Users

You Don’t Really Want a Twitter Edit Button

Our chaotic public square will lose a lot more than typos.

A phone's Twitter app
Leave the typos so this bird can be free. Kirill Kudryavtsev/Getty Images

A noted quirk of Twitter is that if a tweet “does numbers”—thereby reaching its maximum audience—it will probably have a typo in it. The more eyes on something you’ve written, the more likely you are to have duplicated a word or added an erroneous vowel. Perhaps it’s the nature of content fated to go viral: We’re so excited to put it out there, and in such a hurry to be first, that we have no time to proofread.

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This minor if consistent annoyance has prompted a refrain that long went unheeded: “Twitter needs an edit button.” Every time Twitter rolled out a new feature, the masses clamored for an edit function instead, accusing the company of misguided priorities and resistance to user feedback. But now, at last, it seems the wish will be granted, and somewhere at San Francisco headquarters, the finger of an old monkey’s paw has curled.

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Twitter testing an upgrade doesn’t make it a fait accompli. It does, however, give us occasion to weigh the pros and cons. The traditional case against an edit button is strong, and it appeals to our principles of accountability: Words should stand in the record as written. Unlike, say, the correction at the end of an article, which explains the mistaken reporting that was published, it may not be clear what’s different about an amended tweet. (Currently, only Twitter can edit their content, but they’ll soon field-test the feature among subscribers of the premium service Twitter Blue, who will gain a 30-minute window to edit each tweet “a few times,” creating a timestamp for the latest change.) Skeptics have also pointed out the opportunities for trollish abuse: A mischievous tweeter might say one thing, rack up the likes and retweets, then tweak the text so that all those people are endorsing the opposite, potentially extreme opinion.

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A screenshot of an edited tweet.
See that little pencil? Twitter
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One hopes the programmers have anticipated such problems and are working to contain them, along with who knows how many logistical headaches. There is a hard limit, though, to predicting human behavior, online or off. The edit feature is obviously conceived as a helpful tool, yet so was the internet itself, and look what happened there. As with anything else, bad actors will find a loophole to exploit, and we’ll realize this wasn’t worth it.

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Put aside the engineering challenges and culture wars for a moment to ask yourself: What is the true advantage in editing our posts? For all the potentially negative consequences, you’d imagine there’d at least be an upside. Maybe news organizations’ social media editors won’t have to delete an incorrect statement on a breaking story and then post a new version, but that’s always worked fine, and a direct edit requires no less effort. Most individual Twitter creators could just be fixing the unimportant misspellings in their successful posts, or (a numbingly tedious prospect) tinkering with syntax, word choice, and punctuation in hopes of salvaging a flop. To edit is, in a sense, to overthink.

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This cuts against the ethos of Twitter. If the typo you discover only after thousands of accounts have shared your joke is frustrating, it’s also sort of charming—the flaw that keeps you humble and adds to the freewheeling chaos of a platform in perpetual motion. And if you can’t live with the embarrassment, you can nobly sacrifice that engagement, which after all is meaningless, by scrubbing the tweet whole from your feed. An edit, by comparison, is too self-consciously controlling, a pathetic grasp at order where none belongs.

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In fact, every request for this function going back more than a decade arose from a screw-up so inconsequential that we have no compelling example of an issue where editing capability presents an ideal and necessary solution. It is petty vanity and the deluded hope for seamless perfection that has us yearning for second chances. Isn’t it naïve to suppose that we can ever go back and alter a decision or accident? The gaffes are part of the pleasure. They enrich the experience. It would be boring without them.

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As the years passed and Twitter continued to pursue other, unasked-for, sometimes incredibly stupid updates (don’t forget when they tried and failed to force you into a nonchronological timeline), the withholding of an edit modification—to which many began to feel entitled—became a funny object lesson. “Protect me from what I want,” the artist Jenny Holzer famously wrote, and so far this tech giant has protected its clientele from their own worst idea, meanwhile tacitly reminding them there’s no safety net when it comes to public speech. Anyone who types up a thought and sends it around the world takes a risk that cannot be mitigated after the fact. Even bad takes deleted in haste live on as screenshots.

I’m not claiming that edits will destroy Twitter—only that they promise to dilute the anarchic spirit of the place with bureaucratic fussiness, a constant urge to further qualify and recalibrate what is best expressed in bolts of wild energy. To sow inhibition where we thrive on impulse is a depressing move, and it denies a truth no brand can alter: However you said it the first time was absolutely sincere.

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