Category Archives: microblogging

The Moran Scale of Twitterstorms

I was asked to ‘create’ a Twitterstorm as part of an art project, and I sort of did. While this wonderful Buzzfeed post describes the stages that one goes through, in order to measure the size of a storm and hence the success of my operation we needed a way to describe the extent of a particular one. With Jon Hickman (Degree Leader, Web and New Media at Birmingham City University) I worked up this scale.

It’s an attempt to give a quantitative scale to something that cannot be measured directly in numbers—this is about extent and influence and simple measures are never going to cut it, although as the number of Morans increases so does the number of Tweets and their anger. It’s based roughly on the idea of the news cycle and how the subject of the storm operates within it. We chose the name ‘The Moran Scale’ after Caitlin Moran, whose ability to kick off the storms—and get them featured in the old school media—is unrivalled. As it’s about intensity of storm, a parallel to the Beaufort Scale is entirely intentional.

The Moran Scale of Twitterstorms by Jon Hickman and Jon Bounds

Continue reading

Excellent Engagement

Content, interaction, community—that’s what your social media profile is all about. It’s a message that seems to have hit most brands, and organisations right down to the smallest. But from what I’m seeing a lot of at the moment, there are a lot of people finding it hard to think about what to do once they get there.

There’s an episode of the Simpsons (Season Two, Episode 22), stay with me, where Mr Burns would like to be nice to Homer—but he knows nothing about him (nor really cares) so falls on the most bland of engagement:

“Hey there Mr….d’uh….Brown Shoes! How ’bout that local sports team eh?”

(Oddly for a great Simpson’s quote the video doesn’t seem to be on YouTube anywhere, but there is an audio clip here.)

Does that remind you of anything? Here’s a collection of Tweets reminding me of it that I collected on Friday:

It’s not exclusive to Twitter, nor the Royal Wedding: check out any number of Facebook fan pages or any social platform on a Friday lunchtime to see loads of “Hey guys, what are you doing this weekend. Let us know!” type-posts. They’re a close cousin of the way blogs starting up will often end their debut post with a plaintive cry of “what would you like to see?”

It is no doubt amusing to watch them all come in (and to watch the meme or cliche spread), but there’s something deeper I think—and some lessons to learn.

I think it sometimes happens because people are following what the mainstream media started to do a few years ago (‘have your say’). “Let us know!” became their coda to all stories, because they were getting to grips with the idea that people could converse and create en masse without their involvement. They were trying to channel this new thing called UCG through them so they could continue to act as gatekeepers, or perhaps they were genuinely excited by all of those pictures of snow. The TV programmes and the newspapers (and to an extent their associated online spaces) were offering an audience, much like Tony Hart in his gallery, and still do—hence the potential motivation for sharing your content through them.

Most brand social web channels don’t have such a huge audience, or if they have a big one it’s often very tightly around a subject—big wide and generic questions aren’t going to engage that audience. Your dry cleaners, or a skincare brand, aren’t the first place you think of to tell your plans for a Bank Holiday.

Possibly it also comes from a desire to “get into the conversation”, to make a brand seem like it’s one of your mates. Might work, if you’re trying to create a very small community round your social web space—if you’re usually about answering questions and sending out news, isn’t it a little odd? What are your other followers going to do with the information if you get it and and then you spread it?

Most of all, people probably do it because they see others doing the same. That’s one way to learn, but you need to think more deeply about whether any techniques apply to your situation—what they might achieve and how they might look. In essence if you’re attempting to engage around your brand then things closely related, or of direct relevance are going to hold more weight.

As a bonus here’s Mr Burn’s classic funk track ‘Look at all those idiots‘, including wailing guitar from Waylon Smithers. What’s your favourite Simpsons as metaphor for social web engagement story? Let us know!

Hashtag usage — a survey

I’m very interested in the motivation behind uses of hashtags on Twitter — I have a feeling that they are more created than searched.

I would be very interested to see Twitter Search stats — to see how many people actually look at collections hashtagged content rather than just pump them out because it seems part of etiquette. This hypothesis brewed when I saw how hashtag use breaks down of  during real big events (World Cup, election) — as people already know the context, I am thinking that they are used more as a shorthand for context than searched or monitored.

Without much hope of getting that valuable data, I have created a very short questionnaire to get some feeling for use of hashtags. Due to the responses being self-selecting I am assuming that the results will be biased towards experienced Twitter users, but we’ll see. That this may be compounded due to my network containing a lot of social media profesionals is also a worry, so I would appreciate if you would spread it as far as you can.

