All aTwitter about social media

The Premier of the Cayman Islands was recently introduced to Twitter. However, his initial impressions might not be too positive, as his attention was drawn to the social media site by an account that had been set up in his name, purporting to be him and poking fun at him. Twitter and the owner of the account soon had matters put to right by labelling it as a parody account, which it was, but the subsequent media exposure in Cayman definitely opened the eyes of many to the sites like Twitter, as well as some of the pitfalls inherent therein.

As the ultimate proof that the collective attention span of the world has dropped to less than that of a goldfish, I hold up to you the meteoric rise of Twitter – a social media site where anyone can say their say, as long as they can do so in 140 characters or less.

So what is the attraction, you may ask? Well, it allows people to present their thoughts on current events immediately, as it happens. It makes for a fascinating aggregation of global thinking on matters of current importance, or on the mundane.

However, where Twitter has really come into its own is not merely as a matter of interest for those who trawl the global feed, in other words those interested in just looking at the random messages posted to Twitter by everyone. Unlike most social media sites, the default settings for Twitter is open, which means that anyone can follow your feed, and anyone can comment on what you write. You can block those who you do not want following you, or create a private account which can only be viewed by friends, but these represent a minority of Twitter accounts and interactions.

The rise of Twitter has to be viewed in tandem with the development of the smart phone, where because of a small and uncomfortable keyboard and a small screen, typing and reading long messages can be a chore. However, the 140 character limit on tweets, as Twitter messages are known, makes it easily digestible. This also means that as the site is rooted in mobile technology, users can tweet from wherever they are.

Celebrities have also been quick to take to Twitter. One of the first to gain some notoriety for Twitter use was Ashton Kutcher who challenged CNN to a race to become the first Twitter account to reach 1 million followers. Seeing as Kutcher had started with quite a deficit, the outcome, a win for Kutcher, was amazing for a number of reasons, not least of which being that an individual could have a bigger voice on Twitter than one of the world’s biggest news organisations.

Although 1 million followers was quite something back in May 2009 when Kutcher reached the goal, the growth of the site has changed the numbers game, with the account boasting the most followers at the moment being Lady Gaga, with over 9 million followers. She is followed by Justin Bieber (8.6 million) and Britney Spears (7.3 million). The first non entertainer on the list is US President Barack Obama, with 7.2 million followers.

These days, Kutcher is in seventh place, with 6.5 million followers, while CNN Breaking News is in 20th place, with 4.1 million followers.

However, recently more interest has been focussed on the ongoing saga of Charlie Sheen. A recent convert to Twitter, Sheen has rocketed up into 30th place with 3.4 million followers. He only joined the site on 1 March, but after only 25 hours and 17 minutes on the site already had a million followers.

However, due to spoof or fake accounts, Twitter has a verification process in place for celebrities who want an account. So how did Sheen get his so quickly? Well, apparently he had help from an ad agency that specialises in celebrity Twitter endorsements. Yes, as if they don’t have enough money already, celebrities with a large fan base on Twitter can also make money by mentioning events and products in their tweets. Life is unfair.

However, apart from making money through product endorsements, there are somewhat less cynical reasons for celebrities to start Twitter accounts. It allows them to interact directly with their fans, without going through all the regular media controls. No publicist or PR agency needs to get involved, and they can instantly reach millions of followers, if they are popular enough. Of course, it also has its drawbacks, as an ill advised tweet, without the second-eye services that publicists provide, can cause a lot of damage to a celebrity’s profile as well.

Due to the open nature of Twitter, situations similar to that which afflicted Premier McKeeva Bush has also affected other celebrities, including high-profile sports stars who have been taken to task for comments they supposedly made on Twitter, when they do not have Twitter accounts. Once such issues are brought to the attention of Twitter, the site tends to act quickly to verify the identity of the account holder as well as the complainant in order to prevent further problems arising.

According to Twitter’s policy documents, available on the website, “Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary, or fan accounts”, however, “[a]ccounts with clear intent to deceive or confuse are prohibited as impersonation accounts and subject to suspension” under the terms and conditions of the website.

The site also includes numerous suggestions for how to ensure that an account can not be considered an impersonation account. These suggestions include selecting a user name that is not the exact name of another person or organisation, with suggestions including adding words like ‘not’ in front of the profile name. The bio included on the page should also reflect a profile’s statues as a parody or fan account, and communication with other users should not aim to create the impression that it is a real account.

Accounts that are created with the clear intention to deceive can be permanently suspended.

More so than any other medium though, Twitter has given a voice to the masses and even though some of the comments on the site may need to be taken with a grain of salt, it is a show of what true freedom of speech really entails, with every voice carrying the same potential impact.