Twitter all the rage today because of its ostensible (Twitter, BTW, is not available on mobile platforms in Iran) role in the Iranian political mess. It is certainly helping keep the outside world informed and involved in events there and making it harder for the regime to engage in the bloody repression of earlier days. A colleague told me that he was seeing hundreds of tweets a minute about Iran, many complaining bitterly that MSM such as CNN was not paying enough attention to the story. Because of and through the new media, with Twitter in the lead, the whole world is watching as events unfold. It is not doubt exciting, but let’s think about Twitter and how it works. According to an article I read recently, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is ONE. What this means is that most people sign up for the service and then either don’t use it at all or use it passively. Of course the median is not the average, which is much higher because it is driven up by big users. (Remember that in a group of 99 individuals making $10,000 a year plus Bill Gates, the median income is still only $10,000, but the average man in the group has a net worth of around $400,000,000.) This divergence suggests that Twitter is not really an interactive social media platform. It is more correctly a species of broadcaster. That is how it is being used in Iran, for example. People inside are using Twitter to broadcast information out.
So far Twitter’s main success has been as a marketing tool for firms and celebrities. Ashton Kutcher is the record holder with more than two million followers on Twitter. You can see why this is so attractive to celebrities. Their goal is awareness. Broadcast is unsurpassed at creating massive awareness. This might make it a very useful tool for public affairs. We need some kind of inexpensive broadcast tool and perhaps the constrained nature of the messages (140 characters) is not a significant problem for some sorts of messages. It is a lot like a headline service.
Public diplomacy, however, is not really in the headline business and our goal usually goes beyond awareness. I argued, way back in 2001, that we are not really even in the information business anymore. We are in the knowledge business (information is not knowledge) and we are in the relationship business (relationships are reciprocal). Twitter can help us take care of business as long as we recognize what we are getting when we tweet on Twitter and recognize the natural power and limitations of what is today and likely will remain a short message broadcasting service.