Changing Attitudes in 140 Characters or Less

March 30, 2009

Last month, I gushed about Tom Martin's Mardi Gras Twitter experiment as an innovative use of this ever-popular micro-blogging service. In that post, I focused primarily on the citizen journalism aspect of his efforts; after learning a little more about his goals and looking over the analysis of the event, I probably should have saved some kudos. Turns out Martin was ambitious enough to try and change perceptions about Mardi Gras—and it looks like he succeeded.

I, too, was skeptical. We all know Mardi Gras is just a hedonistic free-for-all, right? Well, my four years in the city taught me that it can be a family event, but trying to convince the outside world of that is about as easy as putting down other conspiracy theories. Given that Martin was limited to his iPhone (plus its relatively sub-par camera) and 140 characters per tweet, I had a hard time believing he'd be able to convince anyone to pack up the kids for next year's green, gold, and purple go-around.

After all was said and done, those who followed Martin's experiment (and participated in the pre- and post-event surveys) indicated their attitudes about the family-friendliness of Mardi Gras had, indeed, changed for the better. To be fair, I have to note that the results aren't exactly scientific proof; the sample size was too small for extrapolation. However, it is an interesting glance into the persuasive effects of a tool that some have dismissed as irrelevant or pithy.

But if everyone does it, will anyone listen?

That's a difficult question to answer, particularly in light of how quickly new online tools move in and out of favor with the digerati. Take, for example, what's happened with Twitter at SXSW, Austin's famous music/film/interactive festival. Two years ago, Twitter was the belle of the ball at SXSW; this year, it was probably even more popular, such that the heavy demands of attendees darn near took down AT&T's data network.

Indeed, Twitter's success over the last two years may have resulted in a massive hangover for those accustomed to having the service all to themselves. Conference attendees saw some inverse gains, and it could portend an ugly truth about Twitter—namely, it's growing in size a lot faster than it is maturity. Nobody has quite figured out how it should be best used, but everyone and their grandmothers are signing up.

That said, Martin's experiment seems all the more important, as he's one of the few who has dared to devise and measure a plan to derive value from his Twitter use. You have to start somewhere, as empirical evidence of Twitter's value is hard to come by, even if anecdotal evidence is prevalent. And since his results are encouraging, they will hopefully inspire others to similar efforts.

What about you? What's your attitude on this?