The Mainstreaming of Twitter

This morning, for reasons I’m blaming on the time of day and the lack of caffeine, I watched Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, plus a few friends broadcast live to the world over UStream as he reached 1 million followers on Twitter. You may have noticed over the last few days a competition has broken out between Kutcher and CNN for the first account to reach a million followers, with both parties promising donations to charity when they make it. Kutcher was first, probably as CNNbrk has been slightly more reticent in the publicity drive, although they were very close behind in the ‘race’.

Whist some may trumpet this as a victory of new media over old media, it isn’t. You could call it old media building on new, or old just plain co-opting and taking all the digital stuff for themselves. Via Doc Searls, I see a piece that describes what is happening in some places where brands, companies and celebrities are all playing in the space, from Steven Hodsen

As a result people are beginning to think that social media is nothing more than a round table with corporations, marketers and public relation people deciding on what the conversation is all about. Once more we are finding ourselves being talked to even though it is carefully couched in terms of openness and transparency.

This isn’t what Social Media was meant to be. Just ask people like Doc Searls, or Chris Brogan, or even newcomers like Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins. They’ll be among the first to tell you that Social Media isn’t about the tools or the services. It is about empowering the voice of the individual above that of the companies. It is about the socialization of all types of media in such a way that any individual if they try can be heard like never before.

The plain fact is that neither Kutcher nor CNN could have got this number of followers without old media, either in broadcasting pleas to follow on the news or in the years of mainstream coverage to build a fan base. This is not an either/or situation, this is new media being lassoed and brought into the fold so that it can be used in the same way. 1 million followers is not a ‘social network’, it’s a broadcast channel bigger than many newspapers or TV audiences. It does not empower the voice of the individual above the celebrity or company, it just ties them into more of the same.

Brands too could follow this model; they’ll think if these people can do it, or if Oprah can do it (she is going to do her first public tweet ‘live on TV’ today). But the reality is that brands rarely have anything to offer in the same league as celebrity ‘gossip’ (or an insight into the lives), or news. Broadcast mechanisms won’t necessarily work for them and the exchange value of a follow is not on their side. So I think all the current publicity about Twitter should not go to the marketers head. You still have to think very carefully about why you would use Twitter, how you can use it and what value you are adding to it.

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