By now we know that Twitter, perhaps alone among any time-sensitive news source, provided the world with thousands of brief, pinpoint reports about the recent Northeast earthquake on August 23. Anyone with a browser and a Twitter account became a cub reporter, and the results could be compelling, especially when routed through an editorial structure at a more traditional online news venue (generously weeding out the outlandish and the demonstrably false). We are now accustomed to immediate, real-time updates from wherever news unfolds – not from Anderson Cooper, but from a thousand eyewitness missives aggregated and fed to your browser or even the computer in your pocket that is often referred to anachronistically as a “cell phone.”
But I am impressed in a different way with Twitter, and here is how it is linked to the quake:
In the Hudson Valley town of Kingston, a place historic enough to have been the first capital of New York state, I was due to speak at DragonSearch’s Twitter conference called “140” in honor of the amount of characters permitted in a Twitter post. And in the middle of the conference, just as an unfortunately timed presentation (not mine) had gotten underway, the auditorium began to shake and the rigging above the stage began to sway; someone yelled “Earthquake!” and near everyone ran out, smart-phones ablaze and presumably transmitting the excitement. Later at the reception, we had lots to talk about.
For me, the most impressive feature of the quake-interrupted Twitter conference was neither the quake nor the real-time disaster-tweeting. The most impressive – even exciting – feature was the tone and temperature of the conference itself.
In a word, it was exhilarating. This is because, unlike many conferences where professionals and the occasional shill might take the podium and present a tale you’ve heard before, the participants here were genuinely excited about what Twitter had done for them, and the majority of the presenters were selling exactly nothing. They were there to transmit to their peers how Twitter had literally improved their lives! The word “grassroots” can safely be used here without fear of being accused of re-bottling an old bromide. And except for the initial rush we all felt when we realized the World Wide Web could put us in New York or Paris or a place like Tahrir Square in an instant, I have never seen this type of excitement about an online technology.
Twitter: Making Connections vs. Marketing
Fifteen years or more into this “Internet” thing, we now have another explosion. And it is not Facebook and it is not Google and it relies not at all even on the great Apple. It’s 140 characters of personal communication and expression that link the far-flung to the farther-flung; and the technorati to the seekers; and perhaps more importantly, the far-flung to the technorati who need to keep their ears close to the digital rail so they can call out the schedule for those waiting on the platform.
At Kingston there was a mountain musician who tweets not to his fan base but to everyone; and via the magic of #hashtags and retweets, has been able to tap and benefit from a community of like-minded souls who might even come see him play one day his dobro. Partly due to the regional nature of the Twitter conference and his #hudsonvalley hash tagging, it seemed he had actually met many people through Twitter who enriched his life experience.
There was a woman from a tiny fishing village up the Esopus Creek who found supporters via Twitter to help her win a national fly-fishing competition for her hamlet. She also won many new friends. On the day of the event, they paraded on Main Street with their handles and hashtags on placards. Another woman professed tremendous personal satisfaction at having begun tweeting about her farm for wayward horses – saving them from the glue factory for quiet repose in a farmyard – and from those tweets, meeting dozens of helpful compatriots and no small number of actual friends. Now her rescue farm is not only staffed and running, but has received a grant due to its mission and its savvy use of cutting-edge media.
There was a woman who ran a clothing store in the town of Saugerties (of Big Pink/Dylan fame) who managed to sponsor an exotic reptile show in her space because she met a guy who saw her tweets and thought the space might be a great place to show off his iguanas and pythons. Apparently the show was a success and the store is busy beyond expectations. And if you are familiar with the Hudson Valley you will understand why vintage clothing and exotic reptiles might somehow appeal to the multifarious natives of this richly cultured region.
It seemed everyone at the conference had a great story to tell about how Twitter made his or her life better, more connected, more enjoyable. And not a product for sale!
These were real people with real stories about why technology even matters at all. And that reason is that the best technologies have immediate salutary effects on our lives. We make connections; we form alliances; we “put it out there” and see if someone notices. And we don’t have to pay big city rents and spend time at dull cocktail parties or wait for the hipster weekly to learn the latest about subjects we care about.
Twitter as a Lifeline
Once again we witness a transformational technology in the glory of its bloom. As Facebook has metastasized into something that may soon border on the overexposed, as the web itself becomes a workhorse taken utterly for granted, as YouTube rapidly replaces boob tube for a new generation – as these have evolved, Twitter has come to us as an earthquake of surprising communicative magnitude. Those seemingly inconsequential missives, once derided by the like of yours truly as inane and without value, are seen to become the connective tissue of the digital age.
For real people, in real ways, Twitter has provided at times a lifeline, at times a newsfeed, at times a publicity mill for the rest of us; and in ways quite eye-opening – the way earthquakes are – has jolted us forwards into a new dimension of communication.
Is there a way to measure it and make it actionable? Sure. You want to measure traffic from bit.ly-laden tweets back to your site and see how they convert. You want to see if they convert well against traffic from traffic you bought via AdWords, via banner, via some expertise in optimizing your search engine visibility, and against your email campaigns. Fact is, Twitter is a campaign – just like all social media. And for those not excited merely to be heard, there is still a bottom line to care about. With a dose of customization to your analytics tool (some of them claim to have “modules” that do this for you but I say “hmmm” to that), you can look at Twitter from a business perspective and figure out if it’s helping your business or just wasting your time.
But I learned another valuable lesson at the Twitter conference. Sometimes your measurement instruments are not sensitive enough to pick up the value delivered, especially when the impact is peripherally economic but thoroughly social and even transformational across the human spectrum. Sometimes you have to put down your measurement tools, go out in the sunshine, and listen to what people are saying about what they are tweeting and why they are tweeting; and you come away with a pretty good idea that this Twitter thing, simplistic as it may seem, is a pretty good idea for anyone, anywhere, with a business or a cause.
If Kingston is a suitable measure of the way the little birdie is whispering in everyone’s ear these days, the message for business is clear: tweet in your town, tweet on the beaches, tweet your sweat, your tears, and maybe even your blood. Tweet where you can be found, and never surrender. For in the foreseeable digital future, and with extensive apologies to England, there will always be a Twitter.