Twitter and the onslaught of social media in food and nutrition (my life in 140 characters or less!)



(September 25, 2012) I admit it. I tweet. I like Twitter. I like the fact that it is quick, brief (less than 140 characters), and it is a conduit to provide so much content on the internet. Twitter is agnostic. It works on web browsers, in third party applications on android and even in the walled garden that is Apple’s IOS. It is largely uncluttered of advertising and still not the playground of spammers, panhandlers and trolls. Yet.

I know you know this as you probably read it on Twitter. But I wanted to share with you my experiences with this tool so forgive the redundancies.

Since its start in July 2008, Twitter has grown to over 500 million users. Impressive growth but it is still largely lacking a business model. Unlike Facebook and other social media phenomena, Twitter retains its frontier feel. Its lack of guile makes it attractive to us but it makes it a target of the investors looking to turn it into another internet financial success measured in another highly promoted IPO. It is open platform that has third party applications for the desktop and for mobile devices with programs such as Tapbots, TweetDeck, Twitterific, etc. The website (www.twitter.com) is also widely used.

Anyone can open an account at no charge and you can invite followers without your approval or choose to approve each follower. Within its 140 character limit, you can provide shortened url links to websites. You can highlight words and create words for searching and trending topics. Using a hashtag # before a word enables the search facility to identify your tweet and others sharing the hashtag term. Hashtags before words and themes can be useful for trending topics. Examples include #hunger #sustainablediets #thousanddays #HungerSummit. Hashtags can be memes that have another short and startling life – attractive to communications, marketing and public relations people.

Twitter can also be used as instant messaging. You do not have to be registered to read tweets but a membership is needed if you want to tweet. You can tweet to everyone or you can have a discussion as you would with instant messaging to communicate with individuals or all followers. The latter communication has been the bane of a number of twitterers and shortened political careers with unintended (or intended) consequences.

There are different kinds of Twitter accounts and different twitterers. There are the successful celebrities’ tweets from people like Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga. There are the politicians, gurus, philosophers, grandmothers and more recently, internet bots (robots based on automated software applications). Bots or spambots are a new Twitter presence. There software bot scans the internet to collect content, sometimes nonsensical content. One example is @Horse_ebooks with around 100,000 followers and over 5,500 bot-generated meaningless tweets. Interestingly, many of the tweets like “Trout fishing sounds” make more sense than those generated by some humans.

Why me and why Twitter? Back in 2009, I wanted a better way to share new technical content with colleagues. I had an email distribution list of just under 1,000 recipients who requested to receive technical updates. Maintaining the email lists was time consuming and there was always the possibility that my emails are unwanted. With Twitter, recipients could come and go on their own terms and the tweet was searchable and retrievable something that many of the email applications were not especially good at.

I only tweeted content that was Open Access (i.e. non-payment for the article), with a url or link (using a url shortener like www.Tinyurl.com) and relevant to the food and nutrition community, especially the international one. One of my first principles was based on some simple math. If I look at 10 journals in one week and uncover 2 interesting articles, and they are accessible without a subscription, then sharing that link would be helpful. If I follow 10 people and they each review 10 journals or other interesting sources, that is up to 100 information sources in a week although some would be reviewing the same content. So the math of 10x10x10 resulted in a great number of potentially useful sources of content. That was then. After almost three years and building up the people to follow, the experiment has been mostly unsuccessful due to the limited number of other curators out there but that is changing.

I have several Twitter accounts but only one technical Twitter account. I have had my Twitter account, @CogillNutrition, since late 2009. I have tweeted over 1,200 times of which about 32% or 377 were retweeting other twitterers’ tweets. I follow relatively few people, just over 60. And I have around 400 followers. Tweeting is not a competition for followers although it can be for some. It has been an experiment over almost three years. It has been an experiment in curation. My Twitter account yields about 100 tweets a day (from the 60 or so people I follow) and I probably tweet once or twice a day, on average. I find it challenging to follow too many people. The flow of tweets can be overwhelming. And then there is the issue of usefulness. On this front, there are the general impressions of Twitter and then there are the numbers.

