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The Trouble With Retweeting

Chinese researchers report doing so reduces our comprehension of the very post we’re sharing.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images)

In the ongoing debate over whether the Internet has made us smarter or dumber, one issue in particular remains unresolved: whether information is coming at us at such a furious pace that we don’t have time to digest it. This would seem to be a particular problem for Twitter, where the next nugget of knowledge is often only microseconds away.

New research from China identifies a problem with comprehending information gleaned on such microblogging sites, but not due to speed or context. Rather, the problem arises when we decide to retweet something we’ve read.

Researchers from Peking University and Cornell University report college students who re-posted information on a microblogging site were less able to accurately describe the content of those messages compared to those who simply read them and moved on.

Troublingly, this reduced level of comprehension was also found in a separate, off-line reading assignment conducted immediately thereafter.

“The feedback function encourages individuals to make quick responses, taking away time individuals would otherwise use to cogitate and integrate the content information they receive,” Tonglin Jiang, Yubo Hou, and Qi Wang write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

“This may create a meaning lag, where the information is accumulated and diffused so fast that it is beyond individuals’ cognitive capacity to process and comprehend.”

We’re sharing more information than ever, and understanding it less.

The researchers created a site very similar to the popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo, where users can write messages of up to 140 Chinese characters. They then conducted two experiments featuring Peking University undergraduates.

In one experiment, 80 students were presented with 50 short messages. After reading each, half of them were given the option to press “repost” or “next.” The other half simply pressed “next” and moved on.

Afterwards, all took a 10-item, multiple-choice test designed to determine how much of the information contained in the posts was understood and retained. As expected, participants who had the option to re-post scored significantly lower than those in the read-only group.

The researchers then looked at which specific messages those in the first group re-posted, and how well they were able to retain the information contained in the messages. They found participants were almost twice as likely to misremember a message if they had re-posted it.

Later, a different group of 40 undergraduates completed that same experiment. Immediately afterwards, they read an article from New Scientist about “the true nature of cats.” They then answered a series of questions designed to measure how well they understood the article.

Those who had re-posted messages displayed poorer comprehension of the feline-related feature, and also reported higher levels of “cognitive overload.”

“Making feedback to other Weibo messages interfered with participants’ understanding of separate offline information, and drained their cognitive resources,” Jiang and his colleagues conclude.

While this is a small study, the results are concerning. “Retweeting or reposting has become a habitual response when people surf online,” the researchers note. “Yet our findings reveal a downside of this behavior: That is, reduced comprehension.”

So we’re sharing more information than ever, and understanding it less. That’s a bit of knowledge worth passing on to a friend — that is, once you’ve truly grasped it.