The Paradoxical Power of the Tiny Tweet

How did Twitter suddenly become the most powerful force for consumer advocacy? I can't complain, because I've reaped the benefits, but it is fascinating that this tiny service, minute in so many ways, offers so much power to the individual user. It's become easy, almost second nature, to wield this power over the mightiest of corporations. What's most shocking, by far, is that it actually seems to work. You can really bend the will of a multinational conglomerate using Twitter in ways that seemed impossible talking to a representative of the same company face to face.

Everything about Twitter is small. Tweets are small, even fewer characters than a text message. The feature set is small. There isn't much to do on Twitter. There are no apps. There are photo services and video services, but they are not nearly as robust as competing offerings on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and, well, just about every other social site you can name. Heck, Flickr hasn't been updated in about 10 years, and it's still a far better photo site than Twitter.

Twitter followings are small. Personally, I recently hit more than 2,000 followers on Twitter after a few solid years of use. It's nothing to crow about, not publicly at least. Most of my favorite Twitter friends have exponentially more followers than I do, and those are just the people who will meet me for a drink. Compared to celebrities, I'm followed by almost nobody. Of course it's about quality, not quantity, and I cherish the conversations I have with any and all of my Twitter followers, but I don't fool myself into thinking I'm influential or famous because of a measly 2,000 people.

A good Web writer, for instance, even in a niche like technology journalism, can see a hundred thousand page views on a popular story. A million views is not unheard of. However, I'm friends with a writer who left his Web site, and his loyal fanbase, behind, and he was able to stay relevant in the eyes of the massive corporations and their Public Relations team because of his Twitter following. He probably had 25,000 followers or so. He wasn't publishing a word on any Web site, but he could still keep up with news and request advance review samples of new products. I know this because my day job is working on the PR team of one of the massive companies that was still happy to work with him.

[aquote]We can fool ourselves that the Twitter echo chamber is sparking revolutions[/aquote]

Twitter may have millions of users, but in terms of its effect on the zeitgeist, I'd stay it's still minimal. Until my parents ask about it, it isn't popular enough to matter. Sure, we can fool ourselves into believing the Twitter echo chamber is sparking revolutions and acting as a force for good, but mostly it's a way to report on earthquakes in California and kvell about bad airline service.

After hurricane Sandy hit, I found myself called to northeastern New Jersey for a business meeting. All of the hotels were completely booked, filled mostly with refugees who still lacked power and the utility workers called in from around the country to try to restore it. I travelled with a team of three people, and all of us had to stay at different hotels because no single spot could accommodate us all.

When I checked into the Hampton Inn in Parsippany, I was told my room had been smoked. Of course, the hotel is non-smoking, but the previous tenants had decided the fee for smoking was worth paying to avoid battling what must have been an all-consuming religion of cigarette addiction. The room smelled of people who smoked like they were on a plane barreling towards the Atlantic with multiple engine fires.

The front desk apologized, but they could not offer a different room until the next night. I'd have to suffer. Hampton Inn has a very generous 100% guarantee, but the front desk only offered a "discount," and then only "if I asked."

I did not ask. I went to my room to sniff it out. It was awful, but I would survive, save the throbbing in my skull. Still, I did not ask for the refund. Not yet, at least.

Instead, I did what most of my friends would do. I went to Twitter. I did my best to brutalize Hampton Inn in the most civil way I could muster (ie. no cursing).

I heard from the corporate social networking response team within minutes. Minutes. If I had set a fire in my room and waited for the emergency squad to arrive, they would have taken longer to reach me than the Hilton International social networking team took to respond. They resolved my issue quickly, even beyond my expectations. At one point, I'll admit I stooped so low as to provide my online bona fides and bylines, as a way of forewarning them this column would be coming. But it didn't matter, because their response was already formidable.

For the same reason, Twitter is unusually popular with celebrities. You might think it's a great place to drum up publicity and support, but is it really? I don't think a Twitter following is so large that sheer numbers alone can make the difference. I don't think the audience is paying close enough attention to catch the message, even in short bursts.

I think it is the highly personal nature of the interaction. It is direct, unmediated feedback. When I went to speak to the front desk, I liked to think I was speaking directly to Hilton International, but I was not. I was speaking to a poor young woman who was doing her best to manage a perturbed customer in a time of real crisis. It wasn't even my crisis, I just stepped in it.

[aquote]Corporations have granted supreme power to social networking teams[/aquote]

Somehow, Twitter messages are taken more seriously. I am now tweeting directly to the corporation as a whole. Corporations, wisely I think, have granted supreme power to their social networking teams to respond to these issues. The front desk could offer me a discount, but the social networking team could do much more. They have resources, connections, and the ear of the power brokers.

I also think there is a fascinating dynamic in the follower / following relationship. If I am following you, you can send me a private message. I cannot respond, not privately, unless you are following me. For celebrities, this means that any celebrity can lean over and whisper in your ear, using a Direct Message. It is fleeting, and titillating. So much more personal than catching an eye in a crowd or reaching out a hand to shake.

Corporations have the opposite relationship. If they want to talk to you personally, they need to ask you to follow them. Now, you are the power broker. You can keep screaming into the wind, or you can make the connection and hear what they have to say; but first they have to reach out personally, directly, and ask to be heard.