How Twitter Changed Everything In 2009 – The A.T (After Twitter) Era Begins

In 2009 Twitter revolutionized how we think about and go about communicating at work, rest or play. As the year began, Twitter was “The Shiny New Social Networking Kid On The Block” and headlines were dominated by  Facebook, Google, Apple and all things phone related.  Cloud Computing was on everyone's minds, but then all of a sudden there was a disturbance in the force (sorry, couldn't resist) – a tipping point in Social Networking As Twitter went viral – and that's when “everything” changed.
I can make that statement with confidence, as I have the written documentation to back it up, albeit being an isolated example from the microcosm that is yours truly.  You see, every year I work on a “bucket list” of objectives for the coming year – covering both personal and professional learning & growth objectives.  The list is always short (by design), and under the heading of Social Networking, three items were listed:
Pedro's 2009 “bucket list” (Excerpt) 
(1) Get A Blog – Q1
(2) Invest Energy In Linked In, Facebook – Stay Away From Twitter Q1-Q4
(3) Sustain Blogging – Q2-Q4
The rationale, thinking back, is that since I had been talking about “wanting to blog” for over 2 years – and knowing that “discretionary time” was the limiting resource, I wanted to ensure that I focused what time I had on incorporating the activity of blogging into my life.   What is most interesting now, looking back, is that not only did I prematurely dismiss Twitter as being of sufficient value to invest my time, I clearly did not “get Twitter” at all.  My perception of it was that it was simply 'text messaging on steroids”, and likely a passing fad.  A distraction to be avoided. Was I ever wrong.
But then something happened.  Yes, I started blogging (In Q1) thanks to the platform of  Blogging Idol  and IT World Canada – and in the middle of that, it happened.  Twitter grew in popularity by more than 75% between February and March with both Hollywood & the mainstream media going absolutely Twitter crazy.  I created an account for myself in the month of April – at the time, a defensive play as I was facing some stiff competition in Blogging Idol . A newcomer was leveraging Twitter to generate link traffic, putting up numbers orders of magnitude higher than what the other competitors were accustomed too.  Suddenly strategic marketing and search engine optimization become a focus for those vying for the winners circle.  During that time, and for several weeks, Twitter dominated the headlines with the likes of Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk), Demi Moore (@mrsKutcher)  and Larry King (@KingsThings) jumping on the “micro blogging” bandwagon – raising the fledgling platform to celebrity status!  Who can forget the race to a million followers that Ashton challenged Larry King to – a media show that Oprah just had to be a part of – much to the chagrin of many, including myself.  The Twitter founders (and investors) I am sure could not be happier with this unexpected promotion of the networking platform with the “funny” name.
Spring 2009 was undoubtedly the tipping point for Twitter, giving rise to a rather eclectic mashup of early techno-adopters, bloggers, journalists, media czars. celebrities, corporations, small to mid-size businesses and entrepreneurs.  The common thread amongst the converted – a realization that this platform. in conjunction with all the other Web 2.0 “pieces”, was ushering in a truly revolutionary change in how we connect, network, collaborate and communicate.  That realization was also coupled with the belief that those who could master this new platform and successfully tap the potential it offered would have a competitive and strategic advantage compared to those late to the table.  Whether your motivation was altruistic or capitalist in nature, Twitter offered to the mass populace, independent of social status, available resources or existing reach and influence, a level playing field – a near $0 transaction cost and frictionless medium to share with others whatever one felt should be shared.  No longer was the klout of a major television or media network, or the infrastructure of a newspaper outlet necessary to distribute the news.
Just as the printing press and television era enabled the one-to-many communications pattern, revolutionizing the 20th century through the industrial growth era — Twitter and the Social web have enabled the many-to-many communications pattern – and in my (and key thought leaders alike) opinion, will prove to be just as impactful to our growth, communications and marketing models in the 21st century.   This realization manifested itself quickly amongst many; Facebook and Linked In rushed to re-engineer their sites to emulate the “twitter stream” paradigm while  Google and Microsoft accelerated the building of capability in the “real time search” department.  For perhaps the first time, “Search” in the classic sense was starting to seem less important – almost passé. Searching for  “what is happening now” became the new mantra and dominated the attention of the search engine leaders and community alike. There were many examples that demonstrated how this new platform was both disruptive and enabling simultaneously – the following examples in the political space just  a sampling.
November 2008 US Election 
Obama's victory and ascension the the apex of American politics cannot of course be attributed to a fledgling social media platform.   One cannot ignore however, the significance and impact the decision of the campaign to embrace social media in a fashion that made every American feel like they were a part of the electoral process.  Fans and supporters – and critics alike – took to the internet to voice their opinion about this new kind of candidate.  The use by Obama's staff of online marketing tools, helped spread their key messages like wildfire.  In retrospect, jumping in waist high into the social networking waters was perfect alignment to the messaging Obama's campaign was focused on.  The Obama camp saw the value in having a connected constituency, and they made it so.  Social media gave every American a voice in the election, and cemented the engagement of the so critical (and historically highly apathetic) 18-34 demographic.   It has been stated by many, Obama insiders included, that the election of 2008 might have had a different outcome had it unfolded at a different time – with both the global financial market collapse and social media being instrumental forces in determining the outcome as we know it. 
Iran 2009 Elections
It was Saturday June 13, at around 8:00AM, the day after the presidential election that took place on the Friday.  I had my netbook flipped open and noticed the trending topic and twitter hashtags of #cnnfail and #iranelections flooding my twitter stream.  I was amazed as Link after link, tweet after tweet spoke of a revolt that was occurring in Iran – heavy protesting contesting the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There was some time that went by where I was trying to legitimize many of the accounts – as none of the traditional media outlets seemed to be covering the story.  But as news of how the government of Iran was actively preventing text messages and broadcasts from travelling beyond the Iranian borders – and of dns/access restrictions to opposition web sites, a separate story was unfolding in parallel.  One criticizing the lack of coverage from cable-news networks and the long delay before there was any questioning of the legitimacy of the vote.  The pieces started falling together – and Twitter was there to enable those pieces to be seen, heard and most importantly, reacted to.  
In retrospect, the truth was not so much a failure of the news media, but that of the conventional media deployment, engagement & distribution models.  In an area without significant field media presence, and where government resources were such that it was feasible to control the flow of information within that communication paradigm, the messaging medium was compromised.  The truth could not get out – or at least would get out much slower than it needed to.  What the government was not ready to combat, and in fact could not easily control, was it's own population and how it utilized cell phones, computers, and the twitter platform to get the word out.  Eye witness accounts, troubling videos – much characterized by poor production quality, but the relevance and openness of the content as apparent. Thousands of points of light – voices, images.  Unorganized, Unedited – but in the aggregate, told a story that was not being told anywhere else.  
The news tracking model that had built the CNN empire – now required rethinking and retooling  – in addition to accepting the fact that some control needed to be surrendered back to the community.  CNN and other news agencies have bounced back since then – their journey of re-inventing themselves has just begun.  The very definition of what is “a journalist” and where the line is between content owner and distributor are yet to be worked out on this “new playing field”. 
What's Happening Now? 

