From concept to execution

Full of Character

16th November 2012

Heather Harris plays ‘follow-me-follow’…

I know what Andy Murray’s dog had for breakfast. I also know what David Beckham’s daughter’s first words were, where to go if looking for a riot in central London and the latest uprising in the Arab Spring.

This is because I tweet. Along with 4999 million other active users, I add my contribution to the 340 million messages that are now generated every day (compared to a mere 140 million a day in March 2011).

For years I resisted. Witnessing Demi Moore’s desire to share with the nation a picture of herself brushing her teeth or hearing Stephen Fry announcing that he was shut in a lift and it was raining on Richard and Judy’s weekend cottage in Cornwall was off putting enough. Add to this the tweets of condolence that followed Amanda Holden’s miscarriage or Amy Winehouse’s premature death and the concept became both mundane and distasteful. Surely grief is the one place where privacy is respected. A card sent to the bereaved, flowers sent to the funeral – this is the British way of showing we care. Not a public outpouring of sorrow via 140 characters displayed on the internet or mobile phone.

As all my friends took to their keyboards to broadcast the minutiae of their daily lives – and research shows that, contrary to popular belief, only 11 percent of Twitter users are aged twelve to seventeen, with the majority being older female adults – I stuck to pen and paper.

The postage stamp price increase had me rushing to bulk buy whilst others looked on knowingly, muttering about the demise of the Christmas card – after all, why stick down 140 envelopes when you can bulk-Tweet seasonal greetings in as many characters?

But then, last February, it snowed. I was the only parent who turned up at the school gate, complete with my offspring. “Didn’t you get the message?” the caretaker helpfully enquired. Clearly not, I inwardly seethed. But then, that’s the trouble with the postal system: even the most caffeine-filled postman can’t deliver instant news.

And that’s where Twitter comes into its own. Although sadly stereotyped as an instant messaging service for B-list celebs and, of course, ultimate technophile Stephen Fry, Twitter as a powerful communication medium (particularly for snowbound schools) is often overlooked. It’s Facebook without the waffle and the sinister undertones. More informative than a text; less intrusive than a voicemail.

Go back to San Francisco, 21 March 2006, and it’s unlikely that Twitter originator Jack Dorsey imagined that the world’s most powerful governments and brands would one day be using his newly invented microblogging service. Conceived during a day long brainstorming session by the board of the podcasting company Odeo, this simple SMS service was built in two weeks as a way for Dorsey to keep in touch with his friends. As he explained (in 137 characters), “We came across the word Twitter and it was just perfect. The definition was a ‘short burst of inconsequential information’. And that’s exactly what the product was…”.

But then, however, as journalist Matt Rudd pointed out recently in The Sunday Times, “the Bin Laden raid broke on Twitter. So did Captain Sullenberger’s perfect landing on the Hudson. So did the discovery of ice on Mars and Whitney Houston in the bath.”

Slowly over the last couple of years, Twitter has moved from the communication of the inconsequential to a powerful tool to influence the masses. When the riots hit London in August 2011, Twitter amassed a volunteer clean-up force in a key stroke; in the same year, so concerned were the Egyptian and Iranian governments about Twitter’s power to stir up unrest that they blocked the service. More recently, and closer to home, when a Scottish schoolgirl was banned from taking photos of her school dinners and posting them online, Twitter users bombarded the council in droves until it backed down.

And this is what I find fascinating about the whole process. To quote Matt Rudd again, “It is direct over-the-fence chitchat with 140m neighbours — rock stars, film stars, politicians, hacks, heretics, fundamentalists and, perhaps, your actual neighbour.”

It’s also very easy to do and, as I discovered when my 11 year old quoted Manchester City star Mario Balotelli’s 140 character opinion on England’s Euro 2012 performance, there’s no age restriction. Would be tweeters simply register online and chirp away. Tweets are publicly visible, but senders can restrict message delivery to just their ‘followers’.

It’s the principle of ‘followers’ that makes the communication flow. Basically, when you choose to follow another twitter user (individual or organisation), that user’s messages appear in reverse order on your main Twitter page on your computer screen or mobile phone.

If, like me, it’s news you’re after, then there’s a whole virtual Fleet Street out there to follow; for snow alerts – or closures due to summer flooding – you follow your children’s schools, most of which have had to employ Social Marketing experts, such is the expectation from parents and pupils. And then, of course, there are all your friends, favourite celebrities and brands to keep up with on a daily basis. Despite the move into politics and news, though, a recent analysis of 2,000 tweets revealed that ‘pointless babble’ still accounts for 40% of activity.

With such openness and accessibility come obvious problems. Twitter has had its wings clipped for allowing celebrities to blatantly endorse products and ended up in court for publicising the worse kept secret in the traditional media – the identity of ‘love rat’ Ryan Giggs.

Privacy laws and advertising guidelines have to be rewritten to take into account this uncensored new kid on the block. A court case earlier this year, in which a student who admitted posting racially offensive comments about footballer Fabrice Muamba on Twitter was jailed for 56 days, generated a mixed response. Explaining the custodial sentence, the Chief Crown Prosecutor said: "We hope this case will serve as a warning to anyone who may think that comments made online are somehow beyond the law."

Social network users were not so sure and took to their screens to debate the issue. From the sporting world Lord Sugar, former Spurs chairman, tweeted, ‘Be warned, idiots!,’ while Gary Lineker posted, ‘Let it be a warning to all you immature souls. #thinkbeforeyoutweet’, while on the other side of the hashtag, Mervyn Barrett of crime reduction charity Nacro said that he could not help but think the sentence was ‘manifestly excessive’.

Twitter did slap itself down and stop the use of ‘trending’ topics that are offensive to others. ‘Trending’ is the term for a phrase, word or topic that at the current time is used or ‘tagged with a hashtag’ at a greater rate than others – reflecting what is top of public interest at the time. When Michael Jackson died on 25 June 2009, for example, his name was mentioned or ‘tagged’ at a rate of 100,000 tweets per hour and crashed the system.

More recently the bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey almost brought the system and its users to a meltdown, as celebrities, politicians and public alike shared their views on the literary merits of the trilogy.

Again, this is where I see the point of Twitter. By its very nature it has to explain issues succinctly and this invites debate. Recently the reform of the House of Lords has been explained to me in 140 characters as has the Euro debt crisis and Jimmy Carr’s tax bill – and I’ve read both sides of the argument in bite size pieces on my phone.

No radio or tv debate is now complete with references to contributions on Twitter. Even that old stalwart of political broadcasting, BBC’s Question Time encourages twitterers to ‘send tweets live during the programme by inserting the hashtag #bbcqt in their messages’.

And, in this her Diamond Jubilee year, it’s not that surprising that the Queen now has her own Twitter account. Keeping her subjects up to date with Royal announcements is no longer a case of pinning an official scroll on the gates of Buckingham Palace Gates – now we royal followers simply log on and scroll down…

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