Tread careful if ad firms use Twitter data to reach punters
WHAT an interesting week it's been for Twitter; from bogeyman to paragon in a few days.
In Turkey the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, denounced the microblogging site as one of the catalysts for the growing unrest spreading through his country.
Here's what Mr Erdogan is reported as saying: "There is a problem called Twitter right now and you can find every kind of lie there. The thing that is called social media is the biggest trouble for society right now."
By contrast, British company WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell and Twitter's Dick Costolo celebrated the power of the tweet with a new global alliance to share data. In other words, WPP's research geeks will be poring over Twitter's tweets to get a better feel for what customers like or don't like as well as using tweets to market new products or services; put simply, to sell stuff.
You can see why Sir Martin, pictured, and Mr Costolo are so thrilled. Twitter, which is just seven years old and said to be worth some $10bn (£6.5bn), has around 500 million users who on average "tweet" a message a day. For WPP, the alliance brings a new communication platform and a real-time window to what's happening on the street. It's a powerful tool as consumers are said to trust the advice of a stranger on social media more than they do any other form of advertising. Bizarre but apparently true.
So WPP's analytics operations around the world will be using computer algorithms and other metrics to scan the data to find out what people think, what they're doing, what they think about brands et al. They hope to be able to deliver more effective campaigns - product or service launches - and report back to clients in real time on what people think about the latest deodorant or whatever. As Sir Martin said recently, digging the data is where the power lies today.
For Mr Costolo the alliance will bring hard currency, eventually. Together with the recent deal signed with Publicis, the San Francisco-based service hopes to have reached sales of $1bn by next year as it gears up for either a float or a share sale over the next few years.
Sir Martin and Mr Costolo, and the brands they work for, might be happy with the deal, but what of the human cost? How will this real-time data be used - by brands or politicians - and how will it be interpreted? What questions should we be asking about data protection and privacy issues? As we are discovering, the US secret services are already dipping into private emails for surveillance; why not Twitter too? While Mr Erdogan was using Twitter as a veil - the protests at Gezi Park would have happened without the newsfeeds - what happens if the Turkish alphabet men get access to the data?
This is new and unchartered territory. Before taking a view, it's worth reading Jaron Lanier's brilliant book, You Are Not a Gadget, on why he believes the internet retards progress and glorifies the collective - the mob rule - at the expense of the individual. Mr Lanier also warned that the open-source approach of the web is allowing wealth to being concentrated in the hands of a few and another layer of rule: "the lords of the clouds".