There was a time when people with “followers” were philosophers, politicians, and the occasional Messiah. But nowadays, thanks to Twitter, everyone and anyone can assemble their very own subscribing audience numbered in the thousands. Twitter today has over 15 million users in the UK alone, while around 320 million active users across the world visit each month. As the microblogging site expands, its influence seems to manifest itself in new ways: advertisers must respond rapidly to hashtag trends and viral videos; the traditional media meanwhile face disruption as the internet supersedes newspapers; and elsewhere our politicians are pressured to adapt in view of a 24/7 Twitter commentariat.
Managing Director of Twitter UK and York alumnus Bruce Daisley has much to say about the site’s impact on society. Take politics, for instance: he believes that the General Election campaigns this year will be influenced more than ever by social media. “The thing that Twitter does,” he tells me, “is give democratising access to information. It used to be that elites had more access to information than the rest of us. Platforms like Twitter are allowing us to find out directly from people involved when things happen.
“I think Twitter is actually a powerful tool for veracity,” says Bruce, addressing a common distrust among the UK electorate in throwaway political rhetoric. “When a candidate’s making a claim on the stump, the ability to crowdsource fact-checking has enabled us to present the candidate with the truth before they’d finished what they were saying. We’re in a position where social media is holding politicians to account more than ever before. It’s democratising, it allows freedom.”
With embarrassing social media gaffes waiting to trip politicians up around every corner (we’re looking at you, Ed Balls) Bruce even has his own tweeting advice for Cameron and Miliband: “Be yourself on social media. Be truthful. People like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have been really powerful on social platforms just by being themselves.”
Indeed, it is when people aren’t themselves that problems arise for the company. CEO Dick Costolo recently admitted that Twitter “sucks” at moderating the activity of anonymous and abusive trolls. And this problem is one which Bruce takes seriously. “The behaviour of people on Twitter is probably a thing I spend more time on than anything else. And the critical thing is that this isn’t a Twitter problem… this is a human behaviour problem.”
It is a tall order for Bruce’s team to ensure the complete security of every user with 500 million tweets a day to sift through. “Sometimes patterns of behaviour go outside of what we expected. All the time we’re thinking ‘How can we ensure that Twitter’s a safe place for people to use?’ We’ve made it easier for people to report abuse and we’ve made it easier for people to ensure that they feel protected. But we’re a small way along towards where we want to be.”
Bruce is keen to show that the benefits of mass connectivity outweighs its problems – especially when it comes to business. “Twitter’s not a ‘look at me’ medium, it’s a ‘look at that’ medium – it’s a place where if you’re interested in something, you’re sure to find something and pass it on.” And it is this sharing impulse in users which marketers should take due notice of.
An advertising campaign will no doubt find success if it harnesses the expansive reach of an internet meme. A famous example would be ‘The Dress’, a beguiling optical illusion that in February sparked debate across the Twittersphere when more than 10 million tweets disputed the colour of a faded picture of a dress. Needless to say, it was good publicity for The Pretty Dress Company.
The Dress was just one of many a spontaneous and viral Twitter phenomena that have occurred over the past few years. They make long-term strategy a more complex affair than it perhaps is for other companies. “The critical thing for us,” Bruce says, “is always thinking about what our users are doing. For instance, the really interesting thing from the past few years I think is how people orientate their phones, for example. If you look at the way people principally use their phone to video things, increasingly it’s in a vertical alignment, and so this is changing the debate about how people are consuming content.
“There’s change all the time in the way people are using tools like Twitter, and how this challenges the preconceived ideas in our head.”
Proactivity, Bruce says, is the name of the social networking game – and the rules of that game are there to be bent, broken and rethought. You literally never know what will happen next. Bruce’s “classic” example would be the time when Kanye West recently walked into a Nando’s restaurant. “He said, ‘get your photos out of the way’ and everyone in the room turned their back on him. They turned their back on him because in the old days – even two or three years ago – people were taking a photo with Kanye on their phones. Now instead they were taking a ‘selfie’ with Kanye stood in the background.”
At Twitter, meanwhile, it’ll never do to have your back turned. “Unless you’re observing and paying attention to how behaviour is adapting, you miss some pretty big changes that are taking place,” the MD says. “The truth is, we are second guessing all the time.”