It was the concept that should never have taken off. Before 2006, the notion that it would be possible to write a message that would be both meaningful and thought-provoking in just 140 characters would have sounded far-fetched. That complete strangers would be interested in reading those messages would have seemed even odder.
In fact, the idea that anyone at all would care to read an answer to the question “What are you doing now?” has always appeared downright bizarre — especially when those answers are published several times a day.
And yet, Twitter is certainly a success. It’s a success not in the same way that MySpace or Facebook are successes; it doesn’t have a billion-dollar valuation, or any revenue model at all, in fact. Nor is its popularity a result of careful hyping; the publicity has followed its popularity.
It’s a success because in addition to gathering millions of users, Twitter has managed to make the leap from being a cool toy for geeks to become an invaluable resource for anyone. Small business owners are using it to find clients and build customer loyalty. Specialists are following tweets to keep up to date on colleagues around the world. And yes, even presidential candidates are now sending messages to provide quick reactions to breaking news, to make announcements and to let followers know the latest updates from the campaign trail.
What started as a way for staff members at San Francisco firm Obvious to send each other messages has become an international phenomenon, a form of communication with an apparently universal appeal.
Hillary’s a Tweeter
Perhaps the clearest sign that Twitter has moved out of the Internet fringes to encompass people beyond the screengazers of Silicon Valley is the number of establishment figures now using the system. The British government’s communications office sends out tweets, for example, and both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are regular tweeters. Or rather their campaigns are because no one believes that the candidates themselves are sitting on their buses, wearing out their thumbs with announcements of new speech venues.
And that’s where things start to get interesting because while the uses of Twitter are very restricted — there’s no getting around that character limit — the relationship between followers and the followed varies. Tony Blair’s tweets gave the game away by referring to him in the third person, making it clear that followers were reading snippets about the then-Prime Minister, but not information from him, and Barack Obama might be best known for his eloquence but his tweets often read like the headlines of press releases that no one wants to cover. That’s probably because they come from the same communication people that write those releases rather than from the candidate himself.
Even that though doesn’t make them useless. One recent Obama tweet in response to the latest unemployment figures called for a move away from “Bush-McCain” policies. Politicos might have noticed from that tweet that the leading Democrat is already preparing for the next stage in the campaign and is attacking the Republican candidate by linking him to the unpopular incumbent. It’s also worth noting that Obama has an impressive 21,871 followers from 95 tweets, while Clinton has a paltry 2,800 followers from 100 messages.
Establishment tweeters don’t have to be as dry as Clinton and Obama though. The UK Parliament’s tweets, for example, are filled with both interesting trivia about Britain’s legislature and a real sense of personality. Unlike many establishment tweeters, they feel like they were written by a real person. It’s just a shame that the tweets came in fits and starts, that the last one was written two months ago and that little more than a dozen people followed them.
For these sorts of tweeters, the relationship between followers and the followed is always going to live up to the name of the participants. These are messages from leaders to people who want an inside peek at the thoughts of those in power — even if they only come from his or her entourage. There’s no dialogue and no way to receive answers to questions.
Creating a Virtual Water Cooler
Business owners and service providers have to take a very different approach when using Twitter for commercial purposes. Laura Fitton, a communications consultant, travels the world attending social media conferences and helping clients, all of whom, she says, she picked up on Twitter. Asked how businesses can benefit from using the site, she produced a long list that included creating a virtual water cooler, enabling feedback and mentoring, bouncing ideas around, and simplifying communications.
“Twitter can be a great vehicle for a brand extension if you are willing to produce feeds of cool, useful things,” she recommended in an interview with Global Neighborhoods. “And by useful, I mean useful to others, not to yourself. In any environment where everyone is publishing and everyone subscribes to feeds that add to their lives, the self-serving will flounder and the useful will flourish. So as brand extension, you need to work to not be rejected as a spammer.”
That’s nothing new, of course. That freebies have to be valuable is a marketing standard. What is new is the idea that a message no longer than 140 characters can be considered valuable.
Laura Fitton though has sent out much more than 140 characters. She has issued a total of more than 10,000 tweets through Twitter and notes that when a potential client contacts her, they already know who she is and how she thinks. The links she includes in her tweets also make it easy for them to follow all of the other content she has uploaded to various blogs and video sites. Tweeter for her then, has become a way of marketing her approach to potential clients as much as a form of public thinking.
So Twitter has evolved into a way for the powerful — and wannabe powerfuls — to communicate to the masses. It’s also become a way for businesses to network, to build brands and to create communities. Perhaps one of its most valuable uses though is a combination of the two.
Twitter Takes you There
Writing on the BBC’s website, technology journalist Bill Thompson described how following tweets from audience members allowed him to feel that he was in the room at this year’s SXSW interactive when Mark Zuckerberg took a heckling for Beacon.
“[T]he sense of presence that can be achieved is remarkable, especially when you’re sitting at your computer working, connected to the internet and with a Twitter client running on your computer so that tweets appear as they are posted,” he enthused. “It’s rather like reading a novel, where you stop seeing the words on paper and find yourself immersed in a world created for you by the author.”
It’s that ability to draw followers into a tweeter’s private space that has proved so powerful. It lets anyone feel that they’re sitting alongside any other tweeter in any part of the world. It allows buyers to trust the people they’re considering buying from. And it enables governments and politicians to make announcements without necessarily causing followers to feel that they’re being talked at rather than talked to.
Whether Twitter has become mainstream then, no longer seems to be an issue — it is and in all sorts of different ways. A much bigger question is whether it can stay mainstream without a revenue stream.