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Tweet This: Why You Should Read Twitterville

August 25th, 2009

twittervilleReading Twitterville, it’s easy to get the feeling that I’m back in my home state of Texas, surrounded by friendly neighbors, family and loved ones.  Sort of a small town feel, where people leave their doors unlocked and even strangers welcome you warmly.

Some readers may challenge this description—isn’t Twitter a wild west environment, a raging river of commentary, observations and random chitchat?

But by framing it this way—as a “place” we can relate to—author Shel Israel set the stage for what turns out to be an engaging page-turner.

Twitterville is not a hard-hitting expose of Twitter, and it’s not a step by step tutorial and/or best practices. The book, instead, is a sweeping story describing how this quirky  little site —originally developed for internal company purposes—has been transformed into one of the hottest social media platforms on the planet. Israel pulls this off by weaving company case studies, human adventures and various other examples into a fascinating romp through a world few understand.

Israel came into social media after a long career in traditional communications (journalism, public relations/marketing). His earlier book (co-authored with legendary blogger Robert Scoble), Naked Conversations, explored the individual blog movement and touched on bigger trends, building on earlier books like
ClueTrain Manifesto (“conversations are markets”).  But those “movements” stopped short of the big corporate doors and what will eventually be even more sweeping changes  (Read my Q&A with Israel to see how he compares the two book-writing experiences).

There is much to like about this book, but here are few of my highlights:

Engaging story and history

o     Israel shows vividly how Twitter was developed almost as an accident from other technologies. Back then it was known as TWTTR, and used to communicate with small, mobile work groups. Israel, as always, tells the story by weaving in personal accounts of the founders as they experimented with the new toy (Twitter Inc was not formed until oct 2006). He also covers the ample turbulence—the “fail whales”- and many growing pains.

o    Israel’s personal journey through his world of technology–taking us back to his childhood days in the 50s and early advent of TV—also makes for a good read, putting new developments like Twitter into perspective.
Great case examples:

o    This book is filled with great human examples, across education, government, and business. His description of personal tweeting and news gathering from the hurricane ravaged New Orleans to Mumbai, India, where terrorists just struck, is compelling reading.

o    There’s also more than 100 stories of how businesses and organizations    (Dell, Comcast, SW Air, etc)  have used Twitter to “successfully conduct marketplace conversations,” as Israel put it. Comcast, for instance, made a good dent in its negative public perception with its ComcastCares Twitter site—run by one guy. These stories alone are invaluable for business readers (ex: corporate communications professionals) who are trying to get their arms around the social media movement.

o    Both midsize and large companies will find plenty of examples here (small companies—not so much). On the flip side, he shows how some companies ignorance of Twitter cost them. The “Motrin Moms” and Pepsi 1 calorie suicide ads both caused huge backlashes on Twitter. Corporate media types should take careful note of these lessons—Israel lays them all out neatly.

Personal branding

This is an interesting chapter where Israel re-asserts we are in a transformational time, a new Conversational era replacing the old Broadcast era. Intrusion ads and one-direction campaigns are giving way to conversations and engagements. But while people have lost faith in corporate brands, faith in personal brands remains strong. Now everyoneis basically a free agent; we’re all responsible for our own personal brands—and platforms like Twitter provide a perfect way to shape these, while accelerating the process of branding building.  Israel uses personal examples like super blogger Chris Brogan and Jeremiah Owyang to show how you can build a personal brand (again, using colorful human examples).

I could go on and on: each of these chapters has a message worth heeding. Israel talks about how Twitter allows us to converse more naturally than any other social media platform (hence, its success). In another chapter (“Braided Journalism”) he shows the massive shift we’ve had from traditional newsgathering to citizen journalists and others breaking news. This is a big deal.

If there is any fault to this book, it’s that Israel sometimes seems to bend over backwards to present a glowingly positive story, while glossing over the negative aspects. For every act of generosity (the  “cult of generosity”), there are hundreds of examples of mindless chatter or shameless promotions on Twitter  (There is one chapter describing the spammers and other dark forces).

I also wish he would have addressed more of the big picture and where all of this is going–this would have been a nice conclusion chapter. My feeling is Twitter, whether it’s swallowed up by a bigger fish like Google or Murdoch  or not, reflects a much bigger phenomenon that is already reshaping how we communicate as individuals and businesses. This transformational shift will eventually affect all of us in the communications business and beyond–but how?

But these are small quibbles about a book that does pretty much what it set out to do, tell a fascinating story about one of the worlds most interesting companies/movements.

As I was meandering around Israel’s book launch party bash Sunday, it dawned on me that Twitter is a sort of state of mind—and people either get it or they don’t. But by localizing it—by framing it as a “place” that readers can relate to—Israel humanized it in a way that makes it digestible for people far outside the social media circles.

Twitter may come and go eventually,  but people will be talking about it for many years as one of the true pioneers that launched this new age. Israel did a great job capturing the human forces and everything else in Twitter’s short but crazy roller-coaster ride. Take a break from tweeting, pick up the book and read it (Sept. 3 publishing date). You’ll be glad you did.
(To understand how Israel sees all of this playing out for communications professionals, read the Q&A).

This post also ran on Marketing Profs’ blog.

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