The Case Against The Edit Button

02 Feb 2019 - keyser

Being on Twitter in 2019 means you have stumbled upon at least 10 people talking about the edit button, often in all-caps.

The idea and petitions for an edit button have been around for a couple of years at this point. At first glance it makes sense- Most major social media platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr, among others, have the ability to edit posts. With Twitter’s main medium being text, infuriating typos are a daily occurrence, and a great source for ingenious tweets that reflect that frustration.

Celebrities have joked about it, I have joked about it, and recently, CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey himself has addressed it. And whether it’s a loud minority or truly the majority, very few people are talking about the very serious cons that can, and will come with it if the edit button is implemented.

So, here is the case against the edit button:

1. Showing edit history is useless

A study showed that 59% of people share links without reading past the title. That’s right – News and other articles are shared based on titles only.

How does this translate to tweets? Any false, harmful, or worse, truthful information shared beforehand, and later edited, will most likely also be ignored by a huge amount of people sharing and commenting on said tweets. People want to save extra clicks, so if a sentence provides them with what they deem to be the full picture, they will share it without giving it a second thought. This is incredibly dangerous in a day and age when spreading false information disguised as factual is as easy as typing it and hitting ‘send’.

When was the last time you checked the edit history on a Facebook post?* How often do you go back to an article you have already read to see if they fixed previous mistakes? With the characteristic rapidness with which tweets spread, this will just be throwing more combustibles towards a dumpster fire of misinformation.

*Most of the people reading likely don’t use Facebook anymore, but when you did, did you check?

2. Keeping editing times within 5-30 seconds won’t prevent much

This is the argument I see every time without fail when I read discussions regarding the edit button. It goes something like this (based on several conversations I’ve had):

We just need say, a minute right after posting to be able to fix any typos. We don’t want a tweet to be edited at any time because someone can change it to something malicious after it goes viral.

A shorter, somewhat different version:

Jack Dorsey seemingly agrees with this one, as heard on the Joe Rogan Podcast; the team is considering a 5s to 30s window to edit them. He is not very clear on it since he seems to want to add a delay instead, which would be useless since you can have all the delay you wish by method of proofreading. He himself emphasizes that Twitter’s real-time quality is what makes it stand out as a platform.

The problem with a possible window without delay, which is what I have seen users ask for, is that they have in mind a scenario where someone decides to hijack a tweet after it goes viral.

This is flawed in several aspects. The first one being assuming the original tweeter has good intentions from the get-go, and they either change their minds or are hacked. This is not always the case. Someone with a big following can decide to either troll or legitimately want to spread misinformation, have the intended harmful information on their clipboard, tweet something unrelated and benign, then in less than 5 seconds click ‘edit’ and paste the original.

In those 5 seconds, a big account gets interactions. They get a couple of RTs, likes. They spread that information. Twitter is all about real-time after all, as the team itself keeps mentioning. Some people RT, some people like = we now have a scenario where people accidentally endorsed a harmful idea, and a troll successfully injecting their attack onto your timeline.

Another case is a big account getting hacked. They can do the exact same thing I just mentioned, without having earned the following themselves, and tricking say, an influencer’s followers into retweeting something fake or toxic.

I’ll discuss Dorsey’s delay idea towards the end.

3. The alternatives aren’t good, either

“Ok, so short-time editing is not ideal, we got it. What then? We still need a solution.”

One solution that could theoretically be implemented is a similar one to how Twitter currently handles reports of TOS violations. One could submit a typo report (hopefully they’d come up with a catchier name than that), and have it manually reviewed.

The problem with this is the ratio of resources vs. value. The bulk of tweets could be practically immeasurable, and would require quite the huge team to work. While checking an edit really is just grammar or news correction does not take that much time in it of itself, the sheer amount would still not allow it to be a fast enough process. All of this while ignoring the 34 different languages Twitter is available in, as well as the nuance of language not even professional translators can be 100% aware of all of the time. It would simply take up too many resources for such a minor outcome.

However, I have one last thing left to answer.

“We still need a solution.”

Are there solutions?

We have one… for the most part, and we need a new one.

Proofreading and managing human errors. I know, I know, don’t click out just yet. I myself am guilty of typing too fast and hitting send, then facepalming when I realize there’s 2 typos on an otherwise perfectly good tweet that’s already been interacted with. By adjusting our behaviours on the user-end we’d be solving half of the problem, and it would take just a couple of seconds. If the tweet goes viral and you realize later, you create a reply to it fixing it with the good old, trusty ‘*’. And if someone annoyingly corrects you after you corrected yourself, you ignore it because they didn’t take 2 seconds to check. It’s that easy.

Managing serious human errors is the tough part. When it comes to news reports, especially during emergencies, human errors are there every single time, and we should use the technologies at hand to fix them. This is where adding a simple reply would probably not suffice, and Twitter should chime in.

They could, after a reply with corrections is issued, send said reply to the top of your timeline, perhaps color-coded for urgency, or they could send it as a push notification. This could greatly help not only users but Twitter itself, from a business standpoint for them. Providing such a useful tool would incentivize more media to use them more often, and users would rely more on those updates.

Editing mistakes is something extremely complicated neither I nor anyone can solve in a blogpost. But that does not mean we should always go with the simplest answer, in this case an edit button, when it’s not the ideal one. While we have a primitive system of reply-based updates for now, it is at least in place and it’s become unspoken protocol between users. In the mean time, professionals at Twitter can figure out what to do. It make take them months, it make take them years, but surely it’ll be worth it compared to the alternative.