Is Twitter getting too much attention?

Back when I joined Twitter – in the summer of 2008, although in Twitter years that’s almost a lifetime ago – few people had heard of it. These days its impossible to turn on the BBC without some mention of it; in fact, is there too much promotion of the microblogging service on the BBC?

After all, the BBC isn’t supposed to advertise anything (except its own services and a few public service subjects such as digital TV.) So how come almost every channel of the BBC seems to be relentlessly promoting a single online service these days?

The effect of the exposure generated by Jonathan Ross’ and Stephen Fry’s chat show conversation about Twitter is well known; several people have commented how, in the wake of that programme, Twitter now seems to be more of a British service than an American one such is the explosion of interest.

Even before the Ross/Fry interview there had been extensive news coverage of Twitter following the Hudson River plane crash where the BBC News interviewed the Twitter user who had posted the first reports and photo of the crash before the news networks could even locate the crash site with their cameras; and the broadcast even finished off with an “and finally” piece on Twitter itself. Even before this, Twitter had become a staple of BBC (and other) programmes on technology such as Digital Planet, Radio 5’s Pods and Blogs and the Guardian’s Tech Talk.

But recently Twitter’s broken out of the tech ghetto and flooded the BBC far wider than just the celeb geeks like Ross/Fry. Richard Bacon – who hosts the late night phone-in show on BBC Radio 5 Live – is a particular evangelist of the service and encourages messages through that medium through most of his shows. And now Simon Mayo has jumped on it as well, with his latest film review podcast with Dr Mark Kermode referring repeatedly to Twitter on a number of occasions. (Kermode, bless him, remains a bewildered sceptic unable to figure out how it all works.) There was even a mention of “twittering” on the BBC’s flagship radio comedy programme, The News Quiz, on Friday night.

As far as I know, Twitter did not feature in last night’s BAFTA coverage – at least, not explicitly. But Jonathan Ross had promised on Twitter to work in a word chosen by his followers into the broadcast, and by pure chance I happened to catch the moment when he did: the audience was bemused by his reference to “salad” when introducing the Best Costume category (“In my view, actors are in many ways like salad – they are nothing without great dressing”) but you could almost hear the virtual sequels of delight online.

So does it matter that the BBC is promoting Twitter on multiple TV and radio channels? After all, the BBC (as well as The Guardian, The Telegraph and many other media companies) produces literally hundreds of podcasts a week – and isn’t “podcasts” also promoting a commercial service, in that the name stems directly from Apple’s iPod? The iPod itself is rarely mentioned by name and the more generic “MP3 player” is used instead, so why not call podcasts “MP3 broadcasts” and avoid the advertising plug? Or how about the growing use of “Google” as a generic term for carrying out an internet search? Well, in both these cases case the media channels are just reflecting the reality, that “to podcast” and “to Google” are becoming embedded in everyday language, in the same way that “Hoover” still means a vacuum cleaner even in these days of Dyson.

In fact, trying to substitute generic terms for a commercial product can result in confusion. I remember as a kid watching Blue Peter on BBC1, and getting very confused about this “sticky back plastic” that they would go on about. Where could you find such a thing? I’m sure that one reason (or excuse) for not doing any of Blue Peter’s craft projects was because I didn’t have any “sticky back plastic” and didn’t know where to get any from and didn’t want to look stupid by asking. (I was only 5 at the time, after all; not that I’ve got a heck of a lot brighter since, but still.) Now, if they had said Sellotape – welll, I had drawers full of the stuff. But that wasn’t what they said, so it couldn’t be the thing to use, could it?

So you could use “microblogging service” instead of “Twitter” but how clunky is that? Not to mention that the BBC is using it as a cut-down version of email communication rather than a short blog, so “microblog” is actually inaccurate. No, the delight of Twitter is in many ways the name its chosen for itself, which captures brilliantly a light, playful, ephemeral nature that a generic term utterly fails to duplicate.

But why is the BBC – or any other media channel – giving so much free publicity to what is, after all, a single online service? It’s not like email where you can get the service from any one of thousands of vendors; it’s one specific site, one specific service. So to keep encouraging and promoting its use and uptake does seem like a strange thing for the BBC to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining – it’s nice to have Twitter being a success. Although at the same time, I already miss the days when it was just an in-secret among the more geeky online crowd where you felt you were eavesdropping on a niche club, rather than getting deafened by the roar on the mainstreet.

  1. FYI Pods & Blogs started twittering back in 2007 (not following Ross etc as you suggest)

    I’m not certain, but we may have been one of the first bits of the BBC to do so.

  2. andrewlewin

    Interesting, I didn’t know the Radio 5 coverage of Twitter went that far back – I’m a relatively new subscriber to that Pod and Blogs podcast. But I did know that their coverage (and Digital Planet, and Tech Talk) predated the Jonathan Ross show – I even blogged about the coverage of Twitter on Digital Planet during the Mumbai attacks – and it’s just clumsy writing on my part that’s given the incorrect impression.

    I’ll amend “From there, Twitter became a staple of …” to “Even before this, Twitter had become a staple of …” in the article. Thanks for pointing out the error!

  3. Four years on and the BBC still hasn’t learned the difference between mentioning a commercial service and driving some of us licence payers up the bloody wall with it!

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