business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

I have never really understood Twitter. I honestly can’t fathom who would care to hear my most banal thoughts spilled out in increments of 140 characters at a time. Now I think I was wrong.

We all have to consider what is happening in Iran and wonder what this means. Incredible as it may seem, web-based communication vehicles like Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and good-old web sites are fueling a revolution. There’s something extraordinary in the Tweets from Tehran, where the senders are constantly aware that their protests will likely result in a beating, arrest or even death.

While it’s impossible to imagine any group feeling that disenfranchised in the US, it has to make you consider what kind of power these websites could produce. On the positive side, Twitter and the like could become the ultimate connection to shoppers and associates; on the negative it could be used for organized retail theft, consumer protests and Lord knows what else.

Scoff for a second at that leap and then remind yourself of what’s happening Tehran. To quote my favorite line from Star Trek, “Things are only impossible until they’re not.”

As we try to understand the world of 140-character messages, let’s also understand its complexities. Noam Cohen wrote a brilliant piece in last Sunday’s New York Times on six lessons of Twitter from the Iranian barricades. Businesses need to learn from them all.

The six lessons include the inability of even a totalitarian regime to control discourse. It is a certainty that you will find objectionable material on Twitter or any social networking site, so determine what your policy would be to combat the activity. Obviously, censorship doesn’t work. Likewise, don’t downplay the medium because of the largely silly content in most messages. We now know that things can get much more serious.

Most importantly, Cohen’s article reminds us that Twitter is imperfect. It can include misleading or deceitful information. (In Iran, the ruling forces have tried to trip up the rebels with such messages and clearly have failed.) Businesses need a pro-active policy on social networking to build community in good times and to combat the wrong-headed messages that are sure to appear in times of trouble. Without the first, you cannot do the second.

And also heed Cohen’s advice that Twitter can be a power force for criticism and remember that criticism won’t always be targeted at a repressive regime. Sometimes business can feel the heat, granted in much calmer ways.

There were two clear reminders of this at last week’s CIES World Food Business Summit. (This was the same meeting where out of hundreds of participants only five said they were even infrequent users of Twitter.) First, the discussion of the environment was chilling. Supermarkets, like it or not, play a powerful role on topics like sustainable fishing and can demonstrate leadership by creating and communicating clear rules about the products they will sell. Shoppers can’t possibly demonstrate their concerns at every fishing vessel. Supermarkets are much easier to find.

Second, you cannot and should not ignore the palpable anger in Marion Nestle’s speech on nutrition and labels that she sees confusing the shopper. Anger fuels protest and as we are seeing, protest spreads easily these days.

The issues demand our attention and so does the method of communication. Ignore either at your own peril.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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