Quote reposts are bad. June 26, 2022 on webb's site

Quote reposting is a feature in microblogging sites to reply to a post without replying in a thread. It creates a new post, with a reference to the post it’s quoting. This is to allow people to split off conversations, reply to things with greater visibility, and to organise threads. At least, these are the reasons I’ve heard from people and will be the strawman of this article.

Quote reposts are a very controversial feature. On the Fediverse, whenever an implementation adds it a lot of people are either very critical or defensive of the developers. There are many emotional arguments, such as quote reposts being bad for humans. This article will not use such arguments, I hope for this to be a far more objective criticism of quote reposts.

While quote reposts on paper just seem like a way to split threads, this often isn’t how they’re used. On sites like Twitter it’s common for people to create “quote threads,” where instead of directly replying in a thread each party quotes each other over and over. This makes threads almost unavigatable, with the problem getting especially bad with multiple replies to one post. It creates a large tree where you can only navigate one post at a time. The problem is made even worse with a mix of replies and reposts. Some people opt to just reply, while others opt to quote repost every time, even on replies. This means you not only need to check the quote reposts of an original post, but also any quote reposts in the replies. Navigating a tree of quote reposts like this with accessibility devices has to be worse. The UI is just bad.

Quote reposts make it difficult to understand context. The UI for quote reposts already includes some text without its context, and as mentioned above navigating a quote thread is difficult. This makes it difficult to hop into a quote thread and join, stifling conversation.

Because quote reposts are new threads full-stop, you can’t simply opt out of them. You can’t choose to view quote reposts as replies without hacks like the MRF in Pleroma. Most fediverse software doesn’t even have the facilities to do something like that. Because most implementations just link to the post that’s being replied to how is an MRF supposed to separate a quote repost from a post that simply has a link to another post in it? It’s simply unfeasable to treat quote reposts as threads, it’s too error-prone. We should actually solve the underlying problem rather than implementing a fundamentlally broken feature and putting a Band-Aid on it.

There are some alternatives to quote reposts that fufill pretty much every purpose I’ve heard, while not forcing others to deal with the problems of quote reposts. Remember that the primary purposes I’ve heard and will be addressing are that of being able to increase reply visibility, organise conversations, and split conversations.

First of all, for increasing visibility we already have a feature: the repost. One can simply reply, and hit the repost button, and not only have their reply more visible but also make it easy to view the converstaion. Quote reposts lose their hellish quote thread properties, the context is easy to follow, and the feature becomes entirely optional. Of course, many people aren’t happy with this because they like the UI of quote reposts, and having to click another button to do it can be annoying. The solution is simple: on the UI introduce the concept of a “replost,” a combination of replying and reposting. Add a replost button, and display replosts as you would quote reposts. Presto! Not only are people who dislike quote reposts happy, but the vast majority of people who like them are now happy too. Though, that isn’t every use-case.

Quote reposts don’t fix the problem of organising conversations. With quote threads it makes conversations an absolute mess. However they do allow people to split off threads. Except when it’s a quote thread, then it just becomes a normal thread but more messy. Or someone reposts that quote repost, and people jump into the thread. A better, more flexible option is to just render the subthreads separately. Twitter already does this, and if you go to the site you can see that it practically treats replies as subthreads. However, being able to explicitly say “this post is disconnected from the conversation above” could be useful to someone. Replies without a mention in them can signal this. Clients can adjust the UI to treat these posts differently, such as showing a seperate panel for replies to the post. This with replosts cover basically the entire use-case of a quote repost while being more flexible. You aren’t forced to create a new thread, and you can split a conversation off while not boosting it to your page.

For people who still don’t agree, why doesn’t these work? Can you think of a solution that doesn’t force people to deal with the major flaws of quote reposts? More ideas and more discussion around this topic is important, especially as it concerns usability, accessibility, and is a feature you cannot simply disable. It’s a cost-benefit analysis, is threads becoming unusable and inaccessible worth it for overall small convienience features? We need to answer these questions. If we open the conversation to everyone, and work to fundamentally better solutions that helps everyone, then we can avoid a lot of the conflict when creating software for federated networks.

I have a public mailbox, feel free to send me any ideas you might have, or criticise this post. I may make a follow-up post addressing what people are saying.