Hashtags, A new challenge to idiots

Apparently the Olympics suffer from ‘Ambush Marketing’, meaning that if they don’t stop other people doing adverts that are a bit like they have something to do with the event then the official sponsorships aren’t worth as much dosh. It’s all about scarcity, just like how TV rights are only worth so much if you can stop other people showing the games (something that the sports world is also struggling with), or how news coverage (or at least the adverts that sit alongside it) only makes money of there are a limited number of people doing it.

The Olympic movement (and sport in general) is not know for it’s forward thinking policy on this sort of thing, we’ve seen people with cameras not being allowed inDutch football fans’ trousers being confiscated, and fixture list copyrights being policed with the ferocity of, well, only the music industry are equally as dickheaded. Not only that, but they’ve been accused of bizarre censorship around the current games:

Anti-Olympic mural censored in Vancouver Boing Boing

(Boing Boing)

So when the Wall Street Journal decided to stir up a bit of Twitter trouble, it was easy to find brands supposedly breaking the Olympic marketing rules (in which “nonsponsors are barred from referring to the Games and their athletes in name, likeness or imagery that evokes the Games in any media without a waiver from the committee” — this would now one would assume cover the “official hashtag”):

Twitter / Verizon Newsroom: GGuess what? Team USA is rockin' out the #Olympic medal count in 1st place with (drumroll, please) 18!

Verizon and Red Bull were the two accused here, by joining in with the conversations around events rather than sticking to broadcasting marketing tweets (“barketing”? if it’s not been called that before, I’m coining it) they’d broken rules drawn up in another information age.

You can’t control the use of words when you can no longer control the scarcity of information. Something even the World’s oldest organisations are going to have to learn.

Football and cats

I always think that you can explain almost anything in terms of football or cats, and those of you who have seen me talk with probably of heard about one or the other — what I’m really doing is using smaller examples to explain big concepts. Football has given me another great example over the last few weeks, this time of really innovative, interesting and fun (hyper)local media.

It’s the Billesley United FC twitter feed. Billesly are in the third division of the Birmingham AFA League (I think, it really doesn’t matter), and have had an un-named fan covering their matches this season:

Billesley United (billesleyunited) on Twitter

It’s fun, partisan, a bit rude, cliquey and at times incomprehensible (cold fingers and the mobile web aren’t the best combinations for reports) but it’s great.

With only nine followers (including me who doesn’t know any of the team, or anyone connected with the club) it’s not reaching a big audience — but I suspect that they aren’t bothered. It’s everything that’s great about social media: they’ve just gone and done it, and not been drawn into any conventions that mainstream media have used before.

A real point that’s missed by some people in the hyperlocal land-rush is that since no-one’s paying you can do pretty much whatever you want. Sometimes that will find a wide audience, sometimes it won’t — there may not be an audience there — but if you do what you enjoy then that’s enough of a point.

Twitpanto 2009 — The Sequel

After proving that online pantomime could work last year, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to repeat the trick — but eventually the lure of doing it again with the experience of how it went before proved too much. It does take a long time to organise, and I wanted to do something more complex with the viewing platform which required more tech skills than I had, so I was very grateful to the Birmingham Hippodrome for their support in making it happen.

The structure of the pantomime was very similar to Cinderella last year — there was a cast, who had ‘motivations’ (character bios) and a script to follow (or improvise around), and a private “director” account for prompts and the like during the performance. Most of the differences were to do with how the medium (Twitter) has evolved over 2009:

The main difference is it’s reach — here’s an Alexa (usual caveats apply, Alexa is a skewed sample to both the US and to ‘techies’) graph of PageViews for the Twitter website (remember also that a huge number of Twitter users very rarely have cause to visit the site):


twitter.com - Site Info from Alexa

With more users comes both the problems of noise and an altered demographic — it wasn’t possible to rely on as much shared knowledge of either how Twitter works or shared culture if we wanted to reach any more than the same people.

Many people found following Cinderella (last years #twitpanto) hard and were happy to use Matthew Somerville‘s Roomatic hack which highlighted cast members within the stream — but I felt that this would still be too hard to read this year. So, while it was still possible to follow the hashtag any way people liked, I planned a version that separated those ‘on stage’ more completely using two different windows. Here’s my mock up:

TwitpantoHippodrome.pages

The changing nature of Twitter also presented issues for casting, I found difficulty balancing keeping the cast open to as many people as possible, while making sure that they were people who would ‘get’ how to do it difficult. Due to this, and also the possibility of a collision with the Hippodrome’s offline panto (which due to real-world rehearsal commitments didn’t happen) I wrote a scene that would contain characters from other pantomimes, so people could be in it without having much impact on the story.

