodities" in the age of social media influence.

Given this significant deficit, why has Twitter not offered an edit button all this while, and what makes users like Elon Musk, Kim Kardashian and McDonald's corporate account clamour for one?

The answer lies in who uses Twitter to communicate what, to whom, in which circumstances and for what purposes. Although the user base of Twitter pales in comparison to that of Facebook or even TikTok, its stable of users includes highly influential people who deploy it for strategic purposes.

Twitter is widely used by politicians, celebrities and journalists to weigh in on issues of public interest, particularly for responding in real-time to breaking news and live events. The Twitterverse then responds with likes, replies and/or retweets.

In the case of tweets that go viral across thousands of accounts, a long cascading chain of retweets and replies typically results. These interactions by users on notable tweets, such as those where former US President Donald Trump exhorted his supporters to storm the Capitol building on Jan 6, 2021, thus become a matter of public record. News reports often embed tweets, thereby creating complications if important or controversial tweets can be edited to be starkly different from their original versions.

Indeed, Twitter founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey famously stated that Twitter would probably steer clear of an edit button because of the confusion that could ensue from users making changes to tweets that are already in wide circulation.

In a world already grappling with the scourge of misinformation and disinformation, such concerns are not without merit. The lack of an edit button is therefore seen as Twitter's core strength: that all tweets remain up for public viewing, unchangeable, unabridged and unexpurgated.

Proponents of the edit button counter that it will allow users to correct typos, respond to subsequent questions by updating tweets, and keep tweets current by adding new information - without losing the interactions on their tweets. With Mr Musk set to take over the company, momentum around the edit button seems to be accelerating. Industry rumours intimate that Twitter is already experimenting with several options.

One possibility is to allow for editing but to slap on a time limit such that that one can only modify the post within a fixed time window, perhaps an hour of it going public. This strict time limitation is likely to be for preventing retrospective manipulation of tweets, such as Trump perhaps editing his tweets to conceal evidence of him rallying his supporters to protest. Trolls who are reported for abusive behaviour can similarly edit tweets to deny wrongdoing.

Another possible feature could be a prominent label stating 'There is a new version of this tweet' for edited tweets. The engagement around the original tweet will then be retained, but the editing process creates a new tweet with its own chain of likes, replies and retweets. Conversations around previous and current versions of tweets are thus available for review - the new version does not erase the old so transparency is preserved.

Besides the edit button, Mr Musk has also pledged to use Twitter to uphold the principles of free speech, declaring the platform a "digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated."

It is unclear how far he will push his ideology as a self-described "free speech absolutist". If he indeed pushes forth to grant everyone the right of free speech, he will invariably encounter the intractable challenges of dealing with extremist, abusive and harmful content.

Social media platforms have become core pillars of our media landscape and play host to all nature of communication, from the mundane to the epochal. Just as historians today must scrutinise letters between statesmen of yore, historians of the future will have to trawl through vats of Twitter tweets, Facebook posts and TikTok videos.

Maintaining a robust and transparent public record of key events as they transpire, and the online reactions they elicit, is another grave responsibility that technology companies must bear. The consequences of the features that platforms offer and the algorithms they apply, go well beyond the technological - they need to be carefully deliberated.

Introducing an edit button to Twitter may only involve adding a few strings of code, but the implications of this change could well alter the fabric of history.

Lim Sun Sun is professor of communication and technology and head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.