In the past couple of weeks, I have been involved in a couple of events mediated by Twitter that have made me think about the use of social media and what they are good at.
The first was a planned, structured event: a whisky tasting1. I wasn’t sure how effective this would be: people gathered in three different locations, together with some at home, too; tens of different people tweeting about what they thought of a selection of four different whiskies. I was sceptical: I didn’t think this would work at all; a whisky tasting is all about the shared experience, and I couldn’t see how Twitter would provide this. So I decided to find out by joining in – indeed, after I asked one of the organisers how it would work, I was invited onto the panel sitting in London.
And it worked very, very well: mixing the social with the medium, lubricated with fine whisky, made for lots of interesting conversations both online and off. Reading what other people thought of the whiskies increased the experience, and people built on others’ tweets. I was surprised how quickly I took to it.
The second event happened last week, when I took part in the tweetfest which was #Trafigura. In case you missed this, the Guardian newspaper was subject to a “super injunction” preventing it reporting on a parliamentary question. (The Guardian has been subject to twelve such injunctions in the last year.) Since reporting on parliament was considered a fundamental press freedom in the UK, when word of this leaked, many people dug deeper, and when the nature and subject of the injunction was identified, lots – and lots – of people made a concerted effort to spread the word on Twitter, using the hashtag #Trafigura. After much publicity – a lot of it focussing on the role played by Twitter – Trafigura didn’t pursue its injunction.
I followed the story through Wednesday afternoon: I came to it late and ignorant, followed some of the links, got angry at the assault of British freedoms by big business, and started retweeting. I felt part of a movement, and I felt we played (perhaps a small) part in actually changing something.
The blogosphere has of course been buzzing with the story. Alix Mortimer provides a timeline, and plays down the role of Twitter; Evgeny Morozov says
So, was it a victory for digital activists, who have challenged powerful corporate interests? Well, this is not a lesson that I have drawn from this saga. What we have learnt from the Trafigura story is that digital activism campaigns have much greater chances of success in well-established democracies with a vibrant public life. … If Twitter wasn’t around, the British yellow press would surely pick up this fight, because it simply looks too tempting not to have a quick jab at the corporate interests here
And so on – a Google blog search finds over 38,000 posts about Trafigura. (Make that 38,001, after this… And now, minutes later, over 41,500 and growing!)
There are lessons here. Twitter added to the offline experience of the whisky tasting, and catalysed my action: I was sceptical and curious, and wanted to see how a Twitter whisky tasting would work. It mobilised me to get involved.
The #Trafigura tweetstream clearly mobilised many hundreds – even thousands I haven’t found a way to count the number of tagged tweets, nor the number of twitterers posting them) – of people. It is likely that newspapers’ lawyers and MPs such as Evan Harris and Paul Farrelly (who asked the original parliamentary question) would have succeeded in lifting the injuction without Twitter, but having the weight of that outcry must have helped – Trafigura were on a hiding to nothing. Twitter enabled people to get involved and spread the knowledge of the injunction, and the information Trafigura were trying to suppress, much more quickly and more widely than would otherwise have been possible.
Ultimately, I think, I have learned the value of Twitter as a communication tool: both the whisky tasting and the #Trafigura flood were about communicating; and they clearly worked for me.
1I wanted to show you the tweetstream for the evening, but I can’t. [Edit: The footnote was made a post of its own for clarity…]