What ten years on Twitter taught me about communities

After exactly a decade on Twitter, Mumbrella's Tim Burrowes looks back on ten years with his favourite social network

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the day I joined Twitter, exploding onto social media with the riveting insight “sending the mag to press”.

The mag in question being B&T, which at the time I was in my final weeks of editing. Those were the heady days when B&T still went to press with the regularity of a magazine, rather than today’s schedule of a mildly over-achieving annual.

At the time of writing this, the inane first tweet – and many Twitter users had something pretty bland to say for their first post if you ever take the trouble to go and look – has only received two retweets in all the ensuing years. (I have no idea how uber publicist Max Markson came to be one of them, as we didn’t meet until some years later.)

I was only a few weeks away from leaving B&T to launch Mumbrella though, at which point Twitter was to become a major part of my life.

I believe a thank you note to Twitter is in order.

When non users used to say to me that they didn’t understand what I saw in Twitter, I’d admit I had no idea what I would use it for, were I not a journalist.  Yet I’ve also got no idea of how I’d have done the journalism (and amplification) without it.

For Mumbrella, Twitter became the engine that helped us move from being a publisher to part of a community.

When I joined, Twitter was just a couple of years old, but was about to get big in the world where we wanted to play. The sort of people signing up were exactly the agency and marketing types we aimed to talk to.

Twitter became the thing that helped Mumbrella look different to its longer established trade press rivals. I’d tweet a link to something I’d written and the followers arriving from Twitter would pile into what quickly became a lively conversation on the article’s comment section.

It meant that by the time we sent our email newsletter out, that conversation would already by flying, which would in turn drive more conversation.

But what I’m most grateful to Twitter for isn’t the traffic. (Although I do appreciate the 480,271 page impressions that Google Analytics tells me that Twitter has sent our way over the last ten years.)

Twiiter referrals to Mumbrella | Source: Google Analytics

The big lesson I’ve learned from Twitter is about appreciating the value of building and being part of communities. When we’ve been part of communities we’ve done well. When we’ve drifted away from our community, we’ve lost out.

For the last few months, I’ve had a half-formed thought that the thing in common that connects media, brands or indeed wider human culture is building, maintaining and participating in communities of different types. (I know that’s obvious when I write it.)

Many of the community principles behind what makes Australia work as a multicultural nation also apply to brands and publishers when they are at their most authentic.

Although I’ve been trying to think this through, I’m barely at the start of flushing out what that means.

A while back, I was at the launch of the Multicultural Communications Awards and I was able to throw a question at the NSW minister for multiculturalism Ray Williams. If anyone would know how to define the necessary conditions for a community to thrive, it would be him, I thought. What was interesting was (being a politician) he had a fluent answer, but no real definition of those conditions. Perhaps it’s one of those things that you know when you see it.

But that thought about understanding the principles of community building keeps nagging away at me. Indeed, if anyone in Mumbrella’s community of readers can make a book recommendation about the topic, and how to apply it to the publishing and marketing worlds, I’d love to hear from you.

But I’ve been looking, and I don’t think that book has necessarily yet been written.

If I were to write a book, I think that would be my topic. Not because I know the answer, but because I think community building is the question anyone in media needs to ask themselves, particularly in a publishing future where paid content might become more important than advertising. (Anyone know a publisher..?)

How Twitter framed my thinking about communities was in the way it helped me to connect to people face to face, and turn them into readers and supporters in our important early days. I didn’t do it knowingly; it just happened.

In those early days of both Twitter and coincidentally Mumbrella, Social Media Club was a thing. I got involved in the Sydney chapter.

Interesting speakers, playing with this newly emerging medium, would speak to packed pubs using crap amplification. Then we’d have a drink.

I moderated some of these sessions.

In 2009, I interviewed Adam Ferrier, then one of the bosses of Naked Communications, on stage, in a debate on authenticity in social media. The agency had just been in a shitstorm over a hoax would-be viral video on behalf of a brand. Remember Heidi and the lost Witchery jacket?

That same night in that packed bar, Leslie Nassar joined me on stage to talk about his experiment in creating the Fake Stephen Conroy Twitter persona. Like many pioneering things Leslie did in social media, he was among the first to experiment with the idea of satirical accounts, in this case in the voice of the then communications minister.

A few weeks earlier, Leslie had shown the power of social media to link digital to real world.

One afternoon he tweeted about being fired by Telstra over that Fake Stephen Conroy profile. He mentioned he’d be having a drink in The Clare, (which was before it became the hipster hellhole that is now known as The Old Clare) on Broadway in Sydney.

I went along. The turnout – consisting entirely of his social media friends and supporters – was so massive the bar staff struggled to cope.

