Twitter: Great stuff or pointless fluff?

In the latest edition of PR Week, Ian Monk launches a broadside at microblogging service Twitter saying:

“Having followed various twittering dialogues, I have come to the conclusion that many, if not most, are inherently fake, either in sentiment or authorship. That is, the ones that aren’t too banal to interest any individual or organisation possessed of half a brain cell…Twitter has hitched a ride on the digital revolution, largely to publicise its own overweening ego.”

I’m not sure the depth to which Ian studied Twitter, but I’d have to disagree with his observations. One of the key features of the service is the fact that it cuts back on clutter and gets to the point. You select who you want to follow, and you choose if you want to click on a URL if they’ve stuck one in a tweet linking through to further information. If you don’t like people talking about themselves, don’t follow them.

The fact is that if you elect to follow Twitter accounts which are “inherently fake, either in sentiment or authorship” then clearly that’s what you’re going to get. However, if you pick the people and organisations you want to follow carefully, Twitter can be a mine of information, news and views. I’ve found it an excellent resource through which to get information from political parties, news outlets and interesting people in one place. Plus there’s the two-way communication element which enables users to engage with fellow Twitterers.

It’s quite simple really- just like you’d read a newspaper or watch a programme on TV that interests you, selecting to follow Twitterers who post information of interest to you means that you’ll see, well, tweets that interest you.

There’s no doubt that, just like any other medium, Twitter is open to abuse and egocentricity by its users. But that’s the nature of the net- it’s knowing how to cut through the noise that results in services such as Twitter being useful to those who access it.

Ian’s view about Twitter hitching a ride on the digital revolution, largely to “publicise its own overweening ego”, also essentially misses the point that Twitter in itself is part of that digital revolution, just like Google, Facebook and YouTube. That it happens to get good coverage in the mainstream media is the result of it being at the centre of a social media zeitgeist. And the fact that they are very good at PR.

Another point that Ian makes in his column is that had Twitter not existed, the “cries for freedom [from Iran] would just as surely have been relayed by mobile phone or email.” This tends to suggest a zero-sum approach to communication. Mobile phone calls and emails may very well have been doing the rounds amid the protests, but the arrival of Twitter added another dimension in terms of the instantaneous ability it afforded both people in Iran and interested observers around the world to spread news that the government there would have wanted suppressed.

The immediate and viral element of Twitter has proved it to be an excellent communications tool and placed it in a position to challenge previous net hegemony. So much so in fact that Google co-founder Larry Page recently admitted: “People really want to do stuff real time and I think they (Twitter) have done a great job. We’ve done a relatively poor job of doing things that work on a per second basis.”

Of course, none of us can predict the permanency of Twitter as a web staple, as ITV’s mishap over investing in Friends Reunited has proven. It’ll come down to whether it remains on the agenda for web users and if it can generate revenue in the longer term. But at this point to write it off as useless fluff would be to ignore the realities of its utility to those who actively engage through it.

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