Can You Really Take Something Called Twitter Seriously?

In my not-so-distant Twitter-skeptic past, I used to fairly frequently ask the question: “Can you take something called Twitter seriously?” Why in the name of (add name of preferred religious figure here) would anyone care if Ashton Kutcher had just changed his underpants?

Google was pretty stupid as a name, I thought, too. But it was so much easier to handle that because I could see the immediate benefits. Google was taking the world’s information and making it easily accessible in 10 smart, blue, and usually relevant links. And for the most it was Ashton Kutcher free and Kim Kardashian was at least a million dance steps away.

It wasn’t until a totally trivial incident occurred that I actually started using my Twitter account. Of course I’d signed up for an account and then made a point of forgetting about it. Then one day I replied to an e-mail from my friend and fellow ClickZ writer Jim Sterne. I hadn’t seen him for some time and asked when he’d next be in London. Turns out he was in London two nights before. In the restaurant right next door to the one I was in!

“Looks like you’ve eventually found a use for Twitter,” he was happy to reply. And on that basic “don’t miss your buddies when they’re right next door” premise, I downloaded the Twitter app. But I still couldn’t really take it seriously.

During this past week, like most, I’ve been surrounded by the news of the horrific earthquake that has caused so much damage and human misery in Haiti. And it’s incredible the coverage and praise that social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are getting in mainstream news reports.

Hard-line news reporters are saying the word Twitter directly to camera amid the chaos and devastation and there’s a not a snigger in sight. Time was, not so long ago, that serious journalists took my previous, glib, Ashton Kutcher view of Twitter and referred to it as though referring to a child’s toy.

Praise is being heaped on Facebook, which managed to attract more than 100,000 fans in the space of a day. The amount of information relating to the disaster flows freely and is supplied directly by those who have access in Haiti and those connected to people in Haiti.

And Twitter is connecting people from the rubble of the earthquake to their friends and family around the world. Discovering that someone you know is alive and well amongst the chaos via a social networking medium probably seems to be a modern miracle to the average person.

And as I write this column I just checked the American Red Cross on Twitter and it has just announced that it has pledged $10 million in aid to Haiti relief and $3 million has been pledged via social networking sites.

With the phone lines down and the usual mass communications channels in a mess, it’s fascinating to see how people are coming together and sharing in a way they could never have done before during a crisis. And just as fascinating is seeing mainstream news coverage of what’s happening as supplied by the community itself.

I’ll just quickly expose another skeptic element. I used to think of YouTube as being nothing other than a place where you could view furry creatures falling into toilets or wearing children’s clothes. Yet coverage of the Haiti disaster there and places like CNN’s iReport suddenly seem to be getting featured in the lead news reports, completely flipping around the way things used to be.

We as marketers contemplate these questions: How will Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites make money? And how will we as marketers ride the back of that and earn money for our clients?

But strangely enough, this week my marketing head has given way to just how seriously we need to take something called Twitter as a fabulous communications medium and not simply another way to make marketing dollars.

Meet Mike at SES London, Feb. 16-19, 2010.

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