BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

I Tweet therefore I am ...

I had Shel Israel's Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods on my “to read” list since hearing him speak at the Social Media Club of Chicago's meeting last fall. As regular readers know, I'm an avid Twitterer, and have been “following” Shel (@ShelIsrael) since that presentation. I did, however, wait to pick up a copy of his book until it had come down to my “price point” via the Amazon new/used vendors (sorry Shel!), at which point I snapped up a copy.

Twitterville is an odd sort of book, one that's sort of between genres. Israel's background is in journalism, and one one level, this reads like the stories of a “beat writer” assigned to the virtual locale of Twitterville ... these are the stories of the 140-character city, that Twitterin' Town. It starts with an American imprisoned in Egypt, whose furtive tweets to home unleashed a viral tide that managed to get usually slow-to-turn wheels of government to spin into actions that had him soon freed. This was the event that grabbed Shel's attention to the world of Twitter, and focused his attentions on its neighborhoods.

I have been involved in Twitter for several years, from my previous position as the Communications Director of a “metaverse developer” working primarily in the virtual world of Second Life … I had discovered there that much of the business of Second Life was not being conducted “in world”, but via Twitter by the likes of tech investor Mitch Kapor (@mkapor). I found that by following him, and those he followed, and the folks following him, I was getting massive amounts of “business intelligence” for the mere cost of my attention.

This is widely divergent to the attitude that many people have about Twitter … that this is the place where people who would typically be driving their friends nuts with texts about what they were having for lunch, or how crowded the mall was, etc., were now spewing their inanity for the whole world's consumption. Israel has a very telling description of this misconception early on in the book:
This {the live-blogging of South-by-Southwest conference programs evolving into live-Tweeting “collaborative journalism”} also became evidence to refute the conventional but misguided perception that Twitter was just another example of gabby kids' stuff. Adult professionals addressing a business problem had started Twitter. Its early adopters and proponents may have been young, but they were business professionals. This was an early – and important – differentiation from Facebook and MySpace, whose respective user bases were college and high school students.
This is the appeal of Twitter, a way to reach out to a whole world of opinion leaders and influential minds who might not have been accessible any other way. Much of what is covered in the book is the almost accidental discovery of the platform by various companies, and how it has been used and misused in various contexts by various groups.

Make no mistake, there are still fairly high-profile companies which barely register on the Twitter screen at all, while there are others who feel like they “live there”. In some cases, this simply evolved from a few key employees finding and using the channel, which then slowly spread through the organization and came to be accepted as a valuable tool. In others a top-down approach was tried where upper management requested a “Twitter strategy” and some versions worked and some didn't. There have been many cases where the dynamics of Twitter certainly clashed with corporate dictates (such as Nestle's recent gaffe where one of their Twitter reps was threatening users sporting Nestle-oriented user icons with actions on trademark violations). One of the concepts that the author floats here is of “lethal generosity”, ”a phenomenon used by the smartest companies … in social media the greatest influence invariably goes to the most generous participants, not the loudest” where if you give more to the on-line community than your competition, “the other player is forced either to follow you or to abstain from participating”.

If there was one thing I'd like to see different about this book it would be achieving a better balance between the broad social impact (such as the lead story with the arrest in Egypt, as well as the Twitter element in various global events), and the “business angle”. The narrative here keeps dipping a toe into a more “general” stream, but keeps finding its way back to the Business story. Sure, this is what gets focused on in the book's sub-title, but (as a user) this makes it feel like it's being limited. Going in to this, the reader should be very clear on the fact that they're reading a book about business operating within “Twitterville”, and not a broader survey of that world … almost like coming in to a new town and picking up a local paper and discovering, aside from a few highlights on the front page, there was only the Business section to be had. So, while this will (as detailed above) help to dissuade folks who lump Twitter in with other Social Media outlets, it is also not an “introductory book” to get people interested (outside of a business context, of course) in Twitter (while a “Getting Started” section is included, it's relegated to a 4-page Afterword).

Twitterville certainly is recommended to anybody with an interest in the business use of Social Media. Being fairly new (it just came out last Fall), it should be available at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor who has a business and/or internet section. Amazon currently has it almost half-priced, and the new/used guys currently have “like new” copies for under a couple of bucks (plus shipping, of course). Admittedly I'm biased, as I'm a long-term resident of “Twitterville”, but I hope a lot of people read this book, as I get tired of having to explain how Twitter is “serious business” and not just “chatting with (virtual) friends”!

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Tags: book review
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