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Twitter’s edit button is a big test for the platform’s future

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Twitter seems to have handled adding an edit button about as well as possible. The edit button biases toward transparency, adding an edit history for every tweet and a big notice saying a tweet has been edited. Users will only have 30 minutes to edit their tweet, and will only be able to do so “a few times.” Twitter’s surely going to be looking closely at those numbers in its testing to see exactly how editable tweets should really be. It’s only coming to paying subscribers of Twitter Blue, and the test is going to start out small. Twitter is being as careful as can be on this one, and seems to have landed in the right place.

Whether Twitter should have an edit button is still a fun and controversial debate. Will some users abuse the feature, creating (or manufacturing) viral tweets and then changing them to something problematic that lots of users see? You betcha. Do most people want an edit button to do totally valid, normal, platform-improving things? Yep. Can Twitter do enough to track and mitigate the abuse, so that the vast majority of users — who just want to correct typos, re-phrase things that are being misinterpreted, and update their tweets as things change — can use it for its intended purpose? That’s the real question.

The Twitter edit button was a big topic of conversation on the most recent Vergecast, which you can listen to above or wherever you get podcasts.

Over the last couple of years, Twitter has picked up the pace of its product development in a big way. The company made, and fulfilled, a promise to be more open about what it was thinking about and testing. Fleets were going to be huge, until they weren’t. Spaces are the future of Twitter, which apparently now includes podcasts. Twitter seemed all-in on newsletters for about an hour and a half. Super Follows! Twitter Shops! Now there’s Circle, Twitter’s feature for sharing with only your closest friends and followers. It’s a lot of stuff, and it’s hard to tell how much Twitter actually cares about any of it.

This is in many ways a good thing: Twitter moved too slowly for more than a decade, and finally started shipping software at impressive speed. But the thing about Twitter is it’s not like other social networks. It’s more distributed. Many people encounter tweets as embeds on websites; many use third-party Twitter accounts; many see tweets just as screenshots on cable news. You can embed Facebook posts and TikToks, sure, but Twitter’s status as the sort of informational nerve center of the internet makes the stakes higher for how tweets move through the world.

Part of Twitter’s recent product push has been to make its own app better so that more people use it, look at ads inside it, and drop $5 a month on Twitter Blue. Cramming more ancillary features into its app is a classic platform strategy. But Twitter’s cultural impact still vastly exceeds the actual popularity of the app. With a presidential election coming up in the US, too, Twitter’s reach is likely to spike again over the next couple of years. That means that for Twitter to actually make a feature stick, it has to make it stick outside the confines of its own app.

Twitter’s track record on that front is, in a word, terrible. The company has made noise about being a better partner to third-party developers, but many developers are so jaded by Twitter’s behavior over the years that they’re not likely to immediately jump on board with Twitter’s new ideas. And most of the things the company has been building and shipping aren’t even available in Tweetdeck, the power-user app Twitter itself owns.

It’s one thing for apps and platforms to not support certain features or add-ons, but the edit button amounts to a fundamental change to the core unit of Twitter: the tweet. If a single tweet can be different things in different places, depending on where you’re seeing it, Twitter suddenly starts to feel like an unreliable narrator.

And if Twitter’s future is as a protocol rather than a platform, this will only become more important. (The usual Elon Musk-related caveats apply here, of course — nobody knows the future of Twitter, everything is chaos, and who knows where all this nets out.) Twitter has been saying for a couple of years that it wants developers to “drive the future of innovation on Twitter,” and re-think everything from how the community operates to how the algorithms work. Project Bluesky was created within Twitter to build an “open and decentralized standard for social media,” and is already working on tools that would make it easier to move posts or engagement between platforms.

Twitter is trying to engage developers on the edit button, which is encouraging. “We know how important it will be for you to have visibility into edited Tweets,” its Twitter Dev account tweeted on Thursday, “and we’re ready to offer read-support for edited Tweet metadata via the Twitter APIs.” This is good news, both for developers and for researchers who will definitely be curious about how the edit button is used. But Twitter also continues to say this is just a test, and chasing every Twitter test is a dangerous use of any developer’s time.

It seems likely that Twitter will follow through and eventually ship the edit button widely. As the company likes to remind us, it’s been the most-requested feature among Twitter users for years, and surely most of those requestors don’t want the feature for chaos-inducing or bitcoin-scamming reasons. If and when it does come, it will change Twitter, because it changes the tweet. And it will change things far outside the Twitter app, whether the company is ready or not.

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