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What are you doing?

Wars have always been waged on all sorts of fronts. They have also, of course, always been about words: who asserts what; what different people mean when they say, “That’s mine.” The internet has vastly increased the ways in which people can have these arguments, and how directly they can have them, but even so it is huge step up to hold, as the Israeli consulate in New York did last week, a public, government-backed “citizens’ conference” on the social site Twitter – and then to keep replying to comments from all over the globe. It has proved massively popular: the consulate’s Twitter site (twitter.com/israelconsulate) yesterday afternoon had 3,739 followers, and at one point was posting a new comment, or answer to a comment, nearly every second.

What-are-You-doing-1

You can see why it has caught on. Twitter allows notes of only 140 characters, so everything is admirably short and to the point. No space here for waffle; just a surgical strike. Many of the notes on the Israeli consulate site are quick links to other sites: videos from the BBC, pieces in the Wall Street Journal, clips on YouTube (the Israeli Defence Force has also, during the current invasion, become the first national army to broadcast an offensive directly to interested users of the web, in real time). But a lot of it is also direct answers to direct questions, squashed into text-speak to fit the space available. “We R pro nego … we talk only w/ ppl who accept R rt 2 live”, for example. Or “Isr. Left Gaza in 2005 to send message of peace. Ans. More rockets.” Or “if hamas‘s goal were 2 btr the lives of its cit. They wouldn’t target IL. they would invest in edu/hlth not in bombs.”

The consulate is, in effect, firefighting. The answers come from its PR office (no doubt somewhat harried, given the number of questions it has had to answer), and from its chief PR officer David Saranga, who has described his job as justifying the Israeli strikes, and making sure that there is detailed official information available to counteract the swirls of allegation and counter-allegation available elsewhere on the web. Israeli military spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovich has been even clearer. “The blogosphere and new media are another war zone and we have to be relevant there.”

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Twitter is only two years old, and, in essence, very simple: like the status update function in Facebook, it asks “What are you doing?”, and then gives you a very small space in which to answer. And that’s all it does: no faffing about with profiles, photos, poking or sheep. Just what you’re doing this minute, which immediately appears on your page, and on the pages of people who have signed up to track you. Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, has compared it to “flocks of birds, the way they are able to move around an object in flight. It looks so choreographed, it looks like it’s planned out ahead of time but it’s not, it’s just rudimentary, simple communication among individuals. It’s just feedback that produces beautifully elegant, choreographed real-time movement.”

It’s a gift to celebrities, of course, for whom the size of their publicity footprint depends on how much the public know about their everyday doings – and, by extension, a recipe for unrelieved banality. John Cleese recently told the world that, as far as he was concerned, it was a big “yes to Marmite. But an even bigger yes to mustard, particularly German mustard, of which I possess an epicureal collection.” Last week, former rugby player Will Carling announced he was making a cup of tea to welcome in the new year. A year ago Scott Karp, formerly director of digital strategy at the Atlantic magazine, now CEO of Publish2, Inc, a web-based newswire, wrote a heartfelt blog on his website about why he stopped using Twitter – “Twitter is a massive waste of time … Twitter has turned distraction into an art form” – which, predictably, triggered a tsunami of comment from Twitterers everywhere. His answering update was reasonable, but firm: “Twitter may be the first step on an evolutionary path to something indispensable, but for me, it’s just not there yet.”

That was in December 2007. By the time terrorists struck Mumbai in November Twitterers were, at times, uploading information faster than the TV networks and newspaper websites. Not all of it was true – but some of it usefully gainsaid official errors, noting, for example, that shooting had not ceased even though Indian reporters were saying it had. Vivid eyewitness reports appeared in real time: “at home so no idea wats happening in colaba side 4:55PM but v did hear some loud noise a few mins bk 4:57PM ok v just heard a few nore [sic] loud thuds. 5:02 PM I have just heard 2 more loud blasts around my house in colaba … 5:09PM.”

Has everything changed? Has Twittered come of age? The answer, as so often, is both yes and no. Certainly experts predict that, having begun as something used by the techno-literate, it will have become much more a part of our multimedia consciousness by this time next year. Whether the average person in the street will be using it is another question. “I think if you look at the majority of people using it, there’s an extremely high if not direct overlap with people who is a blog,” says Karp, meaning the self-selecting group of people who like to broadcast their thoughts to the public, as opposed to simply share updates with friends on Facebook. “It’s used very much the way blogging is used, but as a short quick lowest-threshold was to say something or share something. It’s like public instant messaging.”

He thinks the Israeli consulate’s use of it was basically “an interesting way to hold a press conference with a bunch of media types”, while at the same time giving the valuable impression of transparency and immediacy – and relevance, to people who might think, “OK, the Israeli consulate is using Twitter – therefore they must be pretty smart and hip about communication. It brings a certain credibility.” As for your average concerned citizen, “I’m sure there were some people from the public in there but I would guess a much smaller group.”

But others are concerned that their Twitter experiment is also something of an own goal. Dropping in on Twitter, says Chris Lake, editor-in-chief of econsultancy, a leading internet marketing research group, is a great way to keep your ear to the ground, to find out what people are talking about; anyone in the public domain, whether company or celebrity or government, would do well to monitor their reputation in that way. (Neither Karp nor Lake is very convinced by its usefulness in breaking news, however: “It’s not really a news source, just an echo chamber,” says Lake. “If you follow the right people in any given area you’ll hear news very early on. Occasionally people are breaking news, but not often.”) But using its capacity for two-way conversations, as Israel has done, is quite another thing. “You have to wonder whether Twitter, with its 140 character limit, is the right forum,” says Lake. “I just think it’s crass to abbreviate in that manner, writing in text-speak like some 15-year-old going out on a Friday night. It seems a little crass given the graveness of the situation.”

He thinks it’s a great sign that they’re listening to people’s questions – “but maybe they should have given the answers via their website or a blog, or YouTube”, where slightly more length, and therefore more subtlety, are possible. Or, as one respondent to the consulate’s efforts put it, on the consulate’s website: “Israel’s PR is terrible. While this is a good step in the right direction, it is not enough to illuminate your message. Your Sec of State, her name escapes me, is a passionate defender of Israel’s action in Gaza. I recommend that she hit the road as they say and get her a.s in front of the cameras.”

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