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Why This Will Be The Election That Breaks Twitter (But Not In The Way That You Think)

Buzzfeed has an interesting look at how the U.S. Presidential Election will impact Twitter, inasmuch as the inevitable influx of tweets from all quarters of the planet announcing and analysing every single aspect of the election will, for all intents and purposes, leave Twitter largely impotent and (dare I say it) useless for anyone who isn’t interested in announcing and analysing every single aspect of the election.

The person that America decides to elect as President is and should be important to everybody – not just folks in the USA. But what should matter and what does matter rarely goes hand-in-hand, and suffice to say for every tweet proactively reporting about the election, there will be another tweet complaining about the coverage (or about Twitter’s coverage specifically, which is when it all gets very meta).

Bottom line: Twitter is going to be busy. Very busy. Will it stand up to the strain?

As a platform, I think it will probably be okay. In his piece, Buzzfeed’s John Herrman argues that the improvements Twitter has made to its technology and infrastructure in the past couple of years – which were made exactly for days like today – should see it through. I think he’s right. I do feel that if Obama is victorious – certainly if it’s emphatic – the likely four gazillion retweets of his message of triumph on Twitter could, at the very least, slow the network to an absolute crawl (something similar could happen with Romney – mostly tweets of bewilderment from the rest of the world), but the Fail Whale hasn’t been seen in a long time and I don’t expect that patronising behemoth to make a sudden re-appearance later tonight. But I think there’s every chance of some kind of technical shenanigans on Twitter before this election is over.

In terms of the usefulness of Twitter, Herrman is spot-on – it’s going to suck if you don’t care about the election, and it’s going to suck if you do. Twitter is going to get so manic, so fast, and so furious, that unless you’re following just a half-dozen people – and most of those are either out of the country or trapped under something heavy – it’s going to be insane. You have been warned.

That aside, there’s a third element that Buzzfeed have missed in their reportage, and to me it’s a more interesting way to look at how this election will break Twitter – and that’s with the general public.

You see, Twitter is already pretty big. And it’s growing really, really fast. But, certainly in large parts of the USA (and, indeed, the world), it’s not TV big. It’s not American Idol big. And it’s not Facebook big.

I think the 2012 U.S. election will change that. I think that Twitter will come out of this as a giant.

Because, while I do believe that for your common or garden user Twitter is going to be absolutely nuts twelve or so hours from now, for the election-reporting media it’s going to be nothing less than a joy. Trending topics, hashtags, retweets, soundbites, quotes, celebrity opinions, Twitter reactions from non-U.S. politicians – all of these things are going to be fried gold to the world’s media. They can’t and have never have been able to get this instant, real-time, on-the-pulse response from Facebook, and they’re going to take those tweets and that Twitter data and report it to billions of people around the world. And many of these people will be getting that information through their televisions. Or through email bulletins. Or radio. Or even Facebook. And for many of these folks, this will be the first time they’ve ever seen Twitter used for something important by other organisations that they trust.

Which, I think, will help them to trust Twitter. And through sheer curiosity in many cases, this will lead to them trying Twitter on for size. And many will end up sticking around.

Globally, many could add up to hundreds of millions of users. At least tens of millions in the U.S. alone. It won’t be overnight, but the media’s use of Twitter today (and for weeks to come, if this thing ends up being really close) will plant a seed. And that seed will grow.

And this, I’m predicting, will help break Twitter for good.

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