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April 17, 2013 7:16 PM

The Perfect Tweet

When is the right time to tweet?

I have a very special place in my heart for the city of Boston. One of my best childhood memories is when my parents would pack up my three brothers and I, throw us in the back trunk of our pale blue station wagon (wood paneling too, I think!) for the five-hour drive from Montreal to Boston, to visit our cousins there. The road trip seemed to last forever, and the four of us would tumble around in the trunk like a bunch of apples that got loose from the grocery shopping bag (imagine that... no seatbelts!). Thinking back, it felt like the trip took so long because of the anticipation of what was to come: spending time with our cousins, roaming shopping malls, going to the beach and the amusement parks... you know, being kids. Those road trips, sadly, stopped as we got older, but Boston came back into my life. The person who I was with at the time, got into Harvard University just as our relationship was getting serious. So, nearly every weekend, I would leave work a little bit early and drive to Boston to spend time with her. I would drive back at some point on Sunday. Driving from Montreal to Boston became like my daily commute to work and I fell in love with the city (all over again). That girl became my wife. Over the years, I've been to Boston countless times for speaking events and get-togethers. To this day, one of the most pivotal events in my digital life was taking part in the first-ever PodCamp (which was held in Boston). The people I met there are, to this day, some of my closest and most trusted friends. Not the kind of friends you collect on Facebook, but the kind that you can't wait to see in their protein forms.

Shocked.

It was late at night and I was just crawling into bed in Cannes. I was over in Europe speaking at a corporate event for Cisco and the jet-lag was kicking in. I turned on CNN right before shut-eye and could not believe that two bombs had gone off at the Boston Marathon. My original plan was to play around on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and my blog. I was going to share some of the information that I had been collecting over the past few days. Because of all the travel, I felt like I was slacking (just a little bit). My Twitter stream and Facebook newsfeed was filled - literally - with only two types of tweets:

  1. Those sending positive wishes and thoughts to everyone in Boston (I sent a few of those myself).
  2. Those telling everyone else to please shut-off, mute or turn down all of the typical self-promotional tweets (both to brands and individuals).

It's number two that got to me.

Had I not turned on CNN late at night in France or looked first to the Twitter stream of Facebook feeds, I could have easily been an insensitive wonk. So, instead of tweeting anything, I just closed the lid of my MacBook Air and continued to watch CNN. When I woke up the next morning, it was still night time in North America. CNN (and the other news outlets) were regurgitating the same news. There was nothing new to report and - as with 24 hour news cycles - they were scouring the bottom of the barrels to speak to anyone who might have an opinion (no matter how misguided) on the subject. At this point, I turned to Fast Company and began reading a fascinating article on innovation. I was about to tweet it out and all I could say to myself is, "too soon?" I didn't know. I wasn't sure what the answer was.

What is the right protocol?

Yesterday, Steve Crescenzo wrote an op-ed piece for Ragan Communications titled, Guy Kawasaki is too 'popular' to stop autotweets during Boston bombings. In short the blog post chastises Kawasaki for not turning off his auto-tweets. Crescenzo blogs: "While the news about the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon was just being broken, and for several hours afterwards, most companies shut down their promotional efforts on Twitter and other social media. Most people and organizations rightly came to the conclusion that to continue to hawk their wares while a national tragedy was unfolding (and people were using Twitter to get and exchange news) was a little insensitive, to say the least." Adding fuel to this Twitter controversy, Kawasaki (who has over 1.2 million followers) tweeted: "Loving how people with less than 1,500 followers are telling me how to tweet..." There's no doubt that going silent after offering up a thought of hope to the people in Boston is the simple and easy thing to do. But, when is it ok to start back up? It's a touchy subject because of how sensitive the issue is, but was Guy Kawasaki really doing anything all that wrong? Individuals who are duly insulted can simply unfollow him. Individuals who are saddened by the event but want to take their mind off of it may have found solace and comfort in following some of Guy's links (that were clearly not being created at the time of the tragedy). Was Kawasaki really doing anything wrong (perhaps, with the exception, of that tweet about how to use Twitter)?

Here's what I saw...

When I opened my window to let some cool Cannes fresh air into my room after hearing about the bombings, people were still laughing, drinking, celebrating and chatting down by the pool. The other TV channels were showing movies, comedies, dramas and more. People were still engaged in social conversation and connectivity. Yes, we were rattled and we were thinking about it, but life went on... and it seemed to go on fairly quickly.

This isn't about Crescenzo and it isn't about Kawasaki. It's about how Twitter has become mass media.

Kawasaki has a large following and this makes him a target. Brands are the same. Everybody is watching in a moment like this to see who gets it "right" and who is "messing it up." I am not defending Kawasaki, but simply pointing out that when I read Crescendo's blog post, I hopped over to CNN and saw that dozens of people were killed and over 850 people were injured in an earthquake in Iran, at least 35 people dead in an earthquake in Pakistan, a teenager kills herself after alleged rape and bullying, a bomb in Bangalore injures at least 16 and many more global tragedies (think about Somalia, children dying because they don't have a simple mosquito net in Africa, child slavery and the sex trade in the Philippines... and much more). Isn't that blog post criticizing others just a little bit insensitive considering how many more people have died because of a tragedy at that, exact, moment in time? Shouldn't all of our attention and tweets be directed at that and how to help humanity instead of being hurtful to our fellow human beings? Of course, Crescenzo did nothing wrong (and, for the record, he's someone I have longed admired and I'm merely using his blog post as an example to tell a story). This is what it feels like: we are now treating individuals like brands and brands like individuals because of social media. The only difference is this: we're treating social media like mass media, and that's the truly depressing component. See, if Guy wants to tweet (or auto-tweet), the beauty of social media is this: I can choose to ignore, unfollow and never see brands and/or individuals (or their wares) in my feed. If someone retweets these entities, I can unfollow them too. I can keep my social media... social... and personal. I do not have to follow or engage with anyone that goes against my values. What I do hate is the fact that I wanted to share that Fast Company article on innovation, but I didn't because I was worried what others might think. "Did Mitch just share a link after NOT saying something about Boston? How insensitive!" or it could have been, "Mitch, thanks for sharing that article, I needed something interesting to keep my mind off of the tragedies in Boston!"  Still, I'm not sure when is the right time to tweet or when I am offending someone. The truth is this: the fact that I have to worry about offending others and being the subject of an "so and so simply doesn't get it" type of piece makes me want to delete all of my social media accounts. I'm human. I have emotions. I want to share. I'm not trying to be a jerk. I'm not trying to be insensitive. I'm also not trying to capitalize on a tragedy for my own financial gain. If you follow those rules... and follow your heart when it comes to what feels right to you - as an individual or a brand - isn't that the best social media strategy? Otherwise, aren't we just turning Twitter and Facebook and everything else into this strange, homogenous and sanitized mass media channel that we all revolted against in the first place?

What do you think?

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