The person is the point

February 6, 2009

This is just going to be a quickie, mainly so I get it out before I go away on holiday never to remember it again. At some point I might expand on it.

Over the last few weeks in particular, we’ve seen the public finally sitting up and noticing Twitter. It’s been on the BBC, all over the news and makes for interesting watching on Google Trends, too:

Twitter / UK / 12 months

Twitter / UK / 12 months

About a year ago, my assessment of so-called “lifestreaming” was that it was all a timesink. Back then, I hadn’t pulled as deeply on the Twitter crack pipe as I have since, or do now. Looking back (nearly 5,000 tweets and 300 followers in), my thoughts are on the one hand changed – radically – and on the other, mostly the same.

My views have changed in terms of signal / noise ratio because Twitter has deeply, deeply affected me, the way I work and the way I consume and receive content and news. I can’t think of a technology that comes even close. The panic – and it is panic – that I feel when I consider a world without Twitter is, actually, pretty worrying.

On the other hand, my views about institutional Twitter have changed only a little. Back then, I questioned that Twitter has a place at all in an institutional setting. Now, with some water under the bridge, I’ve tuned my assessment of this. My current take on this is that there are only a few ways in which institutions can create convincing, fun, and followable Twitter streams.

The first of these is when it is automated (for example, Towerbridge – and this particular example is a genius use of various bits of technology). The second is at the opposite end of the spectrum, and that is when institutions are given personality, usually because the person doing the tweeting can sit outside the corporate MarketingFluff (TM). The obvious example is the always-great Brooklyn Museum. The third is when it is just plain useful, giving rapid updates on a topic in a way that other channels can’t.

As the interest grows, we’re starting to see the cultural sector increasingly wanting a slice of the pie, and the first thing they’re asking is how do we engage with this new channel? How do we mix it into our offering and make it work for us?

Right now, many of the museums on Twitter are using it in an informal, below-the-radar context. The problem is that as the thing goes more mainstream, we’re likely to see the same old problem we’ve seen with institutional blogging: it just ends up becoming the same old shit from marketing leaflets, regurgitated into new channels.

Twitter, like blogging, needs an edge, a voice, a riskiness. As long as institutions can retain this – i.e., do it for a reason – then, IMO, things will get more interesting. If they don’t, we’ll probably all be unfollowing museums as quickly as we can slide down the steep, slippery trough of disillusionment