With increased interest in being in the cast (people were clamouring from May) , I wanted a panto with a good number of characters, but it was also imperative that the plot was very well known. Twitter isn’t a great medium for establishing scene or location, nor one where curtains can be drawn between scenes — there’s also the conceptual problem that there can be no secrets from one character to the other (we ask for suspension of disbelief, unless it’s a good plot point). For that, and the obvious men in tights gags, I chose Robin Hood.

The script this year was written to be less in-jokey than last years (where I not only knew the audience better, but wasn’t attempting to get a wide audience), which was more of a struggle but — with a good chuck of help from Danny Smith — it turned out I think to be a good deal funnier. In fact it’s readable and enjoyable out of context, if I do say so myself.

What I was more sure of this year is that Twitpanto is a collaborative and open piece of art — played out online — and as such the live, free and interactive nature of it is the main thrust. There were over the Christmas period attempts to do “real time” twittering of both Home Alone and It’s A Wonderful Life  — interesting, but too tightly scripted to be anything than transposing to a new medium.

The ‘set’ worked, after a few Twitter hiccups, brilliantly — and even more impressively Matthew modified it after the event to  allow a replay — it’s the iPlayer for Twitter and very clever. You can watch Twitpanto ‘as live’ here.

It proved a little difficult for the cast to use, I’d advised them to use the Twitter website and keep refreshing, as it wasn’t quite fast enough for them to wait for their cues on anything using the Twitter API. There were also some early web issues for a few of the cast, which contributed to the rocky start.

I also had to stop myself from being overly directorial, I felt at times that some of the improvisation was making it difficult for people to find their cues — disappointingly for me also muddying some of the jokes. But all in all the cast were brilliant in staying in character and interacting with the whole messy experience. It was especially difficult for some with only one or two lines to stay quiet for the duration, in retrospect fewer, bigger, parts work better.

Nudging, which is really all you want to attempt on the social web, is a difficult theatrical directing style to achieve, here’s what Joanna Geary (whose involvement got us a bit of press from The Times) tweeted:

Twitter / Joanna Geary: @alexhughes has just perfe ...

It was  better attended than 2008 — the #twitpanto hashtag  was one of Twitter’s top ten trending phrases during the “performance” — very unusual for a UK based topic to trend these days. There were over 1,500 tweets containing it between 3:30pm and 4:30pm (1,500 is the limit that Twitter’s search facility can recall on any one search).

Whether the model can work outside the structured chaos of the pantomime I’m not sure, but happy to try (maybe  a Shakespeare comedy…), but it’s certainly the most innovative drama experience on the web.

Thanks again to all the cast (find ‘em here) all at the Hippodrome (follow them here), Libby (who contributed last minute lute) and all that participated.

Tweeting for a “brand” or organisation

First written May ’09, updated (slightly) April ’11.

Although listening is the most important way of using Twitter for a brand or organisation, you’ll want to do some actual tweeting too — or it’s not a conversation. Here are some generic tips on how this can work well, based on my work with a number of organisations. Again, I’ll assume that you’ve got a basic idea what Twitter is and got an account. I’ll use the example of a theatre venue here, as it’s something I’ve been thinking about, but the principles should be applicable across organisations.

What to tweet

Twitter is all about adding value to other people – on a personal level you get this value back in kind (your questions answered, or being entertained), for a business you would hope that it’s a loss leader for sales (like making the seats in your venue nicer than the absolute basic). In order to make valuable and useful tweets it’s good to think about the “value” of each tweet that the organisation makes — they should be (at least one of):

  • Interesting : eg. an exciting new booking for the venue (or new product, whatever)
  • Entertaining (or nicely personal) : eg. something interesting backstage (This tweet of mine from the Warwick Arts Centre of Rapunzel’s hair would be a good example) – this is mostly where the personality of the tweeters can come through*
  • Informative: eg. a road closure nearby (this might not affect just visitors, but useful locally), cancellations, additional dates to sold out shows…
  • Helpful: mainly this is responding to queries either asked directly to @yourname or that we can see through the search feeds.

