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Making sense of Twitter's influence on the corporate world

Among the social media platform's uses, companies are tweeting to sell products and to quickly quell public relations issues, the author of 'Twitterville' writes.

September 28, 2009|David Gelles

Each Internet fad is followed by a wave of books seeking to explain, analyze and capitalize on the trend of the moment. Self-proclaimed experts churn out guides, surveys and instruction manuals for search, e-commerce and blogs.

So it was inevitable that Twitter, the messaging service that has exploded in popularity, would receive similar treatment.

Several books with Twitter in the title have already appeared; now comes "Twitterville" by Shel Israel. As a self-styled social media expert, Israel might look the type to write meandering assessments of the latest Web craze. In fact, this is his second book on how Web 2.0 technologies are changing business, and he is a thorough researcher and lucid writer.

There is an irony in publishing a book about a service that limits messages to no more than 140 characters. If the supposed value of Twitter is brevity, how can anyone justify a tome on the subject?

Yet "Twitterville" manages to be an engaging read, full of meaningful anecdotes and useful analysis. It makes a convincing case that Twitter's worth is not just the ability to broadcast short messages, but the continuing and transformative conversations that these tweets ignite.

In three years, Twitter has become one of the most compelling technology companies operating today. Its more than 40 million users have made it a public forum for the discussion of politics, business, celebrity gossip and idle chatter.

Indeed, it has been successful across so many industries that the company still seems to be deciding what it wants to be. It has yet to roll out moneymaking products and has been slow to innovate in recent months as its small staff works to keep the sometimes fragile site online.

The author does not shy from surveying the widely varying landscape.

"Much of the time, Twitter is just about everyday people discussing everyday things. Increasingly, it has become a highly effective tool of business communication," he writes. "People tweet to raise money for causes; to make government more responsive; to find and distribute news; to build personal or business networks; or just to kill a little time with people you enjoy."

Despite this breadth, Twitter had proved most influential in business. Companies use it to sell products. Dell has generated more than $2 million in sales through alerts posted to Twitter, while local food carts attract business by broadcasting their locations.

Twitter has also proved invaluable to companies that want to pacify riled customers, as Israel illustrates with two contrasting examples. Motrin, the pain reliever, and Pepsi both rolled out ad campaigns that offended some in their audiences, and talk of both quickly took off on Twitter.

Motrin was not monitoring mentions of its brand on the service, but Pepsi had a director of social media who picked up on the controversy, responded publicly and in a personal manner, and defused the situation caused by the Pepsi Max niche ad.

The media focus on Twitter, not to mention its chipper name, has made the phenomenon a bit annoying, and the book is, at times, no different. The author's attempt to turn "Twitterville" into a commonly accepted proper noun smacks of pretension. The author discusses the goings-on in Twitterville as if it is an exotic, unexplored society.

Twitterville is, however, quickly transforming from a quaint community into an unruly megalopolis. "As it grows it suffers from an ongoing assault of a steadily increasing flock of spammers, scammers, stalkers, phishers and plain old-fashioned flimflam artists," Israel says.

Besides hucksters and spammers, there is a more fundamental problem with Twitterville. As millions more join the party each month, the signal-to-noise ratio diminishes. Everybody and every business is setting up an account, even if they have no real plans to tweet.

Flimflam aside, Twitter remains, for now, an invaluable resource for anyone using it to find new links, stay in touch with colleagues or communicate with companies.

And among the books trying to make sense out of the way Twitter is changing business, politics and culture, "Twitterville" is the best.

There is one way, however, that "Twitterville" is fundamentally out of sync with the service: The book costs $23.95; Twitter is free.

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David Gelles is a San Francisco-based reporter covering social media and e-commerce for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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