Twitter, YouTube look back on 2009

This week, both Twitter and YouTube released their 2009 trends list, much as Google did a few weeks back.  Unlike Google, though, these trend lists say more about the way each site is used rather than social trends.

Twitter Trends: The Iranian election was not the top story of the year in American media, but it did top Twitter’s news trends list – largely because Twitter itself was such an important tool in organizing street demonstrations.  In Entertainment, movies Paranormal Activity and District 9 ranked highly.  Both became early examples of what is being called the “Twitter effect.”  Real-time fan reviews on social networks gave both films an instant box-office boost.  (The same effect may have sapped the excitement around other top-Twitter-trenders GI Joe and Watchmen, both of which did worse than expected.

Predictably, there were other trends that lend credence to the “I’m-sitting-on-the-porch” pointlessness of Twitter when misused.  However, these examples also speak to the potential advantage of Twitter as an organizing tool – whether the goal is overthrowing an unpopular regime or flocking to a better-than-expected movie.

YouTube Trends: YouTube is interesting in that it can report two trends: the most-watched videos and the search terms.

The top viewership trends on YouTube centered around you-gotta-see-this viral sensations such as Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent and the famous wedding party entrance to the tune of Chris Brown’s “Forever.”

Top search trends, which were broken out by month, centered around news and entertainment events but weren’t always directly related.  For instance, the death of Michael Jackson led to an increase in searches for the Thriller music video.  What does this mean?  Probably that a generation that doesn’t remember the dawn of the music video era was looking for a famous short film that was frequently discussed but seldom seen.  YouTube’s slogan is “Broadcast Yourself,”  but it may as well be “Catch what you missed.”

Year in review lists are a chance to look back at the big stories of 2009, but those are common knowledge.  Digging into the trends can, however, show how people are using the online tools – and give insight on how to reach them.

It’s in the dictionary now, and can’t be “unworded”

The verb “unfriend” is in the Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year.  (It is also now officially a word.)

Of all the verbiage to come out of social networking and new online environments, it’s interesting that unfriend – the negative act of rescinding a connection – takes this honor.  The inclusion and exclusion of words in dictionaries is more a measure of culture than technology – technology creates new terms every day, but to be included in popular language those terms must have a crossover appeal that removes them from the realm of technical jargon and into the realm of word you might read in a newspaper article.

When most of us “unfriend” someone, it’s not because of an offline relationship that has gone south, but because the online relationship was more than we could handle.  Anyone with a Facebook account has had the friend who constantly sends requests or shares too much information.  Most people on Twitter have followed a friend who peppered their feeds with such witticisms as, “Making a sandwich and can’t decide – grape or strawberry jelly?!?”  Speaking of Twitter, after a spike earlier this year their new user numbers seem to be leveling off,and big companies that were excited to enter the medium have become absentee Tweeters.

In other words, we are settling into these new online environments by shifting from the mindset of signing up every new and shiny community or connecting with every long-lost high school class.  Perhaps we are getting better, both in terms of who we connect with and where we connect, at prioritizing what is best and most useful for us individually – and unfriending the rest.

MSNBC would never say that (about a Democrat)

“Barack Obama is a stupid #$@&ing socialist!”  So said the Twitter feed @MSNBCHeadlines, which has since been discontinued after a profanity-laced Twitter tirade (twirade?) on Friday, as documented by TechCrunch.  Previously, it had just served up exactly what it promised – MSNBC headlines, without comment or blue language.

It’s easy to chalk this up to the feed being hacked, but as TechCrunch reports that Twitter account was never owned by MSNBC.  So here’s another possibility: @MSNBCHeadlines was a sleeper Twitter account built for the express purpose of saying things like “Chris Matthews sucks.”  But in order to maximize the impact, the owner of the account simply fed MSNBC headlines for a few months to build a follower base.

