05 October 2012

When Plural is Really Anti-Social

Today's post is brought to you by the letter "S"

Just like 70 million other people, we watched the U.S. presidential debate this past Wednesday night.  I caught the first half hour on NPR while driving home, and joined Mrs. Ad Majorem watching the rest on ABC News.  Before leaving work I checked Twitter to see what hashtags would be in circulation, because of course I expected to participate in the national conversation. 

A #debate about #debates

My unscientific sample of tweeps, political consultants and other citizens led me to believe that #debate would be the default hashtag for most people.  Some put #Debate2012 or some variation.  Others with an agenda put hashtags supporting their candidate.  But #debate seemed like a good one.

Watching on TV, however, I noticed that ABC was encouraging the hashtag #debates – the plural.  Why not just #debate?  You’ve only got 140 characters, why use one of them on a vestigial “S”? 

Look at that S-car go!

It turns out that ABC News was following Twitter's lead.  According to a Twitter blog post, they declared #debates as the official hashtag.

It had never occurred to me to check and see what Twitter was pushing.  My normal procedure is to check and see what people are doing.  

It's not hard to imagine that Twitter has an internal team working on this series of debates:  producers, editors, journalists and social media experts.  They may be “the debates group” or they may just tell people, “We work on coverage of the debates.”  Sitting around the conference room table, it would be easy to agree on #debates as a hashtag.  

The Twitterverse looked at it differently, however.  No one watching at home was thinking about a series of debates.  This was the big night everyone in the U.S. had anticipated for weeks.  The social media commentary was about what happened that very night.

Put another way, I don't think anyone imagined #SaveBigBird.  

Maybe Twitter wanted something trackable.  I give them credit for not using #TwitterDebates -- you know, something “branded”.  Still, pushing an "official" hashtag reflects the mindset of an Old Media company used to broadcasting and big numbers.  Social Media works differently.  The relevant measure might be share of conversation, or the number of conversations in which they participated.

Watch and Learn

In the end this is a mental exercise.  Watch what is happening around you, and game it out.  Learn from what others do.  In this case the lesson is:  Not even Twitter can control its own conversation.  Try to swim with the tide, perhaps influence it, but don't imagine you can control or measure it according to some standard of Ye Olde Marketing.

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