Twitter: Probationary review

3500If Twitter were an employee, it would be approaching the end of its first three months with me – that probationary period is a vital proving period in any relationship, and it’s a good idea to take stock of what you’ve learned, what’s been fun, and what needs to change. In an attempt to make this useful for the Hive, I’m going to use the tried-and-trusted list of 11 points.

Twitter veterans will have nothing to learn here, but hopefully the newness of these perspectives will be of use to some of you.

1. Pedal! Pedal!

I read today that 20% of Twitter accounts are completely and utterly dead. Yep. Never lifted a finger. I am surprised this figure isn’t higher, as the sign-up to Twitter is like being thrust onto a dancefloor in complete darkness.

You don’t know what to do, who to follow, or even if anyone cares about you. Like those tiny turtle hatchlings that have to scuttle down the Mexican beach through a gauntlet of dogs and seabirds, it’s a wonder that any of us made it. We’re still at the stage where virtually none of my personal friends use Twitter, so I was lucky to have a load of Profero friends to help me get started.

The conclusion is that Twitter needs to make getting started a little easier, tutoring people in how to build what I consider the all-important safety cushion of 10 people following you. As an unreformed user of analogies, I’d suggest that starting out on Twitter is like riding a bike. If you don’t pedal, you’ll fall straight off.

2. Starstruck?

I admire Stephen Fry. I think he is a staggeringly clever, funny bloke. But his Twitter feed, allegedly the non-plus-ultra of ‘Twelebrities’, was an anticlimax, and the same goes for the other famous people. Even Ashton Kutcher. I think I expected too much, and discovered instead that Twitter lays bare how embarrassingly ordinary the contents of celebrities’ heads are.

But there’s a flipside to this: the same effect uncorked the personalities and minds of lots of ‘little’ ordinary people who deserve just as much adulation. In the same way as Stephen Fry has underwhelmed me, the ‘ordinary’ people I follow have been a revelation – colleagues here at Profero as well as employees at other agencies.

Rather than bleat on about their work, Lean Mean Fighting Machine has popularized the ‘pant jump’ and I always look forward to the ‘squid news’ coming out of Dare. Profero has its own Yellow Bin – possibly the only recycling bin in the world to have gone on a drug-fueled bender in Camden. This is a wonderful marketing point that I think is coming closer than ever to the magic 15 minutes that Warhol is on about.

3. Bland identity

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, I am dismayed at the output of brands out there. Thinking that it is ‘enough’ to have someone sat at their desk, engaging with the audience, they are tweeting me to sleep with their harmlessness. I promise to buy the products of any brand that steps up to the mark and starts making the walls shake.

4. In our bubble

I’m going to take a punt and speculate that advertising and new media types might over-index on Twitter a little. Yep. Thought so. In between thrilling the crowd with urbane, witty thoughtfulness, and rehashed news, we should take time to step outside into a real world in which Twitter is about as front-of-mind as Chilean domestic politics. People in our industry are currently talking about Twitter as if it is social marketing.

In fact, Twitter is the Manchester City of social media – all the news, all the column inches, much expectation, but nothing like the proven reputation, reach and size of other outfits.  It’s nothing insightful to suggest that Twitter still has a way to go in terms of mainstream penetration, but I’ve got my doubts as to whether the surge will continue for long.

A forgivable perception of Twitter is that you’ve got to have something to say; just look that vacant white box at the top of the page. It’s as terrifying as a switched-on mic. The problem is, the majority of our audiences don’t feel they do have stuff they want to publish, but they’re happy to listen. Twitter perhaps has to be repackaged into more of a one-way product to reach out to the real masses.

5. Two vaginas

Did you know this: residents of the Colombian town of Villa Vieja got a bit of a surprise when a mutant calf was born. ‘The calf has six legs, two vaginas and six nipples,’ explained the animal’s owner, Salvador Vanegas. Mr Vanegas, who has been raising cattle for many years, said it was the first time he has seen a calf born with that many legs and vaginas.

6. Tales of the unexpected

See previous point. The most absorbing people I’ve seen using the service understand how to stop you in your tracks, and it isn’t through being permanently relevant or predictable. They do it through building a pattern, and then throwing something in there that completely wrongfoots you.
Cricketers call it a googly.
(This the only thing I know about cricket).
Thing is, you can’t beat something that momentarily makes you think that the writer has lost his marbles. As anyone in email marketing will tell you, if you can’t mix it up, you’ll lose people.

7. Show me the money!

I can see how brands are agonizing over how to monetize the conversation on Twitter. It’s a massive question, and one I’m not going to elaborate on. Instead, I’m just going to answer it. If 4 out of 5 of your tweets are addictively useful/funny/inspiring/quirky, then followers will be comfortable with it when the fifth one gently wafts something with a pricetag in front of you. The genius bit here is that people involved in a mutually-admiring conversation won’t need to be sold to. Products shouldn’t be sold on Twitter; they should be bought.

8. Twitter turbocharged

One thing that annoyed me about Twitter was that URLs and pictures were hidden behind shortened codes. How do I know if they’re any good? Wouldn’t it be good if you can see the pictures and play the videos in your stream? The bad news is that loads of people had that idea before me, the good news is that it is only a couple of minutes adjustment away if you use Firefox.

Courtesy of our Tech Director @hellquist, I use a Firefox extension called Greasemonkey that permits me to add bolt-on scripts to everything, then you visit a site like userscripts.org and discover things like the wonderfuluserscripts.org/scripts/show/40617. It also gives me the fleeting impression that I am far more technical than my friends. If you don’t try it, you’re a cissy.

9. Social, but how social?

On this point, I’m willing to be corrected, as I’m aware that everyone uses Twitter in their own way. Still, I’ve been alarmed at how many times I’ve heard Twitter referred-to as a way for people to keep in touch with their friends. I’ve been even more alarmed when I’ve started to see people having IM-style conversations about hooking up on Saturday. To be honest, it’s only worth doing if you are hooking up with someone who you want to show off about. Like arranging lunch with Stephen Fry, perhaps.

At the same time, people who have nothing to tweet but links are a little bit boring. It’s even more boring when you are given no sense of anticipation about what mystery item might be behind the link. You just become one of thousands.
These are just two ways that Twitter is used in the wrong way, and in my own humble view, they’re the less inspiring users.

10. I’ve had an idea

Suppose that Twitter offered you a premium membership at $5 a year, entitling you to write 280 characters instead of the standard 140? As you can probably tell, I’d sign up, and also take the credit for giving Twitter the keys to finally monetize their business.

11. Do not drink and tweet

Never tweet when drunk. I can’t stress this enough. The cool thing about drunkenness is that it is temporary, and also has the happy effect of wiping your memory of inconvenient details. Twitter, on the other hand, is permanent. In theory, your drunken piece of incoherence is committed to permanence just as much as the Digital Britain Report.

That’s it. For my part, a significant challenge is knowing who to be on Twitter. I don’t feel comfortable uploading my personal life onto the Internet, and equally my professional expertise is spread across fields that are more densely populated with knowledgeable search, media, tech and creative specialists. I’m happy to listen. Instead, I’ve started to use Twitter as an outlet for every non-professional observation I have. It sort of fits.

So in summary, I’m happy to welcome Twitter on board full-time. But it won’t be allowed to go on holiday yet.

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