It’s pretty easy to do, and it might not be the last time we see something like this.  With big 2010 House and Senate races coming up, now would be the time to register a Twitter account like “@PASenateHeadlines.”

Let’s say you work for Joe Sestak, the Democrat Congressman challenging Arlen Specter for the nomination.  It would be easy to feed the account with the daily news stories about the race that run in various newspapers around the state thanks to Google news.  There wouldn’t need to be any slant to the stories, and the lack of a slant would attract more followers; interested parties (especially reporters) would follow the account just to get straight news from various sources that they may have missed.

The account exists on autopilot and seems innocuous for a few months.  Then, weeks before election day, you take more direct control of the account.  Instead of automatically feeding it any old story about the Pennsylvania Senate race, you serve up more consistent anti-Specter news.  If you have some potentially damaging information about Specter (like video of him hanging out with George W. Bush) you could use this Twitter feed to attract attention.

Maybe @MSNBCHeadlines got hacked.  But maybe it was a prank that provided a blueprint for an effective campaign tactic.

No Twitter? OMG!

Everything is ok now, but the digital apocalypse was almost upon us yesterday, as both Twitter and Facebook went down (apparently due to an attack aimed at a Georgian political blogger by Russian hackers).  Somehow, humanity survived.

This was apparently big news, despite the fact that Twitter, GMail, and other groups have occasional service hiccups.  But some additional factors may have given this story more legs than usual.  First, with unemployment staying high, there were more people without day jobs affected deeply by a lack of an online life.  Second – and much more importantly – is that more and more journalists are using Twitter to follow politicians.  If something happens to a journalist, it’s much more likely to hit the news.

Don’t stop to kick every barking dog

No, that isn’t a caveat for Michael Vick’s reinstatement.  It’s part of the Rules of the Public Policy Process taught by my former boss, Morton Blackwell.  Essentially, the phrase means that in politics, sometimes it’s wise to pick your battles – and that not every fight you could engage in will help you achieve your ultimate goal.

It isn’t a politically-themed example, but a real estate management company in Chicago is making this point very clearly.  The Horizon Group is suing a former tenant of one of their apartment buildings because she posted a snarky, critical comment on Twitter.  “Who says sleeping in a moldy apartment is bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay,” tweeted the disgruntled renter, Amanda Bonnen.

Horizon didn’t bother asking Bonnen to remove the tweet or push a retraction to the meager following of 20 users who track her Twitter account.  Instead, they filed a defamation lawsuit seeking $50,000 in damages.

“We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization,” explained Horizon’s Jeffrey Michael.  That may indeed prove that Horizon is right in this case, but that isn’t a very inviting comment for a prospective renter.

Social networks like Twitter offer a chance for companies to engage their customers in a dialogue, and use the conversation – including constructive criticism – to make their business better.  In some cases – and this could very well be one – a business relationship is simply irreconcilable, and the customer will give bad reviews no matter what.  At that point, any business should gauge the situation and consider their options.  I’d bet that many Chicago-area renters will steer clear of Horizon-managed properties, given their handling of this situation – far more than would have if Horizon had simply ignored Bonnen’s original tweet, which probably would have been seem by, at most, 25-50 people and forgotten by most soon after it was read.

Perhaps instead of suing first and asking questions later, Horizon’s management should have started with a question: Which is more harmful, a random Twitter post or bad PR from taking legal action against a dissatisfied customer?

Did you see that story on anything but Michael Jackson?

In the 17 hours or so since Michael Jackson’s death has been reported, an interesting rift has developed in online communications.  Apparently, some folks who have been discussing the Iran elections are upset that so many people are discussing celebrity deaths:

Twitter screen shot

This is probably a reflection of a few things.  First, there is an age gap in appreciating Michael Jackson’s career.  If you were born after 1985, your first memories of Michael Jackson are probably the world premiere of the “Black or White” video, and increasingly fragile physique, and a series of bizarre controversies and allegations of inappropriate conduct around young boys.  But it you are in the first generation to have MTV (back when it was ’round-the-clock music videos) or older, you remember that Michael Jackson almost single-glovedly invented the concept of pop music entertainment.

