Here’s more proof of my theory that Twitter is a fishmarket.
The background: It’s election time, again. Presidential elections, to be more precise. As part of their election coverage, the Straits Times put out a public call for questions that people wanted to ask the four Presidential candidates at a roundtable discussion they were hosting. The call went out for three days, and members of the public were invited to send in their questions via various online channels – Facebook, Twitter, email, their website.
On Twitter, the call went thus: Ask your question, and tag it with #AskSGPresident.
And so it ran. Fast forward, three days later. The collected questions were cherrypicked and put up for public voting to select the five questions that eventually made it to the roundtable.
From among the 500 questions collected, ST editors came up with a shortlist of 15 questions. Vote for your favourite between now and midnight on Monday. We will pose the top five questions to the presidential hopefuls tomorrow.
Of the fifteen final questions selected, only three came from Twitter. (If the above link breaks – I believe ST only archives their stories online for a week – you can look at the screengrab here.)
Little wonder, when the #AskSGPresident tagstream pretty much looked like this:
Nonsense. Tons and tons of nonsense, posted with apaprently wanton glee. Clearly, the majority of the Twittersphere did not take the poll seriously. Instead, they decided to have fun with it. Which is alright for Twitter, because it is a fun place. Serious stuff sometimes happens over Twitter, but the bulk of it is #replacesongnameswithpants.
But then this tweet from the Straits Times’ social media editor made me reconsider my assessment:
Perhaps they really expected to get an influx of well-thought, insightful questions from the Twitterhorde. Which is really like expecting people not to jaywalk or drive above the speed limit when nobody’s watching.
So what are the takeaway lessons we can learn from this?
Do not expect to control what people say on Twitter. Even if you a running a moderated hashtag chat, the conversation will fork and threads will veer widely away from you. I’ve seen it happen in the few global hashtag chats I dabble in (things like #ufchat and #steampunkchat, which take place at a fixed GMT every week). Twitter is a pretty casual place, and just like in real life, people can say whatever they want.
Know your audience. If you are reaching out to a dedicated clientele to ask for suggestions to improve their customer experience, for example, chances are that you may get a decent signal-to-noise ratio. Recent examples include @BenJerrys_SG crowdsourcing a name for a new ice cream flavour over Twitter. But in the case of #AskSGPresident, the @stcom team were reaching out to a politically jaded demographic in a sphere heavily influenced by known satirists like @mrbrown and @miyagi. It’s not surprising that the result turned out like it did.
Have a backup plan. Don’t just rely on Twitter – have other channels for feedback such as Facebook and email which either require a bit more effort and accountability on the part of the users, or at least have a greater culture of providing useful feedback about them. You’re more likely to get higher-quality submissions from these channels.
Incentivize, incentivize, incentivize. Run a contest. Dangle carrots. People are more likely to give you reasonable answers if they think there’s something in it for them. Like @BenJerrys_SG, which awarded a hamper prize to the user who suggested the winning ice cream flavour name. Obviously, this isn’t a solution that works for every situation. So if running a contest is not an option, just be aware that there’s nothing stopping people from flinging virtual poop at you.
And that’s my take on it. What about you guys? Did you follow the #AskSGPresident tag as well? What did you think of it?