Thinking About Twitter

Ahead of my talk at the AMA Tweet Meet on Wednesday, I’ve done some thinking about how corporate accounts can be better at Twitter. As there are 2,125 words of thought process here, you might want to skip to the final paragraph. Between time, there are some allusions to Jung, petting zoos and talking objects.

Why I Like Twitter

The thing I like most about Twitter is the fact that it offers a glanceable brain probe into the 700-or-so interesting people, things and places that I follow. A physical articulation of thoughts. On a good day (when, for instance, there are no people tweeting from conferences), it feels as if Twitter has created a collective preconsciousness, actualising hundreds of thousands of thought bubbles that would otherwise drift away. And at its best, Twitter allows these thought bubbles to crash into each other – become dialogue, create coincidence, generate meaning.

In the last few weeks, I’ve done an almost unprecedented number of talks and guest blog posts. This means that people who might be interested in my thoughts on, say, how arts organisations can most effectively use video, might start following me on Twitter. I haven’t formally analysed it, but I would imagine that about 0.1% of my tweets in any given year are related to that. Partly because it’s front of mind stuff – things I do at work that are so blindingly obvious they don’t need to be said. In which case, it’s probably quite annoying to hear me witter on about dressing up as a pilot and having a crush on Nigel Havers, which is the sort of thing that I do tweet all the time. On one level, it may well feel as if I’ve broken some kind of service agreement: I’ve given you my Twitter name on the last slide of a talk about making good video content, and then I’m telling you about my thoughts on petting zoos at airports.

Now – thinking about it – unless I knew you really well, I wouldn’t be telling you about my thoughts on petting zoos at airports. I’d be a bit embarrassed, and it would probably also be difficult to shoe horn into most normal conversations. I’d have to wait till someone said “what would you do if you could design your own airport?”, which – in all probability – would never happen. But the reality is that I have a more intimate relationship with my phone than with most of the Twitterverse. It’s never far from my hand, so it’s a tiny step to put that, almost preconscious, thought into the world – watch it float away, and perhaps be bounced back to me, or responded to in a surprising or funny way.

Importantly, my Twitter universe has many facets. There are some dear, close friends; some people I know less well – either through my work or personal life; some people I don’t know; some brands and organisations. When I’m sending that tweet about petting zoos, I’m probably intending to send it to the bull’s eye – that small group of close friends to whom I could say anything. But in reality, I’m saying it to whichever proportion of a randomly accumulated follower base of 1,031 people that happen to be reading at that time. Some of these might be people I want to impress, some might be people I want to give me work. Yet my intimate relationship with my phone means that I don’t think about that. I press send, do the deed. And in doing that, I also start to change my relationship with people I hardly know at all. I might be annoying some people to distraction, but I might also be finding a tiny, shared kernel of interest with someone I once sat next to at a conference.

And I’m not concerned about privacy here. Not least because I rarely say anything very important. But also because I’m aware that my tweets tend to form in that preconscious moment – they’re a glimpse of a proper thought or an idea. Not the entire thing. They’re a safe fragment to give away.

Obviously, not everyone uses Twitter like this. In many ways, I guess I use it in the slightly dreamy and pretentious way I used to annotate the margins of library books when I was a teenager. I am not a natural networker. I’m quite shy, and I have some quite unusual interests that may not be shared by a single person in my bit of Twitter. However, it’s probably a more or less accurate representation of me, and I’m fairly comfortable with that. I mean, if I wasn’t, I’d stop Tweeting.

Why Are You Going On About This?

Because I’m giving a talk tomorrow on Twitter crisis management, that was going to be based on a blog post I wrote earlier this year. This post was reflecting on my experience of dealing with what I called “a Twitter storm” at the Royal Opera House. And I was just going to go and talk about that. Talk about the five sensible things to do if you find that the sweary stick of Twitter mono-opinion is being waved in your direction.

But I realised that would be a mistake. It’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

I like how Twitter can be very genuine. I tend to unfollow people who use it as a megaphone to announce every single meeting they’ve had that day. And yet, this morning, I was pleased and intrigued to see a group of four clever and interesting people let each other know they were late for a meeting. That sounded like it was going to be a good meeting, the sort I want to hear more about when they’re ready to tell us.

And corporate Twitter accounts tend not to be very genuine. They’re the sort you can swear at, or retweet generic abuse to, because they’re robot corporate PR accounts that don’t have feelings too. Everyone gets very excited about Betfair and Shippams Paste because it seems like a real person might be nestling somewhere within. Likewise, Tom Armitage’s Tower Bridge tweets were a thing of wonder because they gave a beating heart to a building. And there’s outrage when these things get closed down, because there’s a feeling that the Shippams Paste Intern and Tower Bridge have feelings too.

