Twitter Turns 5: What Now?


On March 21, 2006, @Jack (Jack Dorsey, one of the programmers at Odeon who created Twitter) sent the first tweet: “just setting up my twttr.” 

Tweet #38 was prophetic:  Dom Sagolla (@Dom) typed: “Oh, this is going to be addictive.”

Five years later, there are well over 200 million users worldwide, with 10 new Twitter accounts being set up every second:  over half a million new accounts per day.

More than 140 million tweets are sent daily. That’s one billion weekly.

In 2008, Twitter had eight employees; today it has more than 400. And they’re hiring (twitter.com/jobs).  If there are people out there who haven’t heard of Twitter, you have to wonder if they’re living in the caves where Osama bin Laden was (wrongly) reported to be hiding. 

So what happens now?  Well, let’s start with a couple of Twitter myths.  The one that annoys me the most is that Twitter is ruining the English language.  You can’t blame bad spelling or poor grammar on Twitter.  I have 8 high school or college age teens in my family — and their texts and tweets often leave something to be desired in terms of both grammar and spelling.  (Not to mention avoidance of certain Anglo-Saxon words I’d have died before admitting in front of MY grandmother that I’d ever heard, let alone used.)

On the other hand, all except one of them can be counted on to ace their college boards and any writing exam they are ever asked to take.  (I have one extremely smart grandson who is profoundly dyslexic, and must be tested orally in order to prove his abilities.)  

They are bi-lingual in the sense that they shift from “proper English” to casual language depending on the circumstance — and as far as I can see, that’s no different than what many of us have been doing at work as long as there have been standards for “proper” business language that differs from everyday speech.

Another myth that annoys me is the belief that social media is making people less social.  That’s what they said about email and Internet chat rooms, too.  But it hasn’t happened.  Yes, there are people I “talk” to regularly but haven’t seen in years.  And I have a couple of people I consider friends though I’ve never met them face-to-face. 

But the people I “talk” to via chat, email, Twitter, and Facebook but don’t see all live far away from me.  I rarely see my step-daughter Chrissie.  Given my preferences, I’d spend as much time as possible with her, because I have loved her since she was 14 and first came into my life.  But years ago, she went off to Paris for a holiday — and hasn’t come back.  (She married a Frenchman, and is raising her multi-lingual children in a 16th-century house on the northern coast of France.) 

Social media gives us an instant way to share the little details of everyday life — a recipe, a comment on a child’s accomplishments, photos, questions about this or that.  The things we’d have handled by phone or letter in a different time. 

A survey published last month by Exact Target Shows that people who have increased their use of Facebook and Twitter also increased their face-to-face interactions with those friends.  That’s been my experience as well. 

One change that social media has brought to my own life is that it has allowed me to see a different side to many of the people I’ve known for years through work.  At work, I’ve always taken care never to talk about religion, politics, or even music preferences for fear of offending someone. 

Now I’ve learned that a journalist I always stood in awe of has a wicked sense of humor and a penchant for listening to heavy metal music, a lawyer who once sued me belongs to the same sorority and alumni association I do, and one of my sister-in-law’s classmates from high school is the best friend I wish I’d had all these years.

Of course, there’s a risk associated with mixing business and personal contacts on social media sites.  That’s one of the big selling points of Google+:  the ability to create “circles” which see different information.   And there’s an even bigger risk associated with  the casual way we handle “like” and “+1” buttons.

As for Twitter, the kind of instant, global reach I can find with a simple hashtag can be empowering — and addictive.  The Dallas Morning News, for example, published a short blurb on Friday that said the Barnes & Noble bookstore near my house was hosting a birthday party for Harry Potter on Sunday, July 31.  The paper gave the time, and listed a host of free activities and offers — crafts, trivia games with prizes, chocolate frog cards, face painting, and a costume contest. 

We arrived with a 10-year-old and a 4-year-old in tow, only to find that the only “craft’ left 15 minutes after the published start time was to make a golden snitch (wrap a styrofoam ball in gold foil and add wings made of white or yellow feathers).  We got the last two “snitch kits”.  They were out of everything else, and the store was crowded with hundreds of costumed kids and upset parents. 

One of the big draws was that the store had promised Butterbeer from Universal Orlando — but the Starbucks in the store was instead selling $5 cups of creme soda topped with whipped cream and a few drops of butterscotch flavoring. (It’s the recipe published years ago by the Leakey Cauldron fan website — I recognized it from countless Harry Potter parties the kids have attended over the years.  NOT the carefully concocted creation from the theme park.)

The kids who read Harry Potter are, by and large, well behaved, literate kids, so they weren’t a problem.  Disappointed, but well-behaved.  The parents?  Not so much.  I heard one dad say, “OK, I’m starting a hashtag.” Pretty soon, I saw a dozen or more parents tweeting their unhappiness.  I did, too.

Eventually the store manager came out to explain how 45 minutes before it opened they’d discovered the face paint had dried up, the newspaper had published the wrong time, and they never expected more than 100 kids to show up (lord knows why — when Deathly Hallows was launched, that same store had over 4,500 people at its midnight “party” — which was a disaster, too). 

I don’t know what or who else he intended to blame, because he got shouted down at that point and retreated to his office to “hide until he could talk to corporate” (his words).  That’s when things got ugly, and my family left.  As we were on the escalator, I looked back and saw an irate father turn over a table that promised face painting, and another pocket the last few “golden galleons” left on a table.

I wonder if anyone at Barnes & Noble will pay attention to the angry customers tweeting their displeasure over Sunday’s botched event?  I know one thing:  I won’t waste my time going to another “event” at that store, whether it’s a book signing or a “party”.  They proved they don’t know a thing about customer service — and Amazon.com has proved that it does.

I also know that if the company doesn’t pay attention to what people are saying about them on Twitter, they’ll go the way of Borders.  People who tweet their unhappiness with a company or brand expect a response — and if they don’t get it in a pretty short period of time, the brand will find that a customer has become a detractor.  Maybe a detractor with 100,000 followers.

Which brings me back to the original question.  Twitter is five years old.  Now what? 

I think the answer is short and simple.  Now we figure out how to live with it — and how to avoid letting it control our marketing priorities while harnessing its power to forge new ties with others.

Cartoon credit: Offered under a creative common license by Australian cartoonist Grea through her website. 

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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