Again with the Twitter

11 01 2010

eaten

Diary of a Twitter-addicted analyst

This post is really just a few thoughts about my relationship with social media – specifically blogs and Twitter – as a technology industry analyst. Although some high-profile analysts have enjoyed great success using social media to build their profile (and that of their company), and some analyst firms are actively encouraging their analysts to blog, I still see a few issues here and I don’t think they’re easily resolved.

Some of our competitors have adopted analyst blogs and use of social media whole-heartedly, but the company I work for has been much more cautious. Some of my colleagues have experimented with blogs, as I obviously have, but this activity isn’t officially sanctioned. I deliberately blog only the sort of material that I would never publish through company channels (lately I tend to limit myself to reviewing devices, mainly for the benefit of my friends, and all written in my own time). I enjoy writing about technology and I do it for interest. Nevertheless, I am conscious of not giving too much away.

Personality and trust in a serious world

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that I recently decided to make my feed private. In the process I removed just over 300 followers, including a lot of random spammers, inactive accounts and internet marketers. I also removed a lot of people who are following me purely for professional reasons (including tech PRs, analyst relations people, people who work for clients, vendors, journalists and so on).

The Naked Pheasant wondered what the reasoning was behind an analyst taking Twitter private, noting that it seems to inhibit Twitter’s raison d’etre: open communication. I completely agree. It was not a decision I was initially happy to take, and it goes against my own natural instincts towards openness and honesty (I’m a Gen-Y, so I can’t help it, right?).

I took this decision because, as an analyst, Twitter carries a high degree of risk. There is a tension between the way many people (myself included) use Twitter – for open and immediate communication with some personality – and the high value that others place on my comments, by virtue of where I work.

I take the view that Twitter is at its best when it contains some personality. When I follow someone I like to hear what they’re watching, which football team they support, what their hobbies are. I like to express myself, and tell my friends what I’m doing, but my friends really don’t care about our latest forecast for global smartphone shipments in 2014. They might care about the bike components I’ve bought, whether I’m racing at Rollapaluza, what I’ve been reading, which politician or newspaper columnist I’m angry at, or which new beer or band I’ve discovered. If there’s sport (especially cricket or cycling) on, you’ll hear my opinions on it! A lot of my followers like hearing about the latest phones, or new gadgets and tech, and they value my opinion on that stuff, but they are interested because I’m a person, not an RSS feed. On the other hand, I’m sure plenty of people were following me expecting insight into the global telecoms market, and ended up hearing all about the quality of Ricky Ponting’s captaincy. Sorry guys!

Twitter is brilliant for its immediacy and directness, and for injecting some personality into communications. It can be excellent for building relationships with people you deal with in a business context, and some of the PR/AR people I work with have used it well for quick back-channel communication. There are a (very small) handful of industry people who I still allow to follow me for this reason.

But when Twitter becomes a serious business tool, this personality gets squeezed out by the need to moderate every comment, neutralise controversy and stay on message.

Openness requires trust

Honesty and openness online require a level of trust. Twitter is an extreme case: you trust that people will interpret your statements charitably, understanding that 140 characters is not enough to express things as articulately as you might. People who know me personally know that I have a mischievous sense of humour, and that I love to make deliberately outrageous statements just to test the response, but people who’ve only met me online may take every comment seriously.

On Twitter you have to trust that people will not (deliberately or accidentally) distort what you’ve said to make mischief. As your circle of followers grows, familiarity is diluted and this trust becomes harder to maintain. It is seductively easy to assume that people on Twitter understand this implicit pact, when in fact it’s not the case. It is easy to be stitched up, and the consequences of a loose comment could be career-defining.

Ultimately I reached the point where I can no longer trust people to take my tweets in the spirit they are shared. The risk is too high. I had to decide whether to tweet only about work, or to continue to show some personality, but with a selected audience. So I made the decision that I would rather be a Person on Twitter than an Analyst on Twitter.

Locking my twitter feed is a way of narrowing my circle of trusted followers. It’s a way of reclaiming Twitter as a personal medium built around relationships, still being cautious, but not being paralysed by fear of having an inarticulate or rushed comment retweeted and decontextualised through the echo chamber. There has been some collateral damage – I have been forced to block some people who don’t deserve to be blocked. Locking my feed is a very blunt tool, and it definitely limits my enjoyment of Twitter and its usefulness, but I see it as the lesser of two evils.

Since I locked my feed I have been tweeting a lot less about work, except in conversations with other analysts and friends, or just to say what I’m doing. There is now almost nothing of commercial value in my twitterstream, for competitors or clients.

A brief comment on Twitter rankings

A few weeks ago Jonny Bentwood of Edelman and the IIAR launched TweetLevel, a tool that ranks Twitter users’ influence based on criteria including number of followers, level of engagement and trust. It’s not just for ranking analysts, but obviously given Jonny’s AR focus he has designed it with analysts in mind.

Being ranked as an influencer is part of being an analyst. Vendors and research buyers alike want to know that they’re briefing the right people, and that the research they are buying is written by respected analysts. It’s part of the business, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

But I don’t want to be ranked on my Twitter use. I don’t use Twitter to deliberately influence people, I’m not interested in racking up huge numbers of followers (hell, I just blocked 60% of them and I reject almost all the requests that come in) and locking my feed has basically shot my Twitter influence right out of the sky in big billowing plumes of smoke. I don’t mind, I’d much prefer to use Twitter on a more informal basis and as a research tool. I suspect that many of my colleagues feel the same way, and many of the most influential of my colleagues don’t use Twitter at all. Influence on Twitter is something that I am completely uninterested in.

In all honesty, I’m just not comfortable with being ranked, measured and monitored when I’m talking about day-to-day stuff. I could start a separate professional Twitter profile, but to be honest it’s just too much work for not enough reward, especially given that our management is still (justifiably) nervous about analysts using Twitter. Perhaps they believe that the company brand is being impacted (positively or negatively) in a channel they can’t control, which carries too much risk (I don’t know). They have been looking into a corporate policy for social media. Analysts may soon come under pressure to conform to strict company policies (which would kill the appeal stone dead for many) or stop tweeting altogether (less likely). I haven’t seen the policy so I have no way of knowing what it may contain, but I think it’s a sound idea to have one.

Regardless, I think my personal brand and real-world influence can be built much more effectively through traditional means: by producing good reports, doing good engagements, speaking to people at events and conferences, and getting exposure through the media and trade press.

Anyway, blocking my feed is my way of putting this discussion on ice for a while. In the mean time, there’s nothing stopping anyone from contacting me using the traditional corporate channels.

If you want to arrange a briefing, email or call me at work. I’m only a Google away.