*The “entertaining” tweets are very attached to people’s personalities — brands don’t have personalities, but the tweeters do. It can depend on the size or your organisation, and the number of people tweeting from it as to how you can best get the personality out.

Personality matters, how to get it through

For a very small organisation, one person bands especially, showing the personality can be quite easy to do — if one person is doing all the tweeting it will happen quite naturally. But if one person is responsible for Twitter in a larger organisation, what happens then they are on holiday or at weekends? If your Twitter contacts get used to a certain level of updates or response, a dead period can break trust — people will drift off and get information elsewhere. Because of this it’s important to share out the responsibility of Twitter (both monitoring and responding), there are a number of different strategies.

One, employed to good effect by Channel Four News (@channel4news) is to decide on an organisational tone of voice — theirs is lightly conspiratorial, and friendly — but then not say at all who is actually tweeting. I would suspect that one of the broadcast assistants is put “on Twitter duty” each day. This is useful for a very well know organisation, but it is a barrier to conversation — Channel Four News don’t have to work hard to build contacts or answer difficult customers (or deliver information), they are there to create a friendly atmosphere and to extend the culture/community around the programmes, they don’t need to build personal relationships.

Another way of letting the personality though is to “sign” some of the tweets — this works well for the asides, the entertaining nonsense that builds networks. By signing the tweets I mean tweeting messages that are linked to real people — you could do this my leaving a name/initials after a circumflex at the end of the tweet (“just seen something odd ^jon”) or better still link the organisation’s tweets to the Twitters of individual people one their own accounts.  This can be done technically (by services like GroupTweet or ConnectTweet, or by bespoke filters — I’ve used Yahoo Pipes and Twitterfeed for this purpose) and can work really well when people are already using Twitter for themselves.

An example of a use of GroupTweet is the Twitter stream of my radio show The Big Paws (@thebigpaws)  — we use normal (“unsigned”) tweets for information,  and GroupTweet fed direct messages from our own accounts for “asides”. GroupTweet has a slight technical issue in that you can’t follow people outside the organisation with the account (as it works by retweeting direct messages), ConnectTweet uses #hashtags, which solves that but does leave brand tweets also in the originators account.

Whichever method you choose it’s still up to all tweeters to understand what’s appropriate to say on behalf of the brand or organisation — but this is no different to them speaking in public offline, and you trust them to do that, right? Spamming isn’t a good idea, everyone must understand that.

Tweeting tips

Here are a few tips of how to structure tweets, what to include and a few common pitfalls to be aware of:

  • When tweeting a link (to a new blog post, or anything else on your site or not) tweet the direct link to the actual content – don’t just tweet a link to your website and expect people to find it (use a URL shortener like bit.ly with stats if you’re interested in how many people click on it).
  • Watch how often you tweet links to your content — most people are capable of finding your blog posts without twittered links. Don’t automatically set links to be tweeted as new posts are posted, or at least set up a separate Twitter account for that and mark it clearly as a feed of your new posts. If you have a new blog post that you’re really excited about and want to tweet about, communicate that excitement in the tweet.
  • Asking for a ReTweet is a little desparate, make interesting content and people will want to pass it on — be very careful about asking for ReTweets, campaigns are a possible use, but your latest blog post isn’t.
  • Think about when to tweet, if you want to generate a fun discussion (or even a more weighty one) then think about when your network is most partial to that sort of thing. Friday afternoons are good for fun, Monday mornings, not so much — although your network might display different characteristics.

When and how often to tweet

This is really the same question; each tweet exists separately and due to the ambient and transient nature of how people read Twitter there isn’t really a too much or a wrong time — as long a each tweet is adding something to the people who read it. The tweeter has to ask themselves “why should anyone care about this?” — friends will put up with things from you that people you’re hoping to communicate with as a brand won’t. Tweet useful and interesting stuff and people will want to engage, don’t and they won’t.

As ever any questions, improvements or suggestions are welcome — these can only be very broad tips because each organisation is different, but I hope they’re useful. I’m very happy to talk to you about specific cases (and I’m @bounder btw).

Monitoring your “brand” on Twitter with search

If you’re doing any sort of professional work on Twitter then the main part of what you should do is listen. Listen to see what people are saying about you or your areas of expertise. You might find useful information, or you might find useful contacts or leads — or more likely you’ll be able to help people who are asking questions about you or things you aspire to be seen as expert about. In this quick guide I’ll use the term “brand” but really, “interest” area is just as valid. I’m going to assume that you’ve used Twitter (if not here’s a quick start guide), and that your “brand” has a Twitter account — if not then then the listening will all be of “interest” type but it’ll still be worthwhile, and will help you get used to how people use it to talk about services or products or subject areas.

