October 2, 2013 8:40 pm

Twitter’s got the whole world in its hands

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As the social media company prepares for its initial public offering, FT reporters examine how different demographics use Twitter and what cultural impact the 140-character messages have had around the world.

Middle East: Useful tool to keep conversation going among political activists

Be wary of the hype. Twitter did not topple longstanding dictatorships in the Middle East and north Africa. Thousands of people risking their lives to head into the streets did, write Borzou Daragahi in Cairo and Najmeh Bozorghmehr in Tehran.

Yet among activists in the region, Twitter continues to play an important role in keeping the conversation going, serving as a virtual town hall where they can fine-tune tactics, test ideas and call for street action. “Twitter provides you a way to disseminate information,” says Mahmoud Salem, an Egyptian writer and journalist known as @Sandmonkey on Twitter, with more than 130,000 followers.

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During the weeks of unrest that led to the ousting of regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya in 2011 and during the 2009 uprising following tainted presidential elections in Iran, activists harnessed Twitter to organise protests and disseminate news about clashes and deaths.

Since then, Twitter has helped shape public opinion and policy as its use has expanded beyond a circle of tech-savvy college graduates with laptops, to anyone with a cheap smartphone. “Until early 2012 Twitter was still within the elite realm of people who were more upwardly mobile and people who had time to tweet,” says Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, or @SultanAlQassemi, a United Arab Emirates national considered a Middle East star on social media with more than 250,000 followers on Twitter. “It’s very different now.”

Even some government officials have turned to the social media platform. In recent months, Iran’s leaders have used their Twitter accounts to communicate with a global audience, as when the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s account – not officially verified but the only one thought to have his blessing – on Tuesday answered a question posed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey about free speech.

“Evening, @Jack. As I told @camanpour, my efforts geared 2 ensure my ppl’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right,” Mr Rouhani’s account tweeted.

Such tweets are now one of the best indicators of any change in Iran’s policies, as when the account earlier sent a message wishing Jews a happy Rosh Hashana, in a tangible departure from his firebrand predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who repeatedly questioned the Holocaust. “Governments have woken up to this and started entering social media,” says Mr Qassemi.

But critics warn Twitter in politics can also play a dangerous role. Virtual groundswells of support for a cause or even a political uprising can be quickly crushed once authorities violently crackdown or simply turn off the internet, as Muammer Gaddafi did in Libya in 2011.

Despite Mr Rouhani’s electoral victory in June on a platform of greater social freedoms, many Iranians have woken up to the sobering reality that hardliners in the regime are not going to easily free up the internet. Even as Mr Rouhani tweets, Iranians face a daily challenge to update anti-filtering software in order to bypass state-imposed cyber-censorship to access Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter and other social media websites can also create a false sense of political engagement, as Iran’s Green movement discovered in February 2010, when the Twitterati set expectations for a key protest march far beyond what those in the street were willing to risk. Arab world political activists are also starting to discover the limits of Twitter and other social media as tools for mobilising people, as better organised, better financed men with guns or Korans inherit revolutions they launched.

Indonesia: Groups pay ‘buzzers’ to tweet on products to their followers

Whether they are stuck in a mind-numbing traffic jam, waiting for a bus or queueing at the bank, the first impulse for millions of Indonesians is to reach for their smartphone and check out Twitter, writes Ben Bland in Jakarta.

The woeful infrastructure in southeast Asia’s biggest economy is a pain for commuters in the clogged-up major cities. But it is a boon for people such as Atika Nurkoestanti, who make a living as “buzzers”, paid by companies to generate buzz about their products by tweeting about them to their followers.

“When I first started out on social media in 2005, I never thought I could make money from it,” says the 31-year-old mother over tea at a Starbucks café in the Pondok Indah mall in Jakarta. Now she spends at least three hours a day promoting products – from fresh chicken to cars – to her more than 12,000 Twitter followers.

Buzzers are typically paid about Rp250,000 ($22) per tweet and some, like Ms Nurkoestanti, have become social media consultants as well, managing a team of buzzers beneath them.

It is just one of the many innovative ways in which Twitter has taken off in Indonesia, which is number five in the countries with the most Twitter accounts in the world, and Jakarta was the city that produced the most tweets in June last year, according to Semiocast, a market research group.

Most Indonesians used Twitter for chatting with their friends, working out where to meet up and having discussions

- Budi Putra, head of digital business of the Jakarta Post

Budi Putra, a former Yahoo executive who runs the digital business of the Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s leading English language daily newspaper, says Twitter has taken hold in Indonesia because of the high smartphone penetration in urban areas, relatively cheap mobile data plans and the social nature of the society:. “Unlike in some other countries, where people use Twitter to update their status, most Indonesians used Twitter for chatting with their friends, working out where to meet up and having discussions.”

Mr Putra says Twitter is particularly fortunate in Indonesia because people are generally receptive to corporate advertising – management consultancy Boston Consulting Group has contrasted Indonesia’s “sweet and innocent” middle class with its more sceptical peers in China and India.

Twitters users may be less turned off by promoted corporate tweets, but the same cannot be said of political advertisements from candidates who have become more active on Twitter ahead of next year’s elections, when Indonesia gets a new president for the first time in a decade. All the main political parties and candidates there use fake accounts, or “bots”, to make them appear more popular than they really are, says Yose Rizal, who co-founded one of Indonesia’s first social media monitoring agencies.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s president, has attracted 3.5m followers since he belatedly joined Twitter in April, making him one of the world’s most followed leaders. But his cautious tweets have done little to boost the sagging popularity of his corruption-hit Democrat party. By contrast, popular emerging leaders such as Joko Widodo, Jakarta governor, and Ridwan Kamil, mayor of Bandung, have used Twitter and other social media to win elections against the odds.

