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The Weight of a Tweet

9 August 2012

Last week Twitter featured heavily in the media. Tom Daley was publically harassed and threatened by one of team GB’s disappointed fans.  Police found themselves arbitrating a cyber-row unsure if their intervention was necessary or even legitimate. The media swiftly weighed in. Although the tweet was unanimously condemned, the incident left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Was this a waste of police resources? Did this essentially constitute censorship? In many ways, the response to Daley’s Twitter Troll reflects the confused status of Twitter in the public eye.

Twitter’s very name suggests a degree of irrelevance; light background noise to our daily lives. There is something pleasantly inconsequential about the prospect of composing a ‘tweet’ (one imagines user’s would feel a weightier burden if they were expected to make a ‘bark’ or ‘roar’). The statistics bear this out. In 2009, a study by Pear Analytics determined that 40% of the activity on Twitter can be classified as ‘Pure Babble’. Indeed this is the main appeal of twitter. It is probably the only forum where world celebs complain to us about their hangovers, bicker in front of us and share their idle thoughts. It is one of the few avenues where we are brought into contact with the people and institutions we admire and gain a realistic sense of their personality; links they find interesting, their passing thoughts. Twitter sanctions triviality, and as a result, it is a forum that invites disarmingly candid expressions.

Yet is this a mistake? Ill-considered tweets can cause scandal, make headlines and now, apparently, land you in police custody. Well orchestrated tweets can launch careers, build brands and generate celebrity. People have been known to gain or lose jobs based on their Klout rating or garner book deals from their online aliases. Twitter’s role is growing increasingly paradoxical. Its popularity is based on the promise of offering something brief and largely unimportant. Yet this very popularity has made twitter a highly serious venture. As we’ve seen, a high profile account is potent.  The guise of triviality, the casual tone and throwaway content of a tweet, can seem increasingly inappropriate, even disingenuous.

From this perspective, it is understandable that the police found it difficult to evaluate the threat posed by Daley’s troll. In a way, the incident highlights Twitter’s consistently dual-nature; it is both intimate and yet extremely public; a social platform, yet one with massive implications for business or personal gain. Twitter disclaims its own importance, yet like the news it shapes public opinion and incites action, even to the extent of revolution. Given that Tweets can be seen in such opposing light one can imagine the bafflement of the police forced to react Daley’s troll. To treat the situation as a legitimate concern or dismiss it as an insane rants both seem legitimate responses.

Twitter remains an unknown quantity for many of us. Charlie Lawson, national director of Business Network International (BNI) stated that many small companies “are still far from understanding how the medium works best”.  Yet though many are using it wrongly, it’s unclear how to use it well. What sort of tone to deploy? How to engage with the playfulness of the forum? Certainly there is a temptation to play it safe. In a world where tweets have such heavy consequences, it seems wisest to err on the strictly-business side of tweeting if that’s your main prerogative. But is that maximizing the potential of the platform? In many ways, to play it safe with Twitter is to resist the very nature of the format.

Twitter offers a different sort of insight into its users, real expressions of your flair and personality. It allows businesses to engage with the market in rarely spontaneous ways. Such expressions are more likely to pique strong reactions than perfectly honed press releases. The divide between business and pleasure will always be curiously permeable in Twitterworld, and as a forum that is still defining itself, it’s usage and role is likely to shift and develop. However, if you really plan to make the most of this platform, it’s important to throw caution to the wind somewhat; to embrace the spontaneity and silliness inherent in Twitter’s very name.