This is also slightly on my mind because I’ve started a new agency, that I co-run with Katy Beale. We have an agency Twitter account, and I’m not yet sure how that should sound. What’s our voice, what do we want to say? Because there are only 2.5 of this, this should be extremely easy, but it’s not. My voice is not Katy’s, Katy’s isn’t mine. A lot of people want to work with us because of the mix of those two voices. Thinking about an audience is a bit paralysing. The moment I’m considering “what do people want to hear?”, the moment it risks becoming a bit boring – contrived, scheduled, headlines from previous activity. It slips from preconscious to conscious. This is partly because our legendary website is not yet live – we’re not yet giving any context – but partly because we’re in that very exciting stage of emerging and growing. Tom Uglow was recently telling me about a book he’d read about the importance of thinking like a child, and our agency is a child – it’s five months old and is changing in exciting ways all of the time. I want to capture that, while also giving out the unambiguous message that we’re doing interesting work and people should definitely hire us. Which is quite difficult, as it turns out.

Humanising the Corporate

In my old job, at the Royal Opera House, I was continually worried by our Twitter account. Luckily, one of the last things I was able to do was make sure we hired a community manager, and it turns out that the saving grace of that account has been a single, sympathetic and interested voice. Previously, we’d done some quite interesting things with it – such as writing an opera, which was fairly cool – but we’d always struggled with the tone. What does the Royal Opera House sound like? was a perpetual nagging question at the back of my mind.

And it was so for all the wrong reasons. A theatre – no matter how slick it’s marketing and branding strategy – is still, essentially, a collection of people. Real people. The ROH has a staff of around 1,000, and capturing a voice that might reflect that is pretty bloody difficult. Also, many of those 1,000 are not – or do not want to be – public voices. And it gets more difficult when you start to think about the audience.

The ROH has three artistic companies and an orchestra, world-class technical and production teams, fundraisers, educators, caterers, marketers and PR people, and – importantly – a whole lot of tickets to sell. And the audience is just as segmented. Some people only like ballet, some only like contemporary dance, some only like the work of Wayne McGregor. Some people like everything. Making a relevant fit between what the audience likes and what the organisation wants to tell everyone seemed to be impossible. Taking away the shiny patina of corporate communications and letting the real people through is the most difficult of all. Having a single voice that talks to the audience like they are real live people, with a range of different interests, appears to be a much better route to go down.

Twitter for Things

And yet, and yet – there is all this other stuff. The life of that organisation is a complex ecosystem of people and things that inter-relate on an ongoing basis.

There are processes and performances and thousands of surtitles that appear above the stage nearly every day that are dying to get out of that building.

In fact, Tom Armitage once suggested we do a Twitter feed for the red velvet curtains, which would have been a very beautiful thing – an understated articulation of the rhythm of the stage, the beating heart of the theatre.

So it seems that the voice of the things and the systems are as close as an organisation can get to a preconscious thought. The things the building and the people and the objects they contain do without thinking about them are the core of that place, the centre of gravity for the brand – hopelessly authentic, because they are real and constant.

(Funnily enough, at the exact moment I was thinking about this earlier, Matt Jones tweeted Usman Haque’s comment from today’s NESTA IoT event saying that Pachube is “Facebook for machines”. This is interesting.)

But if you’re only interested in C19th Italian Opera, you might not want to know that other stuff. But really, it’s the other stuff that makes it charming, makes it real. The life of the building is one of the most exciting and vital things about many arts organisations, yet it is rarely given an opportunity to speak.

Being Simple and Complex at the Same Time

In a way, I think The Guardian has got this the most right. I don’t know how much of this is a strategy, but if it is, it’s a good one.

I have numerous touch points with the paper on Twitter, through both (I assume) automated accounts that highlight articles I might want to read and journalists I follow who say interesting things. I don’t follow the main Guardian account, but I do follow a mix of information-based books, culture and tech accounts, that tend to provide links, which are then augmented by the personal accounts of columnists or journalists. Now The Guardian is obviously different to a theatre – you would hope that a group of paid writers would be able to rustle up enough interesting 140 character snippets – but the best thing is that I’m untroubled by the Sports headlines. It’s not a monolith that gives me everything, but the strength of the brand is such that it’s able to support these separate accounts under the purely notional umbrella of my relationship with the brand. Even when I am beyond incensed by something that has appeared in the newspaper, I would be unlikely to heap reprobation on the @Guardian account, because it’s the wrong one. It’s not the entirety of The Guardian that I’m annoyed with, it’s probably a single journalist or editor.


I suppose what I’m saying is that Twitter is at its best when it’s playing in a multiple space. If your feed is full to bursting of Foursquare updates, you’re probably being tedious as hell – but if those check-ins are just a part of the varied fabric of your life and your thoughts, then they might be a compelling component.

If you can allow your corporate account to be multiple, in touch with the preconscious elements of your organisation, you would be unlikely to ever be at the centre of a “Twitter storm”, because you would be human and vital and relatable.  It might also be some of the best, accidental, marketing you ever did, but to do that you would have to stop making it like a brand manager and start like a caretaker or a conductor – checking that the multiple moving parts are doing their job, and allowing them to communicate with the wider world outside.


4 thoughts on “Thinking About Twitter

  1. “..some of the best,accidental marketing you ever did..” That pretty much says it all, but unfortunately marketers like strategies, formulae and cause-and-effect, and I think Twitter is too sophisticated for that. I like your musings on how a person’s voice can represent an organisation, a building or its constituent parts, or whether it even should. My feeling is that in your agency you should tweet as yourselves, and the resultant mix (however schizophrenic it may look at times) will become your agency, like one of those photos made up of millions of tiny photos. Thank you for this, nice post.

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