I imagine I was not the only person struck by the media collision around the coverage of the death of Jade Goody. The last few weeks of her life were marked by a quite depressing co-dependency with a media at once uncomfortable with their proximity to the unfolding real-life anguish, and delighted by it. For everything else she was, Goody was a media phenomenon; a byproduct of an culture of instant fame and circular celebrity. Without media attention she ceased to exist and so her death, as her life, became dependent upon the publicity that made it – at times – distasteful. Like Schrödinger’s cat, the fact of her observation was thoroughly part of her entire being.
Equally, her death brought a simultaneous low point and high point for the role of things like twitter in the news media. The BBC’s official report, takes much of its content directly from Stephen Fry’s twitter feed, that many of us will have seen (as followers) many hours before. Perhaps the BBC cleared the comments for reuse. Perhaps he intended them for this very purpose, or perhaps they were idle ramblings as he tromps around the globe, but we have certainly moved away from the point where journalists would refuse to publish content which had appeared before. With over 300,000 followers, Fry practically is another media outlet in his own right.
Is Twitter itself a sea change in media?
Certainly its recent growth has been surprising. The influx of users is reminiscent of the period 18 months ago when everyone and their aunt joined up to Facebook.
It’s worth considering why it is really more than a glorified status.
First and foremost, Twitter takes more from blogging than it does from social network thinking. It is much more public. It is much more permanent (and it can be indexed by search engines). And it is being used to convey a much wider range of information. Each 140 character entry may be whimsical and often vacuous but it has the potential of being remembered and useful long after its posting.
Like blogging, Twitter is asymmetrical. Not all Twitterers are created equal. 12,000 people are following Hugh McLeod, as compared to the list he is following of just over a thousand. He may have two brains, but you have to wonder how Robert Scobble can possibly understand the stream of consciousness that comes from over 50,000 people he is following. And his audience is just as big. At this scale, Scobble’s twitter feed has at least as much influence as my local paper. And that’s just the first order influence. Twinfluence (twinfluence.com) looks at extended reach (1st and 2nd generation connections) to estimate that twitterers such as Apple evangelist and entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki can reach up to 18m people.
No wonder then that it was seized as a tool by the Obama campaign. And no wonder that so many brands are attempting to hitch themselves to the bandwagon. For both marketers and politicians the question is oddly simple: not ‘what message should I broadcast to the network?’ but ‘how can I get the network to follow me?’ – what can brands and individuals do to interest, entertain or provide utility in such a setting. For a cause like the American primary contest, this was simple (if not easy) – tapping into a huge latent demand. For manufacturers of mid-size family sedans, it will prove a little more difficult. Twitter is just another example of marketers needing to learn about the power and significance of networks. And we can certainly expect many of the same missteps. Brands will need to be prepared to listen and well as speak.
But the real question about brands in Twitter is one of personal identity formation. As Clay Shirky has noted, attention amongst (traditional) bloggers is anything but evenly spread. Rather there is a ‘power law’ distribution, with a small number of top bloggers receiving the vast majority of attention.
As a Twitter elite establishes itself, the site will continue to operate and grow dramatically on two distinct levels – as an efficient if limited social utility, and as the blogging platform of choice for fast ideas. Such thoughts may be half-cooked but they are much more accessible than multi-page blog entries (it is no coincidence that they are the right length for a single thought or link). And we now know from experience than users will at times radically reconsider their use of technology if they find it interesting or useful enough.
Would Goody approve? I think she would.