I’ll do a “how to tweet on behalf of a brand” guide soon, as I’m doing a bit of work in that area with a couple of organisations — they’re very different in scope and what I find out there will be useful to others I hope. But first to the listening…

Twitter Search and RSS

Importantly you’ll need to (learn to) use Twitter Search and RSS, and particularly Advanced Search. We’ll use the search to build queries that show you the sort of things about your brand or subject area that you need to know.

You can refine your searches with; Words,  People (to, from or about), Places (Near this place,Within this distance), Dates, Attitudes (With positive attitude :), With negative attitude :(, Asking a question ?), or Containing links.

When you’ve got the searches up, you can subscribe to an RSS feed of new results — it’s by far the best way, and it’s the one that will keep you sane.

First up you’ll want to monitor all @replies to you – especially if you don’t have anyone monitoring your account all day. Yes the @replies tab shows you this, but this is mainly about monitoring – not spending all day checking twitter as if it was an email inbox.

Twitter Search page

You should probably also set up a search (and subscribe to the RSS feed) of any tweets “referencing” your account name – which is mentioning you without it being the first.

After that it’s up to you, pick the combinations and searches that bring up things you’re interested in – if you’re a local business you might try tweets near you matching your work (a plumber could set up searches for “burst pipe” or “plumber” within their catchment area) if you’re a nationwide (or worldwide) organisation then you’ll have to find another way to filter down to

How you chose to respond to the tweets you find is up to you, to simply respond and say “you’ve been talking about X hire me” would be seen as spam. But again, to use the plumber example you could offer advice to help and build trust that way (eg “turn off your water, the stopcock might well be…” or “if your heating isn’t coming on, check the pilot light of your boiler”), chances are helpful tweets will be well received — good vibes for your brand might build business slowly or quickly, but  they’ll be worth it in the end.

Make sure your profile offers enough information: website address, even phone number if you like so that anyone you’ve interacted with knows who you are and how to find out more or contact you.

All this works best with RSS,  to try to monitor everything in real time (whether in a tool like TweetDeck, or by manually refreshing the search page) would be time consuming and would eventually drive you crazy. RSS is the key to managing information, and it’ll be worth your time to try to get to grips with it.

But if you really struggle, then there is a way to get this stuff by email — TweetBeep

TweetBeep is like Google alerts for Twitter,  you can use the site to send you an email when new things match your search terms. For keywords, people or location it’s nothing Twitter’s own search facility doesn’t offer – apart from the email alerts, which can be set to come to you hourly, daily etc.

It’s behind me. Twitter pantomime, a social media experiment

Pantomimes have taken a good couple of hundred years to evolve from ballet and variety acts, they’ve at times been four-hour sprawling shows with a lavish ballroom scene. These days they’re more likely to be a string of doubles-entendre hung loosely over a plot that gives a TV personality a chance to expand his or her range beyond looking fetching in swimwear.

In their heyday they were so engrained into the British culture that it would have been hard to imagine any media outlet that didn’t shoehorn its presenters into an in-joke laden panto – to the delight of the audience and also the schedulers that could fill up hours of festive programming. That they’d also turned into a fiesta of cross-dressing, was just a bonus.

They may not be as culturally relevant now, but the traditions are well-established and they are even starting to see signs of a post-modernist revival.

Panto is an ideal format for a community project, as it has well established traditions – and just a few basic plots. If a show is Robin Hood, Puss in Boots or Alladin the audience know that the basic plot will be boy meets girl, boy gets girl, while thwarting “baddie”. Maybe it’ll be the girl that does the thwarting, or maybe (Beauty and the Beast) the baddie will be our own prejudice that looks are more important than personality. Whatever, there’ll be slapstick, there’ll be a slushy dance scene and something will be quite obviously behind someone else – while they are seemingly doomed never to catch a glimpse of it.

But why did I organise one online, and why twitter?

Continue reading

Round and round it goes – twitter -> blog – > twitter echo chamber

Further proof, if proof be needed, that pushing blog posts to twitter (and vice versa) creates nothing but echo. In this instance the only tweet archived from “yesterday” is the tweet announcing the previous day’s tweets (and so on and so forth):

Twitter Updates for 2008-09-09
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

A nothing perpetuating itself, filling up the internet and making interesting stuff harder to find.