The new and exciting area of Twitter is the emerging area of metrics. Creative ways to measure your relevance, clout and generosity on Twitter. The number of followers is among the most basic. The number of followers equals social outreach. But the measure is subject to gaming or distortion. You can buy followers on e-bay and other sources. Twitter is not so concerned about fake followers but it is increasingly becoming an issue. Influence or clout is more important but it is difficult to assess.

I assessed my statistics from several angles with sites including www.twitteraudit.com and www.twitalyzer.com. There are many sites, some commercial but all able to take publically available data, crunch the numbers and score and rank you in terms of multiple dimensions. Go to the site and enter the Twitter account that you want to analyze and it does the crunching for you. My twitalyzer stats places me in a respectable 55th to 90th percentile on such measures as impact, engagement, influence, peerindex, generosity, velocity, signal, followers, retweet ratio and my personal favorite clout. I do better than most but not as good as some of the better Twitter accounts. One metric from www.tweetcloud.com collates the most common words in my tweets. Not surprisingly, words like food, security, global, article, policy, nutrition, hunger, Africa and development are most common. It isn’t Haiku but the 140 character restriction forces you to think concisely and creatively.

A number of websites are adding to the analysis tool pool. One site, www.fakers.statuspeople.com checks on how many fake followers one has. My Twitter account revealed that of my 400 followers, 9% were fake, 27% inactive and 64% were good. This result on fakery is better than many sites but it is telling to know that 9% were fake. People are already monetizing follower scores and clients sometimes use the count as an indicator of social outreach. Fake scores increase markedly for the celebrity accounts. Another faker checking site is www.twitteraudit.com that has slightly different but interesting metrics. Check your fellow twitterers follower counts. You may be surprised as to how much these numbers are prized.

So who are these people with the time to tweet? Based on my experience in the quasi-technical twittersphere, there are five types of twitterers (my categories of Touts, Mots and Bots):

The Touts
The Comms
The Delegators
The Bots
The Bons Mots

The Touts – are people like those young men found close to the privately-owned mini-busses in Kenya. They are creative in how they get passengers to cram into their conveyance. Their Twitter equivalent is cramming their own content into Twitter feeds while often rather shamelessly promoting the latest sound bite from their employers or bosses. There are several journalists and authors in this category often recycling content from past publications or creating a “buzz” for their latest NGO or donor-funded jaunt to some project or crisis in a low income country. Sometimes the Touts are also communications people doing their tweeting. The Touts are to be found in Foundations and other personality driven twitterers and are close to the Comms group.

The Comms – are the people who tweet and are from communications sections often tweeting things you already know. Slaves to rank, hashtags and recycled sound bites, the Comms people have replaced that annoying advertising with the loud voice with slogans and factoids that remind you that …breast is best, one in three children are stunted and so on. They pepper their 140 characters with as many hashtags to be picked up by the sifters and trenders. It is a numbers game to get the ranking of the feed above others. One Comms Twitter feed would have a link to the photo of the day. No label as to the photo but a link to the picture. The Comms feeds are easily identified by their lack of curation, timeliness and relevance. They usually lack a url or link other than back to the site of the command center — the website. It is about eyeballs and traffic. No examples here but you know who you are. Fortunately, to “unfollow” is as easy as to follow.

The Delegators – people whose assistant will get back to you. The organization or prominent person relies on assistants and communications teams to tweet on their behalf. Celebrities have always had assistants handling their communications. We are seeing this now in the technical, political and philanthropic world as well. President Obama has tweeted over 5,000 times to around 18 million followers. That is one busy president or many busy assistants. This group of twitterers are delegators. Love them and leave them. The Bots are the tweets generated by automatic software applications trawling the internet and designed to either amuse you (e.g. @Horse_ebooks) or engage you to follow them for commercial purposes or sell you something. Bots are still relatively new but pose a threat to the viability of the network much as spam did before the purpose of spam shifted from infecting computers to selling your questionable pharmaceuticals.

