We Are Social at 140 Characters


Photo by Paul Clarke

Yesterday, while Robin was wowing the audience of Monitoring Social Media 2009, I attended the 140 Characters conference at the O2 in London, part of a series of conferences under Jeff Pulver‘s care and attention.

Twitter conferences have often been derided as being populated by agencies and other die-hard converts telling each other how great they are – and yet while of course there was an agency presence, 140 Characters was far more memorable for the police forces, teachers, aspiring filmmakers, cattle ranchers and DJs there – all discussing how they love talking, sharing and conversing on Twitter.

Agency-wise, the Brands & Twitter panel (starring our very own Mauricio Samayoa along with James Poulter, Jennifer Cisney, Mike Mathieson and Rachel Fellows) was a standout for agency-land, with some well-placed questions and debate on how to provide brands a persona in social media. Central to this was the question of how to position – do you have a single ‘brand personality’ online or devolve to your employees to represent you instead? There was no sure answer to this and it was good to see nuance in the panelists’ reasoning – it depends on the resources available, the kind of service you wish to provide, and how bold you want to be; while it’s good to get as many Tweeting as possible, in the end it’s better to have some presence in the conversation rather than none at all. It was good to see that the temptation to treat Twitter as a channel with a one-size-fits-all approach was being clearly eschewed.

One example of how to stagger this process, comes not from the private, but the public sector. West Midlands Police have embraced Twitter & other social platforms, using it both to gather information about crime and public order, as well as outreaching to critics and public information – particularly important given the corresponding decline of local newspapers. West Midlands Police have gone from a force that 18 months ago banned using social networks in the office to one that’s now enthusiastically using it under a official profile, and they are now discussing a proposal to let individual officers Tweet as official representatives. It’s a classic case of establishing a voice on Twitter first, gaining confidence, skills and social capital to support it, and then devolving your voice out to staff once you’ve established your presence. As for the question whether staff can be trusted with being a brand voice, as Lauri Stevens, a co-panelist put it – “if the police can be trusted with tasers and guns, they can be given Twitter as well”.

Those on the fringes of the debate provoked food for thought as well. Andrew Keen, as expected, gave a contrarian view on Twitter, and what he saw as the dangerous seductiveness of authenticity (or rather false authenticity); Keen predicted a day when someone charismatic would be able to create a following that they could use for evil purposes rather than good. However, this warning seemed to be based on the assumption that Twitter’s appeal is solely in charisma and social standing, with no thought to conversation and values; in his view, people will be influenced by what Stephen Fry says because of his persona, and not because they might hold the same values as he does. But as Stephen Fry himself put it in his speech at the conference, if he urged his followers on Twitter to vote for a far-right party in the next election, it’s unlikely many, if any, would follow purely on his saying. Influence in social media is more than just someone’s sheer force of personality.

Regardless of Keen’s warnings, for the most part the Twitterverse has been able to use its powers for good, and not because of charisma but because it’s possible to make a difference. For example, there were three 19-year-olds from @BuyACredit promoting their social media fundraising for their film production. Plenty of people, including Jeff Pulver, referred to them as ‘kids’ or ‘boys’ but this was doing them a disservice; they know far more about social media than many older than them, and have been using it for a far greater proportion of their lives, so good luck to them.

In the same vein, a panel of young musicians and DJs talked about how they used Twitter; the music industry is in flux, and tellingly, there was still talk of “conquering Twitter” and of using street teams and other practices relating to an older style of marketing. It’s clear the industry is still having trouble fully getting to grips with social media’s realities. The musicians’ habits however, were more revealing than their words; they said how they followed artists because they were friends or they like their music and style, not because they’re important; ‘important’ figures such as @iamdiddy were ignored as he overemployed the hard sell. Without realising it they were rebutting Andrew Keen’s talk of Twitter being a mere personality cult.

Finally, it’s worth looking at some hints for Twitter’s future. On the Venture Outlook panel, Jeff Pulver, who disclosed he is an investor in Twitter, mentioned that he had profiled over 50 realtime search services but had invested in none, suggesting it is a problem that had yet to be properly cracked; he also tellingly speculated about how realtime search and breaking news analysis is of value in the financial sector to inform investment decisions and arbitrage – just how much could that search and information be worth?

Twitter’s future isn’t just about the people in it, it will also be a network for objects. Kevin Slavin gave a fascinating talk about how plants, bridges and washing machines are Tweeting their status updates – in a way it’s like the web’s come full circle (remember the Cambridge University Coffee Pot?). Things on Twitter are replacing old-school advertising mascots and are talking to us right now – how long before we will be able to talk back at them? Just how will Twitter look then?

The irony was that although 140 Characters bills itself as a conference on the ‘state of now’, for the most part now wasn’t really the most interesting thing on offer. The most interesting and more diverse conversations there were on what the future has in store. 140 Characters helped show the best of Twitter’s ability to help us not just in communicating, but organising, co-operating and creating – and these are all forward-looking activities. Perhaps the next one in London should be about the state of when rather than now.