As executives from Twitter, Facebook and Research in Motion (developer of Blackberry) prepare to meet Theresa May for a chat about possibly turning off operations during times of crisis (as if…), the former company has capitalised on the confusion with a publicity coup that places it streets ahead of the other two in terms of post-riots image.
For those who’ve not seen the Guardian today, the paper has compiled a database of 2.5m riot-related tweets which overwhelmingly seem to absolve the company of the dubious ‘responsibility’ for the riots the government is trying to pin on them. Of course I’m being generous to Twitter here: The Guardian might have just decided to help out of the kindness of their heart. But I suspect this is on some level a PR move, calculated to dismiss criticism in the way that often serves brands best- a calm analysis of the product.
There’s a lot of big numbers and fun graphs scrawled all over the paper, but the gist is this: analysis of riot-focused tweets in areas where riots happened showed that the communications spike happened almost exclusively after the event. People weren’t tweeting about the violence until shortly after it had happened. Of course, Twitter will want to feel the full benefit of this by underlining those post-hoc tweets which actually benefitted public conversation about the riots: analysis, statements of hope and reassurance, whatever.
There probably were a lot of these, but even if they were all people tweeting about how many branded sneakers they personally sold to sex trafficking gang leaders, it doesn’t matter. Twitter and the Guardian have now stopped a growing public backlash dead in its tracks by getting the straight facts into a position where they can speak for themselves. As anyone sensible could have guessed, Twitter didn’t start the riots, and they’ve shown that there is a value in just having faith in the product. They’ve done the same in the past- They responded to a similar request during the Arab Spring with the marvellously wanky statement “the tweets must flow”.
In doing so, they’ve beaten Facebook and RIM hands down. Conversation around Facebook groups with names like “Smash Down Northwich Town” have focused on whether ineffectual online activists can be said to have committed a crime. Conversation around BBM- thanks to its positioning on a personal platform- has been about privacy, and the Government’s jurisdiction in personal communications.
Theory, basically, and frankly who cares. Obviously, however much Theresa May looks a bit like the robot servant of a dystopian dictator, nobody is going to close down social networking in times of crisis. What’s important is the lasting brand damage these corporations could suffer among an increasingly social-network friendly older population who now see them as corrupters of youth and disturbers of the peace.
Twitter have taken clear steps to protest their innocence in the only way that seems honest: publicly, through a third party, with nothing more than hard reality on their side. They’ve cut through the ineffectual, dinner-table bullshit that has defined conversation on the riots and they’ll score a lot of points with the public by providing a clear answer. What caused the riots? No idea. What’s to be done now? Fuck knows. Did Twitter do it? No, definitely not, says the Guardian, and the public listens.