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Twitter's growing mainstream popularity is a hot topic. It's why those of us in the tech and digital marketing worlds can't seem to go a day without reading news headlines about the microblogging service that has fascinated us all.

But Twitter isn't perfect; there is a dark side.

Twitter has been used to spread misinformation and the compromise of prominent Twitter accounts put everyone on notice that Twitter is a hacker target.

As Twitter grows in popularity with celebrities and marketers there's a new issue that threatens the Twitterverse: ghost tweeters.

While some of the most famous Twitter users, from Shaquille O’Neal to Lance Armstrong, are the real deal, others aren't.

Take 50 Cent, for instance. He may have street cred but he doesn't have Twitter cred. His account on Twitter is actually managed by Chris Romero, who handles Fiddy's online presence. He told The New York Times that his boss doesn't actually use Twitter but stated that he didn't believe this was really an issue, claiming that "the energy of it is all him". Right.

This phenomenon isn't even limited to mainstream celebrities: Silicon Valley 'celebrity' Guy Kawasaki, who has over 80,000 followers, proudly uses ghost tweeters too.

While followers of 50 Cent and Guy Kawasaki may or may not take issue with the fact that they're receiving ghost tweets, ghost tweeters are an issue that digital marketers and social media people need to deal with.

As Twitter breaks out into the larger mainstream market, the prospect that some of its more prominent accounts won't actually be managed by the supposed owners of those accounts could threaten Twitter's future. How? If Twitter is flooded by shill accounts that are used primarily for authentic-looking marketing and self-promotion, the current culture of Twitter could give way to a more commercial and less authentic reality.

One of the reasons Twitter has gained so much popularity is that it's 'real'. Up until now, I think most people have assumed that the person on the other end of a tweet was the person you thought it was, not a paid shill.

If Twitter becomes nothing more than a marketing platform and a place for brands, celebrities and the like to promote themselves in the most inauthentic manner possible (ghost tweeters), it's possible that Twitter could lose the relevance and human touch that made it so attractive in the first place.

What's most interesting to me is that Twitter seems oblivious to the risk. Accounts of known ghost tweeters, including 50 Cent and Britney Spears are all featured on Twitter's Suggested User list. The question I'd like to have an answer to is: why?

If Twitter was created to help people stay connected in a simple matter, it might want to ask itself a simple question: are you achieving that when you're actively promoting users who aren't really users in the first place?

For celebrities, executives and anyone else with a little bit of name recognition who is thinking about using Twitter, a word of advice: if you aren't interested in really using Twitter, don't use it. Be authentic or stay at home.

And for Twitter: please stay true. Don't reward those whose inauthentic use of your service raises its prominence, but adds nothing of real value.

Photo credit: piccadillywilson via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 27 March, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2379 more posts from this author

Comments (3)

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Anonymous

Which is why I pretty quickly unfollowed Guy Kawasaki.

Liked his book,  tweets are just pure spam though, not even ghost written (unless robots can have ghosts?)

angus

over 7 years ago

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Steven Livingstone

I'll try a slightly different take on this debate. To me there seems to be a fundamental question about how celebrities will use Twitter. Some  are getting 1000 questions an hour - i struggle with a few. Since starting http://valebrity.com i've really have come to understand just how many Tweets some of these people get.

So here i will make a distinction between "ghost posting" and "ghost replying".

Peronally i think "ghost posting" is a no no. In the case of a popular celebrity we understand they are busy which actually increases the value of a tweet - even if it is only one a week! Fans quickly know when they are being told it is the real person, but is in fact a ghost writer. Write tweets yourself and sign yours if your team writes others for you.

"Ghost replying" is slightly different, although i'd rather see the person managing the replies state when isn't the real person. When you get 1000's of questions are hour there are two options. Ignore them or get people to help you. It is quite simply not possible to reply to them all 24x7.... in fact how many of us really reply to more than a handful a day. People want an answer ... so the fact someone close to him is able to give an response is actually a LOT closer that you'd get on any other medium.

I think there is also hybrid case where you have a celebrity who does actually tweet but only sporadically with the rest made up by their team... the key however if telling the followers when that is the case. An emerging meme is to write the initials of the celebrity when it is really them.

This works in two senses - people know they are getting updates from the real person (and likely understand they have have a busy schedule), but at the same time, through the team, are kept up to date with the celebrity.

over 7 years ago

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Manny Coulon, Director at IdeasForTheKids.com

Twitter is effectively another communication channel with some unusual characteristics in that it mixes broadcast to "followers" and 1:1 mini-conversations, but where all the communications are visible (unless you've restricted your account).

As a communication channel, and in a similar way to email, it has many uses, both personal and professional. These can in all likelihood coexist (realtively) happily. I suspect that these varying uses are a key driver to folk having multiple twitter accounts for whatever they use the Twitter medium for: personal, private, social, work etc.

Key to this working is openness. