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How a Twitter edit button might change the way you tweet

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Twitter says it's considering whether to install an edit button. Right now, when you post a message on the site, it stays there, unchanged, even after you notice the typo or someone calls out your faulty logic. You can delete the post but never change it. Now the service is considering an update, and this matters to you, whether you use Twitter or not. Most people do not use Twitter, yet it has a huge effect on the public debate. Celebrities and politicians use it to drop little press releases. Journalists put their reporting on there and also make news stories out of Twitter conversation. So how does public discourse change if you can change it? We called an expert on typos and messages you wish you could take back. Michael Leggett spent about 13 years as a design lead and manager at Google and Facebook.

MICHAEL LEGGETT: My passion for this is borne out of my inattention to typos. I'm somewhat of a phonetic speller. I almost actually didn't get married due to poor spelling.

INSKEEP: What?

LEGGETT: Well, my wife - early on in our relationship, she said that she was so concerned with my misspelling on instant messenger that she wasn't sure about continuing to date me.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

LEGGETT: And luckily, spellcheck was added to the product I was using at the time for instant messaging, and my spelling started getting better. And she's like, oh, maybe it's not that bad.

INSKEEP: It saved you. It saved you.

LEGGETT: It saved me. It did.

INSKEEP: Did you misspell, like, her name or her mom's name or...

LEGGETT: No, not her - no, I didn't misspell her name. I just misspelled - I'd misspell common words. So...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

Needless to say, Michael Leggett favors a Twitter edit button. The question is how to do it. Tweets right now get shared, responded to and embedded in news stories.

LEGGETT: So there are new abuse factors with editing, in that if I tweet something and then you've retweeted or a hundred people retweeted or a website, like NPR, you know, embeds it in an article, there are valid issues that are not obvious how to fix around, what do you do with those edits? Do you honor the intention of fixing the edits, or do you honor the intention of the original retweeter or publisher in trying to publish what the original thought was?

INSKEEP: Can you tell a layman a little bit about how that would work? Like, the tweet that's embedded in a news story...

LEGGETT: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...That the original user edited two hours later - what happens to that news story?

LEGGETT: Absolutely. So I think that there's at least two things to consider. So one is when you edit a tweet, I think it's really important that the original tweet is - it's not replaced, right? So there are what's often called in programming - is versioning. So as I've edited a tweet - let's say I edit it five times. All five of those versions are maintained somewhere. And ideally, you can still, you know, get to them. But the thing that really cracked this open for me in thinking that it's very possible to fix is thinking about track changes and any kind of word-processing application.

INSKEEP: Oh, sure.

LEGGETT: So, you know, Microsoft Word or Google Docs - you can see the edits, right? The design is all built around making it very visible - what has changed, what was removed, what was added, et cetera. So I think that design pattern - which is one that's very mature, one that people are very used to - could easily be applied here where an edit's been made and you actually see the edit - you see the words that were crossed out, you see the words that were added or changed.

INSKEEP: I'm realizing that for public figures, the kind of people whose tweets become news stories, this could create an entirely new genre of news story where the reporting is they first said this and then they changed it to Option B and then they changed it a third time, and watch how their thinking evolved.

LEGGETT: Sure. Yeah, I think - well, and, in fact, like, that's already commonplace. What's unfortunate is it's just not applied to the original tweet. What you'll have happen is a public figure - you know, a politician will tweet something and, you know, a lot of people will lambast it, saying that's just false, right? That's fake news. And it spreads like wildflower - wildfire. See? Wildflower. There's a mistake right there.

INSKEEP: Use the edit button and clean that up.

LEGGETT: Use the edit button (laughter). It'll spread. And then eventually, the person will come back and issue a retraction as a reply to the original tweet. But they won't get rid of the original retweet because that's been retweeted and shared and that's, you know, spreading. Another pattern, besides the track change is, as you can imagine, a more visible, hey, you know, three edits have been applied to this - a big button or maybe a sneak peek at that, or maybe you see them side by side. Although then you're trying to compare, what's different? So I think there's a lot of ways to tackle it.

INSKEEP: Michael Leggett, who's in favor of an edit button for Twitter. He says everybody is different here. His wife is very careful. She reviews her emails before sending them, which he does not.

LEGGETT: I very often hit send and then, you know, realize the, you know, massive typos I've made and wish I could take it back, which is actually what - I worked on Gmail once upon a time and helped build undo send for that very reason.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I've been sitting here wondering that - if you invented that, if you developed that, because of your wife.

LEGGETT: It wasn't because of my wife. I actually sent an email to a high-up executive at Google that I wish I had not. They sent my team an email. I was drafting a reply. I had, like, four different possible tacks on the email, and I was like, oh, this is a a mess. I'm, like, coming across too angry. I'll finish it later and hit save, except I hit send.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

LEGGETT: And so wish I could - immediately wished I could...

INSKEEP: So sorry to laugh but...

LEGGETT: Oh, no, it's hilarious. It is hilarious.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

LEGGETT: And she was very gracious because I immediately replied and said, I'm sorry, ignore that, didn't mean to send that. So Gmail had undo on so many different features, which was just such a great design pattern. And so I started wanting an undo on send itself, which we were able to get done.

INSKEEP: Well, Michael Leggett, I'm done with the conversation, but before we go away, is there anything in this conversation you would like to undo, edit or change?

LEGGETT: (Laughter) No, I feel good about it. I mean, you know, I would only add that it's a hard problem. I think that there's going to be a lot of, you know, people outside of Twitter, myself included, telling them that, oh, but it's easy to do - just do this. And there's always more to it. You know, honestly, it's better to do it than to not do it, but it's better to not do it than to do it poorly. So it's important that it's done well.

INSKEEP: All right. Mr. Leggett, thanks so much.

LEGGETT: You're welcome. Have a good one.

INSKEEP: Michael Leggett is a former design lead and manager at Google and Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "PULSES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.