Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Can you build a Twitter audience without writing anything? An experiment.

I am more than a little sympathetic to the critique of Web 2.0 trends in Jaron Lanier's mind-broadening book You Are Not a Gadget (2010).

Lanier complains about the fragmentation of communication encouraged by today's social media. People post tiny nuggets of news and information - status updates, tweets etc - which tech companies slice and dice by demographic and pair up with commercial interests.

The result is a kind of information slurry into which advertisers can dart strategically.

It's very different, Lanier argues, from the good old days of the internet when people created individualistic online worlds with weird, elaborate websites and idiosyncratic messageboards.

But, hey, you have to know your enemy.

So over the weekend I tried to find out whether I could generate some information titbits that would build an audience without me actually having to say anything.

The idea was to create a group of Twitter accounts fed by RSS feeds from Google News searches. Each account would provide the latest news about a different hi-tech business.

On Saturday, with a little help from Photoshop, the _TODAY GROUP was born, with six new Twitter accounts. The designs would all match, and my customised Twitter background, with a bit of tweaking, revealed the Twitter names for all six accounts on either side of the page (below).

Then I went to Hootsuite and directed the RSS feed from the relevant Google News search to each account - with a few adjustments for the more ambiguous company names: Amazon "-rainforest" and Apple "-fruit", for instance.

Having pointed each feed to the right Twitter account, I could sit back and see what happened.

Sure enough, the Twitter accounts soon began to fill with news that looked appropriate to their subjects. "Will Google Wallet end up in your pocket?" asked my Google News account. "Pressure on Microsoft boss," warned Microsoft News. Each headline was accompanied by a link to the full news story, culled from different outlets that Google News was scanning.

I'd told HootSuite to update once an hour, so as not to overwhelm my followers with too many tweets.

On Sunday morning I checked back to see how it was all going. Between them, the six accounts had 29 followers. A sort of result, though a quick scroll revealed that many of them ranged from the blatantly self-promotional to the outright dodgy.

I noticed that the account following Google was my most popular, with 11 followers. But, because I'd done something wrong with its RSS feed, unlike all the others, it hadn't actually put out a single tweet. Hmm... perhaps I could get a bigger audience by tweeting nothing at all.

On the other hand, I hadn't told a soul about the existence of this fine new 'suite' (as I liked to think of it) of Twitter accounts. Maybe when I did they would take off.

How to do that? Well, I started by 'following' my services on my own Twitter account (which boasts a pathetic 50 followers). I retweeted a couple of the more interesting headlines, hoping to build up interest in these exciting new sources of techie information.

Then I resolved not to waste the whole weekend on this nonsense and went out to repot the dahlias - and think strategically about my next move.

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