Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
May 10, 2011 6:43 AM

The New Twitter Effect

Twitter is mainstream.

It was another week of Twitter getting mainstream media accolades as news of Osama Bin Laden taking one in the head from the Navy's elite SEAL Team Six unit lit the Social Media channel afire with chatter. Twitter's implications in breaking the news story was further amplified when it was revealed that Abbottabad, Pakistan resident and IT consultant, Sohaib Athar, unknowingly busted the Navy SEAL's cover when he tweeted, "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)" as the dramatic military operation was happening live and in real-time. Things got even more Twitter-centric when Keith Urbahn (former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's chief of staff) tweeted, "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn," nearly one hour prior to the official announcement from President Obama to the media and public.

Twitter is all about breaking news... or is it?

Twitter is not a centralized media channel that is vetting news for both accuracy and journalistic integrity. Twitter is an agnostic publishing platform. It's a publishing platform that allows anyone (for free) to publish a thought in 140-characters (or less) instantly to the world via any type of connected device (computer, smartphone, etc...). Twitter didn't break the news about Osama Bin Laden. It also didn't break the news back in 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 crash-landed in New York's Hudson River. All of these moments in time were "broken" by individuals - people like you and me - who happen to be there, live and in the moment and through the marvels of new media have the ability to publish anything and everything for the world to see. Twitter isn't a news organization. Twitter is a distribution channel. The truth is that the news about Bin Laden, the US Airways flight or even who got booted off of American Idol this week could have been published on a Blog, recorded on video and uploaded to YouTube or posted as a Facebook status update as well. People don't use Twitter because it's a better distribution channel than those in traditional or new media, the majority of people use Twitter because it's simple.

It's simple to use, it's simple to access and it's simple to connect to those people or organizations that anyone might be interested in. 

In Clay Shirky's seminal business book on the rising power of Social Media titled, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Penguin 2008), the NYU professor in Interactive Telecommunications and Journalism astutely illustrates that when the cost and complexity of publishing is pushed to zero (in terms of cost and effort) it forces everything to change (and he stated this long before the public adoption and popularity of Twitter took hold). Twitter is exciting not because it's free to use.

Twitter is exciting because it takes no effort... and that's where the true focus of attention from the media (and your business) should be paid.

If Sohaib Athar had to fire open his word processing software and write up a little paragraph about how helicopters were buzzing overhead late one light, then push that copy to his Blog software, he probably would not have bothered. If he had to find a video camera, shoot the event, give some commentary, transfer it over to his computer and upload it to YouTube, he probably would not have bothered, either. It was a simple and innocuous tweet (a fleeting moment in time and a random thought that he now had a platform to vent it out on to). The same could easily be said about the passenger who first tweeted about surviving a plane crash and being stuck in the Hudson River. If Twitter were not simple to use, simple to publish and - best of all - a simple platform for mobile devices, we would not be witnessing this daily barrage of insights, insults and oddities (like I said, the platform is agnostic, so it's definitely not all pearls of wisdom).

There are lessons within these stories that every business must be attuned to.

In a world that is shifting from mass media to mass content, it's the effortless and simple platforms that will win - the ones that remove the friction for people to share with others. The content within these channels must be relevant - not just to what a business is selling, but to the consumers (first and foremost). The content most be worth talking about and worth sharing. Because of Twitter's growth and popularity, individuals now have a nose for news. Whether it's the personal events in their lives or what they're seeing in a world that allows them to publish in text, images, audio and video from the palm of their hands for the world to see. That's the true, new Twitter effect. It's less about the news that's being broken and much more about why we're at this amazing moment in the history of our civilization. How we filter this mass amount of content and vet it for accuracy is another story, but in the meantime, businesses can start thinking about how their consumers don't have to wait to get home or to the office to complain and it doesn't take much effort either to tweet out, "Brand X sucks!" To make matters more complex, it's even easier to retweet that type of content - making it go viral within the network.

The real question becomes: how can business adapt, react and benefit from the new realities of real-time and instant feedback?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

By Mitch Joel