Thoughts on Doing Things for Other People

This February, my friend went dog sledding in the far reaches of frigid northern Canada. An older Chinese woman, intent on sharing pictures of the adventure with her friends, insisted on sitting in front. She wasn’t really interested in dog sledding, she said, she just wanted everyone to know she went.

It made me wonder: why do we sometimes do things (tweet, post pictures, write status updates) just for their effect on other people–who, we hope, will deem us cool, funny, and gorgeous? Somehow, this led to a discussion of Twitter, and whether the Twitter cofounders cared how people used their platform.

As it turns out, Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey (who, by the way, recently saw cofounder Biz Stone leave the company to work on a startup called Obvious Corporation) is clearly supportive of using Twitter for social change in this Huffington Post interview. When asked what causes he is particularly fond of, Dorsey responds, “My position is really to build technologies that speak to any cause; that’s what I want to do all the more of.” In other words, he wants to build a versatile platform that users can shape to their unique purposes. But, presumably, Dorsey means good causes, not including the various Ku Klux Klan Twitter accounts.

The fact that startups are open and even eager to iterate means they recognize that users may develop surprising, new, and even better uses for their products. But once the final (or relatively final) product is out, I can’t imagine that how it’s used is irrelevant to the creators. Creating something of value is fulfilling in itself–witness the failed companies whose founders don’t regret a moment of their journey–but seeing it used in valuable ways must add even more to the sense of pride and accomplishment.


Liveblogging’s BlogWell DC

Yesterday, I made my way out to USA TODAY’s headquarters in McLean, Virginia, to liveblog BlogWell DC, an event about how big brands use social media. I covered presentations by USA TODAY, Discovery Communications, Delta Air Lines, and the IRS.

I was pretty impressed with the quality of the presentations and the variety of social media strategies discussed. Among the highlights:

  • What America Wants, a 4-day Twitter campaign to win a full-page ad for your favorite charity (USA TODAY)
  • Streaming live tweets onscreen during a primetime show (Discovery)
  • An April Fool’s joint press release with the Bronx Zoo cobra (or, at least, its Twitter account holder) for a Snake on the Town documentary (Discovery)
  • Tweeting at a user who was wondering what TV show to watch (Discovery) (this was one of the most interesting — the idea of searching for relevant tweets then encouraging a user to buy/use/consume your product)
  • Quick customer service on Twitter (Delta)

Some of the common themes:

  • Make it easy to engage and participate
  • The worry that users will share personal information (phone numbers, SSNs) on sites like Facebook
  • Be human (send direct messages, respond to tweets, etc.)

Overall, the event just opened my eyes to all the innovative and targeted ways to use social media to engage customers. Well done!

Living Social #dollarlunchday

Living Social is offering $1 deals in DC today, for up to $25 worth of lunch fare. As a DC-based startup, they’ve attracted huge interest–as evidenced by their slow website and mobile app (I still haven’t received the text message with my voucher for sushi!).

With users complaining on Twitter, Living Social has responded by soliciting direct messages from the voucherless and advising them to give their last name to merchants.

Will this be a PR failure, or are $1 lunches worth the hassle?

In Defense of Twitter

A recent Newsweek article discussed how Twitter is being used by politicians to spread bite-sized misinformation.

Some examples: A Congressman tweeted that Obama’s tax increase would be the largest in history, and the Republican National Committee claimed that economists see Obama’s stimulus plan as an “epic fail.”

While it’s clearly a problem that politicians are misinforming their followers (an appropriate term for them if they take any tweet on face value), I’m more interested in how this article portrays Twitter.  As the article explains:

By design, Twitter limits communication. It provides its users with 140 characters to make a point – enabling them to oversimplify and exaggerate. In politics, this is considered an asset, and both parties have taken to the social networking site that now claims to have more than 100 million users.

Surely, 140 characters is not enough to make a reasoned argument.  But Twitter does seem like a useful tool to keep citizens apprised of the most recent developments in the political world, especially because tweets can link to longer articles.  I think it’s a mistake to claim that Twitter enables politicians to “oversimplify and exaggerate”; they’ll find a way to do that on any platform.

And the very fact that this article was written reminds us of the upside of Twitter and other Internet news venues.  Because they reach millions of users and because anyone can comment and publish, misinformation will be detected and publicized.

My point, in 140 characters or less: don’t blame the tool, blame the agent.