It forces all debates into 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation marks. Anyone with an opinion can say anything they want, to any person ranging from Rupert Murdoch and Amitabh Bachchan to my niece and your mother, if they happen to be on it. Yet there are over 500 million people on it, either following someone or being followed. Why on earth does Twitter have so much appeal, and what are the lessons it holds for other mass media brands?
The answer needs some plugging into the past. For those of us from the one-newspaper, one-TV channel era, the internet was about the democratisation of information and communication.
It made information available at the click of a button. Ask business journalists from the pre-internet era (including yours truly) about how they did their research. Simple things like the annual report of a listed company were a challenge. I know of several colleagues who bought a small quantity of shares in major companies. That way, as shareholders, the annual reports would be sent to them. It was impossible to get global figures unless you wheedled year-old data from the Indian managers or wrote to the firm’s head office, by post. Getting from there to a point where you can read financial analysis and research, or any newspaper and magazine, from across the world is a liberating feeling for someone in the business of intellectual exploration.
Similarly, the internet democratised communication, because it spread e-mail. Till then you could not even hope to get the fax number of someone who did not want to talk to you. For those unfamiliar with a fax machine, it transmits scanned physical copies of a document across phone wires. I remember feeling very hi-tech about being able to send requests to people in Dubai, Holland or the UK by fax while working for an import-export magazine out of Mumbai. The fun was not just in being able to communicate but being able to get through — a difficulty in the days of landlines and protective secretaries. Just like a fax, the question of not getting an e-mail doesn’t arise — because date, time and receipt are logged in the system. Most people can’t lie about not getting a mail without looking foolish.
Twitter takes this to another level — it democratises access. You can actually read directly what people you admire, like or dislike, have to say about something. About six years back, just before Twitter was born, could you have imagined reading Rupert Murdoch’s unedited, off-the-cuff comments on politics? Or coming to know that Shahrukh Khan woke up to a hug from his son? More importantly, could you have imagined that you could react to these comments directly, without secretaries, editors and mail servers coming in between? And that Messrs Murdoch or Shahrukh or whoever will in all probability read your comment? That, I think, is the first and biggest appeal of Twitter.
The second, of course, is the amount of specialisation it allows within the babble of 140 million tweets and comments. So a luddite like me, who signed on only in July last year, has discovered the joys of having a news feed devoted to media and entertainment. From Ofcom, LSE Media policy, Poynter or Veronis Suhler Stevenson, all the sources of information I rely on can feed me their headlines. And if something interests me I click. This has its drawbacks, especially overload — on most days I end up postponing an interesting piece I would have otherwise read in a magazine or newspaper. Also, following institutions or bodies is a more rewarding experience; following people is trickier. It is annoying when specialists you follow tweet random stuff. I know of film critics who talk about the quality of ice cream in a multiplex, or how they had a cold when on tour.
What does Twitter’s success with audiences (not yet revenues) say to mass media brands? The obvious takeaway is about accessibility. Earlier, if you wanted to react to a story on a TV channel or a newspaper, you had to write in to them by snail mail. Now, their Twitter and even Facebook pages give you quick access. Most writers and editors are on Twitter, so they can receive feedback on their work.
The second takeaway: it also tells you, more emphatically than ever, how critical professionally-generated content is to the chateratti. Without the articles and opinions mainstream newspapers and TV stations generate, the babble on Twitter would be down to half or less.
And that brings me to takeaway three, one that answers a question that is asked at every forum on whether mass media will lose out because of digital. This is not about winning or losing audiences. This is about co-existing, dovetailing and complimenting everything else around you to give consumers a better media experience. Twitter does that by improving the way we use old media and new. Not many media brands can make that claim.