Robin Brown

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The power of tweets: The future of Twitter

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Some of my words ended up in a Guardian article by Jon Henley today on the ‘power of tweets’ – a balanced piece that sums up a lot of the debate over the nature and power of Twitter that have been batted about the internet recently, not least on this blog, concerning Trafigura, Jan Moir and now AA Gill.

Since talking to Henley I’ve been pondering some of our conversation in greater depth, so wanted to detail some thoughts on the matter.

For my money Trafigura was a high watermark in the site’s power, as an expression of its extent and force for change. The Moir thing was also worthy of praise, but displayed the potential herd mentality of Twitter, especially when driven by celebs.

As for the Gill thing, it gave me the first indication of the potential ‘outrage of the week effect’.

In many ways this shouldn’t come as a surprise. All new social media sites go through a period of exponential growth and, essentially, ‘growing up’.

Twitter, as a community, is just coming to terms with itself and what it is all about. We’ve already seen this happen to Friends Reunited, Myspace, Facebook and – to an extent – Digg, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Reddit and Fark.

At first there was little to choose between the last five, but they’ve all branched out into different directions.

The Grauniad’s own Comment Is Free community is another example. Right now I’d say it’s in a particularly troubled adolescence, so unpleasant a place it’s become.

I’d say Twitter could go either way at the moment. Its growth could level off, in which case it remains a forum of like minds. I’ve outlined the drawbacks to this, with the Gill phenomenon, but I also think this could be a positive.

And let’s not forget that in and of itself there’s not much to Twitter – it’s still the traditional media lavishing such attention on it that is driving Twitter into the mainstream. Twitter propelled Trafigura into the mainstream, but it was cleverly nudged into doing so by The Guardian and Alan Rusbridger.

I’m unimpressed by the quote in the article from the guys from Spiked, one of whom ‘really hates Twitter’. Fair enough, but to deny its value as a tool or its ability to focus attention on an issue like Trafigura seems counter-intuitive, or even snobbish.

Twitter is a very simple tool, used in many different ways. Recent events have shown the good and bad of the community, but to write it off as something that ‘doesn’t work’ on an organisational level is patently untrue.

One of the questions Henley put to me was what the future holds for the social networking site. I had to admit I don’t have a clue, and I don’t see how anyone can.

Henley quotes a Twitter ‘leaked internal document’ that sees it in a few year’s time as ‘the pulse of the planet’ with 1bn users.

I found myself wondering if that’s likely to happen, and I don’t think it is. Most social networks have their time in the sun before something else springs up.

And if Twitter were to reach that landmark, would it be Twitter as we know it? The community seems to be chiefly populated, at the moment, by UK and US early adopters: left-leaning; likely to work in media or PR; socially and environmentally aware.

But the other obvious demographic seems to be urban US teens, who seem to be mainly responsible for trending topics involving US celebrities or daft internet memes – gossip essentially.

I think that if Twitter makes it to one billion users it’s this latter aspect of the community that’s likely to be in the ascendancy, which would rather scotch the ‘Twitter as fifth estate’ notion put forward by Stephen Fry.

As for Fry, the poster boy of the ‘offencerati’, he seems to have found the attention all too much, announcing his retirement from Twitter only today. I doubt Henley’s article has anything to do with it, but it highlights what a focal point Fry has become on the site.

He also alludes to the growing ‘aggression and rudeness’ – the Comment Is Free effect. Maybe we’re already into the next stage of Twitter’s growth.

All told I think this comes back to the duality of Twitter as a platform and as a community – two very different things. The former initially informed the latter, but as it becomes more mainstream those early adopters will be joined by more and more people, and more diverse people at that.

The most telling quote in Henley’s article is Stephen Levy’s:

Twitter left a ball and a stick in a field and lurked around as its users invented baseball.

Where Twitter goes from here, and whether we have our apoplexy of the week, rather depends on what Twitter’s new users do with that ball and stick next.

• Click here for my other stuff on Twitter

Written by Robin Brown

October 31st, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Twitter panics over Trafigura

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I’m not going to go into what the Trafigura meme on Twitter refers to, needless to say it can be found pretty easily on the interweb.

Britain’s frightening libel laws are currently being used to issue pre-emptive super-injunctions that not only prevent the media from reporting on cases, but prevent them from from reporting anything about them – even that they’ve been prevented from reporting them.

Traditionally, MPs could use parliamentary privilege to raise or discuss issues otherwise banned from public debate, but the recent emergence of these super-injunctions prevents the press from reporting parliamentary questions, or even referring to them specifically.

In the age of the internet this is quite absurd, like the long-gestating rumour about Andrew Marr that the Labour Party is planning to raise in parliament in revenge over Marr throwing stupid internet rumours at Gordon Brown.

Anyone with the merest hint of internet nous can find out what this refers to.

So, as is the way of things, Trafigura went viral following a written parliamentary question on Monday 12 October.

The Guardian reported that it had been banned from reporting a parliamentary question and Twitter took over.

Only, understandably, Trafigura was deleted from trending topics, despite the fact it was obviously the top-trending topic. One minute it was top, the next it had vanished. Twitter’s trend explanations were also absent from any topics relating to Trafigura.

Twitter Trafigura

I don’t blame them, British libel laws are notorious for being swingeing, and Carter-Ruck’s efficacy in the area is well-know.

However, the Private Eye reports that the legal grounding for these super-injunctions is dubious, and the Lib Dems and The Grauniad have promised action on the case.

It’s another case of how futile traditional libel laws are when it comes to social media, and it’s a score for the Twitterverse. Digg users got in on the act too.

Social media may the medium that brings down the use of super-injunctions, having brought the issue out into the light, where the traditional media could not. Fascinating stuff.


All the relevant keywords are back on Twitter, though Twitter is not explaining the reason for them trending, as it does with other trends.

The Torygraph is now reporting the Twitter/Trafigura phenomenon in a carefully-worded article, though its report features no mention of The Guardian.

While people have been sued for their tweets before, it’s not clear how the tens of thousands of people who have now tweeted about the injunction could be sued, or whether there’d be much point.

The press will continue to tread a cautious line until such an order is lifted though, with their legal situation less opaque than that of social media sites and individuals.

The Guardian is currently attempting to challenge the injunction in court and the Liberal Democrat are seeking a debate in Parliament.

And here’s the Minton Report, which kicked off all of today’s shenanigans.

So, to sum up, this is currently being reported all over social media, the world’s foreign media and can be easily found on the Parliament website.

The greatest irony of all is that no-one had heard of Trafigura until today.

• Here’s a Tweetmap image showing trending topics in Europe this morning. The fact that Twitter feeds are among the most automatically aggregated on the planet also indicates just how impossible it is to police social media.

Tweetmap Trafigura


Carter-Ruck gives up. Social media win.

What happens next?

It’s unlikely to get any better for Trafigura and Carter-Ruck according to Techchrunch

Written by Robin Brown

October 13th, 2009 at 9:26 am

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