The re-tweet is one of the backbones of the Twitter system and it plays a significant part in making links, and the sites and articles that they lead to, go ‘viral’. The ripple effect of a message getting re-tweeted throughout the network is a beautiful thing to see, and if you’re the recipient of all that resulting traffic, a reason for some celebration.

However, you have to be careful. I’m not a subscriber to the notion that suggests it’s poor etiquette to alter the existing prose when doing a re-tweet, but I do think you have to make distinctions between what the original poster (OP) said, and anything you have added yourself.

On several occasions I’ve seen things that I’ve never actually said ‘re-tweeted’ in my name, simply because the re-tweeter changed all the words but left the RT @Sheamus part alone. Often this is an accident on their part, and it can end up with amusing consequences.

Or far more severe ones; like the @reply, you could do a lot of damage to a person’s reputation with a series of re-tweets if you intentionally set out to make an individual ‘say’ things that they never did. Not only does this bad information go out to everybody in your network but, perhaps ironically, thanks to further re-tweets, it has the potential to quickly spread to millions of people.

RT @KarlRove I was rooting for Obama all the way!

This is why I use and recommended the via tag over the RT. For me – and I accept this might be a personal view – the RT should, for the most part, be a literal re-posting of the original message. If you tamper with it, I think you need to do everything you can to ensure that your words are clearly separate from the OP’s. More often than not the RT @Username part comes first, right at the beginning of the message, and I think that the words that follow are seen by the majority as coming from that user.

Via, meantime, because it comes after the message, is less dependent on literal representation. Via implies that you’re simply sharing information passed on to you by another in your network, and that you’re not necessarily replicating their prose.

There are exceptions to both of these ‘rules’, of course. Applying your own text before the RT @Username part is perfectly acceptable, i.e.:

I really like this! RT @Username The original text goes here. http://original-link.com

And you can easily use parentheses to separate any comments you have added from the OP. In these instances I favour adding my username, too, for clarity. For example:

RT @Username The original text goes here. http://original-link.com [I really like this - Sheamus]

As said, I almost exclusively use the via tag. It’s available as an automatic option in Seesmic Desktop, which is great, and because there’s less emphasis on me maintaining the text of the OP, I can re-write things to my own satisfaction. I’m still giving credit to the OP for the link – something I fully believe in – and if it was principally their text I was focused on re-tweeting (or something like a quote), I’d leave things alone. But otherwise, it’s via pretty much all the time for me.

Most people still favour RT, and that’s fine, but I do think you need to be mindful about exactly what you’re re-tweeting. Most importantly, make sure the person actually said it. Nobody likes to have words put in their mouth, and while most of the time an accidental re-tweet is harmless, you could very easily – by intent or otherwise – do a lot of damage to an individual by presenting your own views and opinions as belonging to them.