Leslie’s death nearly two years ago now was such an awful waste.

Twitter built and connected this community, most of whom were building careers on the basis of what they learned when they met these new friends face to face. I was lucky enough in building Mumbrella to entwine it a little with that community too.

For a while, the biggest weekly event in my social life became #SHTBOX (pronounced “shitbox”, of course). The Friday night Surry Hills Twitter Beer O’clock Exchange saw dozens from different agencies and organisations come together as a community in a way that in previous times might only have happened as an industry trade association, around a boardroom table.

This was a community that drank (and, let’s be honest, slept) together.

Then, like some metaphor for what was to come on social media, that particular community began to fracture.

Like the Monty Python split between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front, a breakaway group emerged who didn’t like the direction Social Media Club Sydney was taking. They thought the organisers were using SMC to drive their own career agendas. So they started Digital Citizens as an alternative drinking and discussion forum.

Allegiances were tested.

And soon both organisations fizzled out. Perhaps because social media had gone so mainstream and ubiquitous, the very idea of going to the pub to talk about it seemed a bit bizarre.

Meanwhile, social media went mainstream.

I was slower onto the Facebook bandwagon when that suddenly took off. I can still remember The Population’s Julian Cole (who’s now a big deal in New York) evangelising to me about the amazing ability to cheaply target posts at tight demographic groups on Facebook. At the time, I missed what a game changer this was going to be.

Later I kicked myself for not pushing Mumbrella’s Facebook presence harder in those early days. The truth was I loved being on Twitter more, so missed a trick.

I vowed not to make that mistake twice. So when Google+ launched, I decided to go hard. Which proved to be a bit of a waste of time.

And as for Instagram, if there’s a central role it could have played for a trade press title, I’ve failed to make it stick. And I think my small personal following there may be tiring of my cat pictures.

Meanwhile, the rise of Facebook signalled the fading of Twitter.

The ego-satisfying growth of follower counts and soaring Klout scores fell away.

Two or three years back, I noticed Mumbrella was now getting more traffic from Facebook (thanks for the 2,040,000 page impressions, Facebook…)

Facebook referrals to Mumbrella | Source: Google Analytics

And then LinkedIn went past Twitter as a source of traffic too… (1.1m page impressions and counting…)

Yet Twitter hasn’t died, and I now don’t think it will; three years ago I thought it might.

The golden age of Twitter is over

While it missed its chance at being the main social network, it’s found a valuable niche. Or, to be more accurate, niches.

This week, our Google Analytics went screwy for a few hours. The first thing I did was turn to Twitter to look for real time conversation about whether it was us or them.

And that points to perhaps the biggest value of Twitter now – being part of a real time experience.

During last month’s Network Ten Pilot Week, the only enjoyment to be gained from watching the awful Skit Happens was in following along with the hate viewing occuring on Twitter. The comments were funnier than the show.

Twitter and broadcast TV go together very well. Imagine watching the ABC’s Q&A without having Twitter open on the #qanda hashtag. (And let’s also not forget Leslie Nassar’s contribution to the technology driving Q&A’s on-screen tweetstream.)

I had another moment of recognition at our B2B Marketing Summit on Wednesday.

Our housekeeping slide said “Twitter: #MumbrellaB2B”. It’s how we’ve always done it.

Then the thought occurred: these days, Twitter doesn’t own hashtags. Instagram does.

I sent a memo when I got back to the office. Next time the slide will read “Hashtag: #MumbrellaB2B”. Arguably that’s three years late.

Along with Instagram, Twitter still has a big role to play in connecting public figures with their audiences. Without it, we wouldn’t be exposed (for better or worse) to the id of Donald Trump.

And there’s another piece of evidence to consider when asking whether Twitter might fall away.

One could assume Twitter will go the way of MySpace.

But there’s another example to look at. Since being bought by Microsoft, LinkedIn has had a spectacular second coming. For anyone in business, it’s become a useful utility that just works.

At the B2B Marketing Summit, there was a show of hands on who was using the platform. If anybody in the room was not on LinkedIn, they were keeping their heads down.

One thing that LinkedIn has nailed that remains a problem for Twitter is identity. On LinkedIn, you know who you’re talking to. As a result, the conversations are more intelligent and respectful. (And that includes in comparison to those on the Mumbrella comment thread, to be honest. I think about that a lot.)

Twitter though still suffers from a troll problem, even if it did finally follow the other big platforms and ban Alex Jones and Infowars last week.

But for me, the usefulness of Twitter still outweighs the negatives.

Over ten years, it’s helped me build a business, make new friends and kept me entertained. Thanks, Twitter.


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