The Bons Mots are the great curators – people who identify new content and point you to more information. My people. In our field, they are a small but growing group across generations, disciplines and continents. They actually write their own tweets and it shows. People like Marion Nestle, Lawrence Haddad, Duncan Green, William Easterly and others are on top of the medium and with the link, get us somewhere. And not only to their own content. They can be controversial and even wrong. But they are in there tweeting away with ideas and suggestions. Unlike the touts described above, there are some people, notably journalists, who are willing to promote others work or issues as they emerge. Josh Rogin is one such journalist who has embraced the medium to share observations, news, the work of others and occasionally, his own work. Of course, the media likes to promote Twitter as the bleeding edge of social and political change — the means for governments to topple as in the Arab spring. But journalists like Josh Rogin and Christiane Amanpour are using Twitter in ways that reflect well on their profession without being too self-serving, a trait missing from some of their colleagues.

The trifecta of social media is the combination of a twitterer, blogger and pundit. Lawrence Haddad smoothly handles all of these functions while running a sizable research team in Sussex. He takes risks but also is willing to take a stand on issues which require debate. He uses Twitter to direct us, to entice us and to provoke us while being willing to invite comment and criticism on his blog entries. This was well illustrated in a recent entry in his tweet titled: @lhaddad #globaldev Is there a “Haddad” effect? Results from a randomised controlled trial http://bit.ly/PVCXSC
The tweet was expanded in his blog with the same name: http://www.developmenthorizons.com/2012/07/is-there-haddad-effect-results-from.html.
The blog and Twitter feed covered a study carried out at IDS and published in June 2012: “What difference does a policy brief make?” by Penelope Beynon and her colleagues (download at:http://www.scribd.com/doc/101346655/Full-Report-What-Difference-Does-a-Policy-Brief-Make ) Lawrence and his colleagues had published a policy brief on the nutritional considerations of agricultural interventions and the evaluators examined the communication and policy implications of the brief. It makes interesting reading and indeed, there is a Haddad effect that carries over into social media. This lesson is being learned by many other senior managers, communicators and thought leaders.

Authenticity is not something one immediately associates with the internet and Twitter. There is authenticity in many who tweet, however. They actually write their own tweets. They take risks and they curate. They do not use quotes or retweet the comments of the director or CEO (the Sycophants was going to be one of the categories). There are those who are sharing and developing the medium. There are the many individuals, companies and groups that tweet on issues of concern to them. Groups like @DSMnutrition, @Micronutrient @sightandlife and so do a good job of tweeting about issues and events on micronutrients. Let’s not forget the people who do the tweeting from the organizations. Typically a communications person, they are not always like the Comms group explained above. They try to capture key points at a presentation or reflect the latest output from their groups. I occasionally meet these people at an event where we share a hashtag and track the takeaways. Organizations with Twitter handles like @WBPubs, @FAONews, @IDS_UK, @Agrilinks, @Bioversityint, @CGDev and my favorite, @DFID_Research are excellent in their use of Twitter. They belong to the Bons Mots and let’s hope that many others can join them. And there are the many individuals who have embraced Twitter in innovative and significant ways. One good example is @ftissander.

The great thing about Twitter is that there are many others out there like us and many to come.

What is next for Twitter and those of us still searching for a curation function? The answer to this question is not exactly clear. It remains unclear because the Twitter platform is still evolving in new and exciting ways. Who would have thought that Twitter could be used to analyze sentiment around events and tweets. There are sentiment engines and applications that take a piece of text and analyzes the words and their combinations and determines if they are either expressing positive or negative sentiments. For example, choose a familiar topic and using an engine from www.sentiment140.com, the negative rating for (say) breastfeeding is 45%. You can examine the tweets that contribute to this relatively high score. While the decision as to why something is not considered positive, the instantaneous nature of the results coupled with the fact that it is crowd sourced makes these kinds of tools compelling.

