320 Pages On Twitter For 140 Characters

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Shel Israel looks nothing like the type of person you might think is on Twitter.

The 65-year-old spent years in the public relations profession in San Francisco getting journalists and the like hyped about tech products. When you’re on that side of the communications fence the individuals trying to promote brands are never the star – the product is. The Internet and the advent of social media have changed that. It has changed Israel, too. He now considers himself a writer, speaker and adviser on all things social media (he calls himself "a social media storyteller").

So, while many think that Twitter is all about how teenagers stay connected to Demi Lovato and Ashton Kutcher, it turns out that people from all walks of life (and all ages) are on Twitter.

Israel has over 17,000 people following his bite-size updates about his comings and goings. In essence, he has become "kind of a big deal" as the kids say. He’s also a huge proponent that Twitter is much more than self-interested 140-character bursts of blather. So much so that he has written a book called, Twitterville – How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods (Portfolio). It’s amazing how much the business world has changed, from brands taking the centre stage and companies speaking through that "one voice" (the brand), to many employees within a company now sharing every big moment of their lives and the happenings within their organizations on Twitter publicly.

What seemed like a silly little communications platform – a simple status update tool where any individual can answer the question, "what are you doing" with a maximum of 140 characters (the length of a mobile text message) – has become a cultural phenomenon and a new way to communicate in near-real-time. Twitter has morphed from a public instant messaging platform into a pipeline that connects you to anyone – or any business – you choose.

"This book isn’t a ‘how-to’ or ‘why-to’ about Twitter," Israel admitted on a recent stop to Montreal during a cross-Canada book tour. "I tried to pick stories that would endure. The book is about me speaking to a bunch of individuals in a bunch of different companies. That includes people in private and public companies as well as government and not-for-profit organizations. The hope is that people will pick up the book and get an idea of what they can do with Twitter for their business based on what others have done. … Twitter as a new way to communicate shows us that things are changing faster and faster in our world."

Part of the reason has to do with both its ease of use, coupled with the fact that that the platform works just as fast (and easily) on mobile as it does on the Internet.

It has had record growth as well. According to Nielsen Online, Twitter grew 1,382 per cent in a year since February 2008. In February 2009, Twitter had more than 7 million unique visitors (and that’s just in the U.S.). At certain points in the year, Twitter was growing by more than 50 per cent month-over-month. While the company still struggles to define a solid revenue model, there is no denying that it has become an integral lifeline to the world, and a place where the news is now breaking first.

"There’s something happening and none of us knows what it is. Not even Mr. Jones," says Israel alluding to Bob Dylan‘s society-altering music. "We’re in a wormhole and we’re trying to make sense of where it’s going. I think social media is fundamentally disrupting every institution in the world. Twitter is special because it allows us to behave online more like we do in everyday life – more than anything like it that came before," said Israel, who has been down the road of abrupt change before. In 2006, he co-wrote the book Naked Conversations – How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers (Wiley).

Because of this wormhole, there are now lots of books about Twitter. Last check, Amazon had over 15 titles. What does it say about the power of Twitter when business books with hundreds of thousands of words are being published in traditional media to try and make heads or tails of a communication platform that is changing our world 140 characters at a time in real time?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post the article here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

Montreal Gazette – Twitter is the future, says man who foresaw blog power.

Vancouver Sun – Twitter is changing the business world.


  1. I don’t mind that there are 15 titles on Twitter currently. I think it will take some interpretation from several different perspectives before we peg what Twitter really is and how we are really using it. Of course, wait five minutes and how we are using it shifts yet again.
    Love your podcast.

  2. I have bought the new book of Shel Israel but i have not started reading it. I have to buy it because there were just 1 copy left at that time. I am very curious what Twitter can do for our business.
    Right now, i am still busy reading Mitch’s book “Six Pixels of Separation.” Your book is really an eye opener for a greenhorn like me of the digital world.

  3. Mitch – the thing that always strikes me about Twitter is the multitude of ways you can use it to connect to people with like interests. More importantly, these tools are only the beginning, and it’s great to see people like Shel embrace them.

  4. As a new Twitter user this expands my mind beyond 140 characters. Shel’s book will jump to #2 on my “to read” list after I finish Six Pixels. Thanks for the tweet this feature. Makes it easy to get out to our Purple Cow followers!

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