More than 140 Characters

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Twitter is expanding its staff and its efforts to communicate with the world, and in doing so is turning to a lot of the tried-and-true structures and approaches that its 140-character service helped destroy. The changes beg a few questions, most notably why?


Advertising Age reported last week that Twitter is interviewing PR firms to help it educate consumers about its brand, and that it has recruited communications, marketing, and government relations staff. PR and corporate communications functions are an early 20th century creation that filled the gaping void between commercial enterprises that had grown too large to literally talk to or touch their consumers they way they’d done for all of human history (local enterprises were combining into larger, nation-spanning trusts), and the media that had arisen to replace that connection (radio, newspapers, and then television).

Twitter has been one of the technology platforms that reinvented the direct connections between people, which includes connecting to businesses (or the people therein, not necessarily branded voices), though with a few caveats: the connections aren’t necessarily private, as Twitter and its ilk (like Facebook) have convinced us that it’s a good thing that everyone gets to know everything about us all the time, and that the format for that knowledge should be defined by the limitations of said technology platforms. Brief is the new better, and Twitter more than any other contraption has taught a generation to trade nuance for bluntness, depth for brevity, and infrequent communicating with purpose for the purpose of communicating frequently.

Only those rules aren’t good enough for Twitter itself. Do as we say, not as we do.

It’s as if the initial glow has begun to dull, perhaps, as the company has long been happy to lets its enlightened founders get the “tech boy wiz kid” coverage bestowed upon it by an uncomprehending and frightened traditional mediasphere. But all that started five years ago, and now the bold start-up that blows up thousands of years of social conventions has lots of employees, offices around the world, and a valuation of something like $8 billion. Its founders have moved on to blow up other paradigms and models and otherwise generate new rounds of fawning media coverage.

And it turns out that unless you’re a predesignated darling of popular culture, tweeting yourself or your brand to the cosmos isn’t enough. Nor is outsourcing your reputation to your contacts. Twitter has decided to do some good old fashioned brand positioning and marketing communications so that it can tell users and investors why it’s here to stay.

Doesn’t that violate its founding principles? I put it in the same category as rock stars who make zillions telling their fans to reject norms, responsibility, and to do anything they feel like doing irrespective of what it might mean or accomplish for them…and then go buy mansions, jets, and all the trappings that come from accepting norms and responsibility. 

I know, I know, tweeting is just a part of a balanced communications strategy, like sugary cereal is part of a nutritional breakfast. But tell me you can’t see even a hint of contradiction here?

The thing is, I’m all for a more thoughtful communications strategy. Twitter should figure out how to strengthen the institutions and communities it has taken for granted up to now:

  • Where’s the follow-on support for all of the political upheaval for which it has been given credit (or blame)?
  • How is it contributing to processes and regulations to help keep its wide-reaching tool from promoting criminal flash mobs?
  • How is it supporting the institutions that preserve the possibility of free speech in the geophysical world (and upon which it relies)?
  • How is it making its trend-of-the-nanosecond functionality into something that matters a minute, hour, day, week, or month later?

There are many ways that Twitter could build the case for why we need it, not just that we want it (or that it has been inflicted on us). It’ll take thoughtful communications work to develop these types of programs, and they would certainly help  the “Twitter Story” mature from the now-hackneyed blather that started at its founding, to the more meaningful implications and arguments for its continued existence.

I just think it’s funny that it’ll take a lot more than 140 characters to tell it.

(Image credit: requires more complete sentences)

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