August 25, 2009

5 questions for the author of ‘Twitterville’


Shel Israel discusses the impact of the real-time Web on society & business

twitterville-150iJD LasicaShel Israel’s new book, Twitterville, is due to hit hit bookstores next week. (See Twitterville site, the Global Neighbourhoods blog or Amazon page.) A day after his book release party at the Hiller Aviation Museum, San Carlos, Calif., Shel took time out to answer five questions from

1In the early stages of your book research you were focusing on the conversational Web. Why did you zero in on Twitter?

Shel Israel: When you and I talked about the conversational web, I was still exploring new book possibilities. I wanted a story that was an obvious evolutionary step from Naked Conversations.

My focus narrowed and locked in April 2008, when James Buck tweeted the word “arrested” on his Blackberry as he was being taken off to possibly rot in an Egyptian jail. A day later, when he posted a second word, “freed,” I realized that something was happening on Twitter that exceeded what I originally thought was there. In another couple of weeks I started seeing a very broad story that also went quite deep. I felt passionate about it and became convinced that Twitter was about to have a very significant impact on the Conversational Web.

2At the 140 Character conference, some speakers suggested that the real-time Web was as momentous as the birth of the original Web. Do you agree? How do you see Twitter’s potential impact on culture and society?

Shel Israel: I’m not very good at “most momentous” type judgments until I can look back at an event with some historical perspective. I regard the birth of the real time web as a more recent point on a continuum that started back when our ancestors were grunting and gesturing around the cave fires telling stories about the hunt; using blood and berries to tell stories on cave walls. The birth of the web is a really big dot in that continuum. It is the moment when our communications transcended tangible spaces and allowed email and other interactive activities. How big a dot is the real time web? I think it’s huge, but we are still in nascent times. I may be optimistic, but we need to be able to look back further to see how it impacts human interactivity.

3Can you cite some best practices about how companies are using Twitter?

Shel Israel: The term “best practices” traditionally historically refers to refined, redundant, measurable activities that can become the stadard of business protocols. I think we are still in an early phase where nothing is yet a best practice, but merely a really good idea.

There’s a general consensus that social media has been a communications game changer. Most people think it is a good idea to be transparent and not deceptive; to listen at least as much as you speak; to show a human face rather than a brand image; to build reputation by being generous to a community rather than making noise and to generally tell more than you sell.

Yet there are many successful companies deviating from at least some of these approaches. For example, on Twitter @starbucks and @Carlsjr use branded Twitter accounts, where the real human hides behind a curtain and people come and have conversations with company logos.

I don’t like the practice, but I spoke with the people behind those curtains and the practice works quite well for them. So these best practices still remain to be seen and the era of cookie cutter approaches to the marketplace may be over.

The good news is that your company’s community will probably tell you what the best practice is for you at this time and in your space.

4There’s a lot of ferment in the search world these days, with some suggesting that the kinds of rich personal details that people are sharing in Twitterville has the potential to reshape marketing in fundamental ways. Your take?

Shel Israel: In the search world, I see a significant divide between finding stuff by having an automated spider crawl data over the web. This is what Google, Bing and the rest do. It’s valuable and it is not going away. But many of us find the overuse and abuse of SEO has corrupted this kind of search results and it is likely that trend will further spoil the quality of results we get from search engines.

Simultaneously, social media platforms are allowing people to search crowds and get information from humans rather than data spiders. We get much of that information from people we know and whose credibility we can assess.

This latter form of search is increasingly shaping what people buy, watch and listen to. Asking people is more natural and the way we have been helping in making such decisions for a very long time. It’s both both more powerful and efficient than traditional marketing tactics have been.

So marketers who continue to do what they have always done are probably going to get worse and worse results over time. This trend is starting to accelerate and is likely to continue.

Marketers are going to follow customers online. But if they continue to try to barrage them with marketing messages, they will probably fail.

But if you go back to the origins of marketing, when it was defined as “relationships with customers” rather than sending messages to target demographics, they can again join conversations and listen.

This will have a fundamental and monumental impact on marketers in the short-term future.

5Twitter played a major role in the street demonstrations of Iran after the recent presidential election. (I asked co-founder Biz Stone about this at the Brainstorm:Tech conference, but he deflected the question, saying Twitter was a neutral tool.) Do you see Twitter as having the potential to enable democratic uprisings in some places?

Shel Israel: First, I agree with Biz. Twitter is a neutral tool. What gets into the stream is determined by people — just like the telephone or email. But that does not alter the obvious: Twitter is changing the exchange of information and it is allowing people all over the world to bypass the world’s most imposing institutions — government, media, corporate communications machines — to let them speak and see and understand directly. As a result, people are letting us see truths that were previously filtered from us.

We saw this to some degree in Mumbai and Gaza. But it became obvious in Iran. All the official words and controlled press can never undo the truth of the YouTube clip of Neda’s murder.

JD Lasica, founder of, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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4 thoughts on “5 questions for the author of ‘Twitterville’

  1. I am half way done reading the book (picked up a copy during TBash, Twitterville release party in CA, a few days ago). I am convinced it should be required reading for companies out there struggling to get away from command and control and into collaboration and empowerment. Why? The book is filled with examples that illustrate this shift. Love the B2B chapter and IBM's section.

  2. Two ideas here are resonating strongly with me: best practices for twitter use by companies, and the way search is transforming.

    Best Practices for Twitter use is still not there, as Shel is indicating it is all still under the frame of 'a good idea you want to check and see how it works for your company. I too found that company twitter accounts, that have a person behind them, work well, albeit not always 'personal', as long as it is full of 'personality'.

    I am curious to see how will Search become a more socially driven tool. We can see springs of it on Facebook's strategy to win over Google, and I am curious to see how the authenticity and purity of peer to peer recommendations can be maintained.

  3. I feel that social networks have a big role to play in attracting users to your website. Sites such as twitter have an awful lot of users who can potentially "follow" you.

    If you can harness the power of social networks, you are probably halfway there in driving your website traffic sky high. (the other half of the equation is of course content, content content!)