The Twitter business model is still changing. While it has gained acceptability; for example, Bing and Google index the millions of Twitter feeds so that they are searchable, Twitter still remains a mystery for many. It is the place of public relations people and voyeurs.

As to my grand experiment, why has Twitter not been the curation goldmine I expected? Could I have done it differently? Are other social media better? It has been a great way to share open access content. I no longer accept papers to review for pay-for-view journals and am only reviewing papers for journals that will make the paper available without cost. I signed the White House petition requiring US federally funded research to be available as journal articles free of charge. I digress.

Twitter is exploding with data and connections that suggest new and exciting research possibilities. Crowd sourcing is something that is an application away. Trending topics point us in unexpected and revealing ways. Meetings can be the source of snippets of information or simply a reminder that the presentation can be viewed on uStream or a website. You can use minimal bandwidth to have a dialogue or question for an ongoing presentation. It can be a vital form of exchange in times of emergencies when other networks are clogged or inoperable. Unlike Facebook and Linkedin, Twitter does not require your profile to be out there and sold several times to support their business model.

The downside is like all forms of new media, it becomes debased or commercialized in such a way that innovation is throttled and monetization hides behind intellectual property laws to protect the cash flow from what could otherwise be a global public good. Communication teams think up creative hashtags and use Twitter to get traffic to websites and content by influencing all important Google rankings. Panhandlers, spammers and charlatans are emerging on the platform to give you a percentage of those funds sitting in a bank account somewhere.

There are alternatives to this form of social networking. Linkedin, Facebook, Google+ and Yammer are just some examples that many of us use regularly. But none of them have the utility of Twitter. I will continue to tweet and I continue to follow. Texting, SMS and short messaging is the norm. Who reads anymore? Who wants to talk? Can we concentrate on anything more than 90 seconds? Like everything else it is not just one thing. It is not Twitter to the exclusion of books, journals, and debate. It is a tool widely available and understood especially by people born after 1990! My comments are only a peek into an emerging world of social networks online. My sampling of technical tweets is very small but one that does date back to the start of Twitter in 2008. I have a lot to learn and discover. So join us if you have not done so already and deploy Twitter and twitter-like tools to help us to access, analyze, organize and share content. Curate, curate, curate…..

Picture of a whale held up by birds. When Twitter gets overloaded, users see the “Fail Whale” error message.
fail_whale
When Twitter gets overloaded, users see the “Fail Whale” error message.

So what does all of this mean for food and nutrition and knowledge management? Well we are in for a bumpy but exciting ride, notwithstanding the Fail Whale. Fasten that #seatbelt and see you on twitter.com.
Bruce Cogill is the program leader for Nutrition and Marketing of Diversity at the Rome headquarters of Bioversity International. He has an extensive experience in management, food and nutrition policy, research, programs and practice. He holds a Ph.D. and Master’s degrees from Cornell University in the U.S.A. where he studied International Nutrition and Agricultural Economics and an undergraduate degree from Australia in Food Science and Technology. He has consulted on food and nutrition for Universities, the UN, the World Bank and others. His experience includes appointments as the Chief of Nutrition at USAID Washington where he championed the nutrition effort for the Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative. He was coordinator for the IASC Global Nutrition Cluster at UNICEF where he coordinated over 37 NGOs, academic, UN and technical agencies in the food and nutrition preparedness and response to emergencies. In addition, he spearheaded the successful FANTA and A2Z projects and USAID’s efforts in research and programming for nutrition and food security, HIV, micronutrients and in the community management of severe and moderate acute malnutrition. He has contributed to strategy developments for large donors and served on technical committees and recently was on the Board of the Micronutrient Initiative, GAIN Alliance, and the Chair of the Steering Committee for the Health and Nutrition Tracking Service at WHO. He has lived and worked in several countries including Mozambique, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea. He has published extensively ranging from practical guides and reviews to articles in peer reviewed journals including one of the most popular guides on anthropometry. He has appeared on television news programs and in print as an authority on international nutrition.

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