There’s also the fact that news, like politics, is local.  The loss of an iconic American pop culture figure is naturally going to mean more to Americans than election protests halfway around the world.  (And it’s worth noting that the folks who decide what news gets on TV have a role to play.  This week’s DC Metro crash probably wouldn’t have had the same coverage if it happened on a public transportation system for a city that doesn’t host a major bureau for every news organization in the known universe.)

They have a point, and it isn’t the only story getting swept under a rug.  Mark Sanford’s Argentinian dalliances have been muted outside South Carolina, and the Barack Obama health care debate is moving along on Capitol Hill in the background of the national consciousness.

The great thing about modern media is that, even if the “mainstream” press is obsessed with one story, an avid reader can seek out information from other sources.  And it for media analysis junkies, it provides a platform for discussions that simply don’t happen in one-way broadcast media.  In no other environment could the worlds of Michael Jackson and Iranian Fundamentalists collide in quite the same way.

If only there was some way to combine the issues…

Dot-com 2.0?

I talking about social networks and online environments with a colleague this week, the 400-pound gorilla of the web 2.0 world came up: nobody is making any real money yet.  “What people don’t realize,” he said, “is that YouTube has a lot of views, but has been losing its shirt.  Facebook doesn’t make money.  Twitter doesn’t make money.”

It’s a good point.  Just as the “dot-com” craze launched a bubble and an eventual bust in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Web 2.0 industry has a bubble of its own.  Outside of Google – who has made tons of money, but is seeing their business model coming under attack from privacy groups – most companies have been supported by venture capital.

For all their popularity, Facebook and Twitter will have to figure out some way to make money off the masses who use them or they could find themselves endangered. And while some recent innovations (like Facebook opening up it’s back-end programming) make these sites more useful to more people paradoxically make it harder to make money.

For the past year and a half especially, people have tracked and managed Twitter accounts via third-party programs either on their laptop or mobile phone – people rarely go to Twitter.com.   With Facebook opening up their programming, it invites the same pattern of usage.  In other words, both these sites promise to offer infrastructure for people to use for sharing content – but without having eyeballs on their actual sites, they can’t rely on the advertising revenue stream that so many other online companies have used as their bread and butter.  That’s why there’s some speculation that browser companies might take over social networking as an attractive add-on to Firefox, Chrome, or Internet Explorer.

At the same time, outside groups have an interest in keeping these services afloat.  Politicians and advocacy campaigns come to mind immediately as entities who have benefited from online networks.  But wherever monetization ultimately comes from, at some point the monied interests who have supported the web 2.0 bubble will look for a return on their investment.  If that return isn’t there, this bubble may burst, too.

Twitter is the new internet

Republican online guru Patrick Ruffini makes an apt analogy on TechPresident about Twitter. A decade ago, the Internet was the revolutionary media frontier compared to TV; today Twitter is a new niche frontier on an increasingly mainstream world wide web.

Of note, Ruffini points out that Republicans are ahead of Democrats in terms of using this software; projects like the #dontgo movement have shown the utility of this rapidly growing communications vehicle.

The more I thought about it, the less surprised I was – recall that it was conservative bloggers who, in 2004, made the first big splash with blogs by exposing shoddy CBS News reporting that ultimately cost Dan Rather his job. At the time, blogs were relative newcomers to the political scene, and members of the more traditional media establishment complained that bloggers weren’t “real” journalists and couldn’t be trusted for news.

The internet and blogs have become more mainstream, Team Obama was able to harness online enthusiasm and the narrative has developed that conservatives are a step behind. One could just as easily point to the use of technology like Twitter to suggest conservatives are ahead of the curve – but using technology that mainstream media outlets haven’t quite wrapped their head around yet.

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