Twitter: Tragedy of the Commons

International holidays are a chance to get away from the online digital cacophony, work deadlines and stress. If you're able to spend long enough away from the user interfaces you typically interact with it can be an odd feeling to resume interaction after a break from them.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

International holidays are a chance to get away from the online digital cacophony, work deadlines and stress. If you're able to spend long enough away from the user interfaces you typically interact with it can be an odd feeling to resume interaction after a break from them.

While I didn't have that complete luxury as the western world took its holiday, I did attempt to look objectively at what I consume online - and particularly my usage of Twitter.

Despite a relatively tiny 18 million registered adult 'users' at the end of 2009 according to eMarketer Digital Intelligence (a 'user' is someone who accesses Twitter at least once a month by their definition) and a projection of 26 million users this year, the service can take on a significant role in active users lives.

For the consumer marketing and PR community Twitter, as it gains momentum, is a dream come true. The TV advertising juggernaut US sports event NFL Super Bowl reached nearly 99 million pairs of eyeballs last February via TV sets, this year 30 seconds of airtime goes for around $3 US million and are nearly sold out. At the height of the social media fad Super Bowl stalwarts Pepsi got a ton of free publicity buzz by sitting the event out this year and claiming to be spending $20 US million on 'cause related projects' - the WSJ:

...Pepsi, based in Purchase, N.Y., will plunge into the crowded field of cause-related marketing in coming weeks with a campaign to kick off "Pepsi Refresh Project." Under the program, Pepsi will award grant money for community projects proposed and selected by consumers, such as helping high-school students publish books to develop their writing skills. Pepsi says it has earmarked $20 million of its ad dollars for the grants next year.

Where Coke dominated the TV advertising airwaves with 'I'd like to buy the world a Coke' in the 70's (here's the McCann-Erickson story of the creative on that) we're seeing a similar sentiment to 'I'd like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,  Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves' from Pepsi today.

This time around you can participate by contributing ideas such as 'I want to build a bike lane on our street so I can get work without polluting the earth' into their idea capture site refresheverything.com according to the video here, in a reprise of the 'soda making the world a better place' marketing meme which proved so lucrative for Coke.

All tooth rotting but wholesome stuff as Pepsi help save the planet by 'accepting' 1000 ideas a month and ploughing their profits into realizing the ideas. Good are a partner, a 'collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward' I admire.

The differences between Pepsi's consumer 'cause related marketing' and internal business idea capture or 'open innovation' as discussed by Tapscott in 'Wikinomics' are getting intertwined and confused but there's business value in both approaches.

So what has all that got to do with Twitter usage? The Twitter user stats from eMarketer are the giveaway - it's primarily a marketing communications device.

Tom Foremski pointed out yesterday the media tsunamai that is enveloping us:

We now have more media, in more formats, in more times of the day and night, from more people, than at any other time in history. And we will get even more in 2010.

Filtering your information consumption is an increasing problem across all media but particularly online. Opinions are like bellybuttons - everyone has one, and arguably for the first time in history publishing those opinions is trivial. Where countless blogs are destination vanity projects seen by few, the torrent of information flowing through Twitter is increasingly hard to parse as the service becomes more mainstream.

Twitter seems to do odd things to people's egos, and increased business marketing campaign usage seems to  influence user's personal updates - there's no difference between a single @Pepsi tweet and an @olivermarks tweet in terms of their consumption footprint - an individual is as empowered as a multinational, apart from reach. (Pepsi has 20k followers, I have 2k)

We now have the odd juxtaposition of 'consumers' (apparently with plenty of free time on their hands) barking out orders during the workday to multinationals ('put less sugar in pepsi, kthxbye') and marketers retweeting happy customer comments.

Instant messaging usage is still banned in many companies for time wasting and security reasons: Twitter has a much steeper curve ahead of it for adoption than IM did as a viable collaboration device against understood and experienced marketing usage over less well defined business uses.

If we take the much cited example of the value of capturing tacit knowledge inside a company, the 'water cooler conversation' in US culture, consider this. You're the manager of a team of twenty people and you hear their shrieks of laughter and animated conversation around the water cooler. For a few minutes it's fine as you let your team build rapport and let off steam. How long before you break up the party because you're worried about the deadlines you have to meet? 10 minutes? an hour?

This is essentially how Twitter is perceived in a business context by the vast majority. As an information propagation device Twitter is peerless, but the Tragedy of the Commons - and in this case the commons is your time - is happening all over again.

When multiple individuals acting independently behave only in their own self-interest they will ultimately deplete a shared but limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen, as happened in the original Tragedy of the Commons over land usage.

It's been culturally acceptable to sit through a 1 minute 30 second Pepsi commercial during leisure time as the price (your time) you pay for free viewing of, for example, the Super Bowl: it's not been acceptable to do the same thing at work. The power of using modern 2.0 collaborative tools is being distorted by historical perceptions of marketing messaging exacerbated by aggressive marketing activity by individuals and companies on Twitter.

Whether it's creating email, Twitter messages, editing wikis or blog posts, the challenge in mandating effective business usage is in clearly identifying and articulating time boundaries against the value that these activities are expected to achieve.

The torrent of information we can virtually instantly turn on for ourselves can also rapidly overwhelm and distract from the jobs at hand on a personal level without constant checks and balances. Sometimes it takes a break in your use patterns to see how insidious this can be...

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