For hundreds of thousands of Twitter users, their first stop in the morning isn't the New York Times or Financial Post web site.  I don't fire up my RSS reader anymore as my coffee is brewing and the cobwebs of another short night are clearing away.  Even Google News is now my #2 go-to source to find out “what's happening”.  I, and many others, visit Twitter. The reliance on leveraging ones “social graph” (i.e.our friends, followers, social connections) to recommend, rank and filter stories and news is incredibly powerful and empowering.  Just like I place more trust in a movie recommendation from someone I know, or shares similar interests as myself compared to the opinion of the local Blockbuster associate staff – so do I, with increasing frequency, rely on my “network recommendations” for what articles to read, what web sites to visit, and what books, movies and services to invest time and $ in. There are many cases also of where “news” is being published directly on Twitter – bypassing the conventional journalist to media outlet distribution patterns.  I can now even follow my “favourite” journalists directly – whether political, economic or technology related alike.  When Michael Bryant, former Ontario Auditor-General was involved in a fatal car crash with a cyclist, he hired a PR firm who used Twitter to tweet about the case and perform damage control on Bryant's brand & character.  Twitter has changed not just how we find and consume news – but given each of us the opportunity to influence that which becomes news.  In countries where the ability to “share the truth” is not fairly distributed, this could be a life or policy changing ability.  As  Clay Shirky  says, “…it's like when you bought the newspaper they threw in a printing press too.” 

So What's Next? 

Well, if you're looking for where you can order up your own personal Holodeck, we're not quite there yet as we kickoff 2010.  What we are seeing emerge right now is the harnessing of social networking and mobile location based services to create some really incredible experiences for the user.  I am excited about the rapidly evolving Augmented Reality space, where the digital and real (analog) world are combined to create new value and interaction models previously not possible.  Also closely related is the location based social network – location based services such as FourSquare are generating new layers of metadata out there, with Twitter trying to find it's niche in what may ultimately be where the sweet spot for advertisers.   

Just as important as focusing on the enabling feature-sets of this new technology will be to consider the implication from a security, privacy and governance perspective.  As these networks and ecosystems grow in size, and as we continue to feed into them information about who we are, what we do and now where  we are and what we are doing  – accepting it all with open arms because it is 'free” and “convenient” may no longer be the best decision. I am looking forward to 2010 and continuing my mandate of  Making IT Work  by exploring those implications, bringing you the facts as I understand them, and engaging with you as we learn and grow together.  Technology exists as an enabler so we can do our best – whether at work, rest or play.  Come by often, comment when you can and engage me here or on Twitter. 
I'm here to help facilitate the conversation as much as anything – I don't have all the answers.  I look to your comments, feedback and perspectives to bridge those gaps.
Now Go Out There And Make IT Work
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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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