Black America: Important forum for discussing broad issues around race in US

Like most early Twitter users, many young black Americans initially took to microblogging to follow celebrities or send short, quick messages to friends on their phones, but the site has since grown to become an important forum to discuss broad issues around race in America, writes April Dembosky in San Francisco.

Black people constitute 12 per cent of the US population but make up 26 per cent of Twitter users in the US, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Centre.

Twitter’s black Americans erupted in protest in July when a juror from the Trayvon Martin murder trial was awarded a book contract within a day of issuing a not-guilty verdict for neighbourhood watch member George Zimmerman. They bombarded her agent’s account and wrote complaints about how the juror was standing to profit from the death of a young black man at the hands of a neighbour. Within 24 hours, the book contract had disappeared, and while it is impossible to identify a direct cause, Twitter crusaders declared victory.

There was a similar outcry on Twitter when Paula Deen, a southern cooking show host, was accused of using racist slurs. Criticism both online and off led to a public apology from Ms Deen and the cancellation of her television show on the Food Network. “It was a positive way to stage an uprising,” says Stephanie Jackson, a student activity co-ordinator at New York University, who followed the controversy on Twitter. “We’re laughing at it, but at the same time we’re saying ‘Can you believe how absurd this is?’ It’s showing the absurdity of racism in America in a way that is non-threatening to people.”

With an outlet like Twitter, [Black Americans] are able to have a voice, to express their opinions and be heard by a broader population

- Detavio Samuels, president of Detroit office of GlobalHue

Black Americans took to Twitter early and fast, for a variety of technological, cultural, and historical reasons. Mobile phone technology played a huge role. Smartphone adoption was relatively high among black Americans, and with mobile operators offering separate texting and data plans, Twitter became a way to send short, quick messages to friends without incurring texting charges.

The style of public dialogue on Twitter, says Omar Wasow, a politics professor at Princeton University and co-founder of Black Planet, a social network, also closely mirrors behaviour in traditional black gatherings.

At black churches, call and response between a pastor and the congregation is the norm. In film theatres, shouting back at the screen is common. “This informs how African Americans use Twitter, which is to have this engaged public conversation where you partly are talking to your friend network, but also talking to the broader black community,” he says.

Juanita Davis agrees. The 32-year-old PR and events manager inevitably sees the value of using Twitter in her work, but restricts her personal Twitter account, which has a modest 243 followers, to discussing TV, couponing, fashion, and nail polish.

Detavio Samuels, president of the Detroit office of GlobalHue, an advertising agency that emphasises its expertise in culturally-focused campaigns, says black Americans are “a population that has in the past been very disenfranchised, pushed to the background”. He adds: “With an outlet like Twitter, now they’re able to have a voice, to express their opinions and be heard by a broader population”. Mr Samuels believes that its popularity among African Americans creates commercial opportunities. But he says the site’s lack of demographic targeting capabilities limits the possibilities, and marketers, for the most, are still figuring out the basics of Twitter advertising. Even Walmart, which said last year that 100 per cent of its revenue growth would come from ethnic minorities, is a beginner. “Brands are still trying to get general before they get specific and niche.”

Japan: Youth embrace microblogging and their place in the world

How much can be said in 140 characters? Quite a lot more, if a tweet is in Japanese rather than Latin-based languages such as English, writes Jennifer Thompson in Tokyo.

Young Japanese have been voluminous tweeters, helping to create a new Twitter record of 143,199 tweets a second last month – more than 20 times the average – when they flocked to the social network to discuss a TV rerun of the classic 1986 animé film Castle in the Sky.

Yet when Twitter launched in Japanese in 2008, it was not immediately clear that microblogging would catch on. Despite Japan’s many internet users and its citizens’ willingness to embrace new technology, there were a number of cultural barriers.

Japanese looking for news tended to turn to traditional print media and websites first, in contrast to countries such as China where independent bloggers are regarded as more trustworthy than official outlets. The emphasis on discretion in traditional Japanese culture also made many sceptical about the automatically public nature of tweets. “It has a lot to do with cultural norms like privacy,” says Brett Petersen, director of stream intelligence at Global Web Index. “Japan has always been one of the outliers in the region.”

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Twitter also had to contend with well-established local rivals such as Mixi, a social network founded in 2004. But since then, Japan has become one of the biggest international markets for Twitter in terms of users, according to research consultancy Semiocast. About 36.4 per cent of internet users in Japan now use Twitter, compared with 28.4 per cent for Mixi, according to Goo, a Japanese research group.

A particular turning point for Twitter in Japan was the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, when the microblogging site became a focal point for messages about what was happening in affected areas. Those events also prompted the Japanese government to begin using it.

Twitter’s global reach is also seen as a big reason for its popularity. “Twitter seems to have the pulse when it comes to what’s happening in the moment,” says Debra Aho Williamson, a social media marketing analyst at eMarketer, a US research group. “The appeal of a global social network seems to outweigh the appeal of a social network only in the country you live in.” Takuya Kawaguchi, a 26-year-old investor who has been tweeting since 2010, says he started using Twitter “to become a follower of my favourite musician . . . I like it because I can tweet anything I think of now or I want to tell people”.

His comments highlight how a younger generation in Japan increasingly value self-expression like their global peers. “They like the medium of expressing themselves perhaps more than their elders did,” says Ms Williamson.

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