I'm waiting for the first big Twitter catastrophe. And if you think it came from the hackers who worked into the instant messaging site in January and gave away access to the live output of celebrity Twitterers – from Barack Obama to Britney Spears – you'd be wrong.
The real disaster is going to come from the carpetbaggers and snake-oil medicine men who – on behalf of lazy brands and celebrities – are abasing the purity of Twitter, sullying the well of instant thoughts with blandishments, banalities, poor research and self-absorption.
Many celebrities are employing agents, social media experts and others to filter their tweets (Twitter postings) to the point of pointlessness. Britney Spears is the prime example. They may be upfront about it, signing tweets with the words "Adam – Britney's manager", but if they think that letting the world know Britney has been to the movies with her dancers is exciting, or where Twitter is at, they've got another think coming. "Yes! This is the real Britney Spears!" announces the site proudly. No, it isn't.
Twitter can turn a celebrity's reputation around if the celebrity in question is honest, upfront and, most of all, engaging. Jonathan Ross, post-Sachsgate, signed up to Twitter, turned on the gregarious charm and gained 180,000 followers, endlessly communicating with his fanbase in the same manner he does in the flesh. He proved himself real by posing in front of his Twitter account for a photo. No wonder he won a Bafta nomination for his chat show – he has Twitter to thank for it.
It's also obvious that Phillip Schofield's engaged use of Twitter has left his brand in a stronger position than that of his former co-presenter Fern Britton, who has not engaged with social networking at all. Her recent departure from This Morning, reputedly over spats about money, proves it. Ross and Schofield are two celebrities who realise that Twitter is about conversation, not sales pitch and image management.
Someone who doesn't get it is Simon Cowell, who took three days to respond to a comment on Twitter by American Idol co-host Ryan Seacrest, who suggested he looked old. The implication is that Cowell is something of a dinosaur. I would suggest that that is only because he is not capable of reacting quickly enough to the medium of Twitter, not because of his looks. He had to take the long way round to get his point across and got left behind.
And then there's the Narcissitwits, the people gossip site Holy Moly has outed on their Celebrity Twitter Narcissm chart. Russell Brand tops the list, accused of following the twittering of only 14 people when his own following is 143,548. No 2 is Lily Allen, who is following only 10 people, including Britney. Brand at least finds time to answer many questions sent by fans, but many other celebrities on the list are not engaged in any meaningful conversation with fellow Twitterers.
It's all about conversation. Stephen Fry, Phillip Schofield, Richard Bacon and Jonathan Ross are all talking constantly on Twitter, but Britney's Twitter feed is merely putting out a bland sales pitch, with the sort of information that can be gleaned from anywhere. It is sanitised, tedious vainglory, and nothing whatsoever to do with reality.
The same is true of a number of advertising agencies, which are slithering into social networking in an effort to stay relevant in a world that is sliding away from advertising with alarming speed. The trouble is they don't have the chops to pull it off. PR, conversational by nature, offers a unique opportunity to exploit Twitter, but the real challenge at the moment, given that Twitter is so popular, is to not use it, but to sit back and listen to what is going on in it and learn more about it. "We will make money but we can't predict when it's going to work," the Twitter CEO Evan Williams told Wired magazine. If the CEO can say that, then advertising agencies need to sit back and look at what they're doing before rushing blindly in.
Twitter begs engagement, if the news feeds that people on the streets are generating are anything to go by. The vast conversations springing up around the world – from the G20 to celebrity gossip – are frightening the conventional media, whose slipping grip on the zeitgeist is partly responsible for advertising's departure to pastures new. The trouble is that they too often want to force advertising rules on to a world that can only be driven by PR, creating an endless stream of statements in a world of conversation, like a drunk in a pub accosting strangers, without once stopping to find out if they're actually interested.
Journalists may be beginning to see Twitter as a useful tool that can help them do their job better, a source of news-gathering and feature ideas. What they are not seeing is that it will ultimately erode their influence. Twitter is a virtual world where blunders live at a global level – if you make a mistake it's going to be writ large across Twitter in moments, whether you're a celebrity or a brand. If Solange Knowles, sister of Beyoncé, can make the news reporting that she's passed out in an airport after a bad reaction to her medicine, you can be sure that less than coherent tweets will eventually surface in the press.
It's no wonder that Twitter is hiring a concierge to encourage celebrities to use Twitter properly and carefully. Now if only they'd do the same for brands and advertising agencies. The one thing that will dilute the purity of Twitter is people getting involved simply because they think they should.
Mark Borkowski's 'The Fame Formula: the history of the Hollywood publicity machine' is published in paperback on 21 April by Pan (twitter.com/ MarkBorkowski)Reuse content