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The Evolution of Citation on Twitter and Facebook

How citation methods for Twitter and Facebook have evolved and will continue to grow over time.

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey
Plagiarism Consultant -- Plagiarism Today

Citation standards are a part of all forms of language. Whether it’s a casual conversation, an academic paper, or a post on social media, we have ways that we are able to indicate when we are referencing words, thoughts, and ideas of others.

These citation standards vary wildly depending on the medium and the expectations of the audience. It can be as simple as a pair of quotation marks and “as X said” or as complicated as full footnotes and in-text citations.

Social media has brought with us a slew of new ways to communicate and engage with each other. With those new forms of communication come, predictably enough, new citation standards.

However, Twitter and Facebook took radically different approaches in building their citation standards. Where Facebook employed a top-down approach, Twitter, on the other hand, started out with no citation tools and let the users build their own.

The History of Citation on Twitter

When Twitter was founded in 2006, the vision for Twitter was that it would be based on text messaging. As such, Tweets were 140 characters or less and contained nothing but text.

Users, however, began to adopt a series of loose standards that would let them identify and give credit to other users.

For one, they began to adopt the @username convention to indicate other users. This could be combined with the RT @username to retweet someone else’s tweet with attribution. Since that would sometimes push a tweet over the character count, the users also adopted the MT (or “Modified Tweet”) standard for when they had to edit the tweet.

Twitter watched these standards unfold and slowly began to codify them into the product. Twitter began automatically linking @username references and, in March 2009, began calling them mentions. This move meant that users would be notified when they were mentioned in a tweet.

In November 2009, Twitter added a formal Retweet button, which let users retweet content directly rather than using the RT @username method. In April 2015, it added the “Retweet with Comment” feature so users could retweet but still share their own thoughts.

Twitter followed a similar process to this when dealing with adding links to tweets, linking to other tweets, and embedding tweets. It simply watched what its users were doing and, after the users codified the standard, launched tools to make it easier and more efficient.

In short, Twitter’s whole approach to citation was to watch what their users did organically and try to replicate the users’ solutions on their end. This is a stark contrast to what Facebook did.

The History of Citation on Facebook

If Twitter’s citation standards were very much user-driven, Facebook’s were very much driven by Facebook itself.

From the very start of Facebook’s existence, it focused on making it easy for users to share content they found on the site. Its main tool in doing this has been the Share Button, which makes it easy for a user to take content they find elsewhere and share it with their friends and followers.

Facebook has also implemented a tagging system that works similarly to Twitter’s @username system. It enables people to directly link to friends and public pages in a post. This serves not just as a tool of citation, but also as a tool to indicate people, places, and things that they are discussing in their post.

But while parts of Facebook’s system emulate what Twitter has done, it was very much a creation of Facebook itself and not necessarily a reflection of how users were handling citation beforehand.

To put it plainly, where Twitter followed in the footsteps of its users, Facebook has worked to build a citation standard that works best for its own ecosystem and encouraged its users to follow along, which they largely have.

The Future of Social Media Citation

Both citation styles function well and show that either a top-down and bottom-up approach can work. Though each system has its strengths and weaknesses, they each do the job they need to do for their respective platforms.

However, Facebook and Twitter are far from the only new content standards that have developed over the past 10 years. The internet has caused an explosion of new types of communication and, with those new communication standards, will come new citation standards. What citation standards come from this, and how they start, will be a point to watch.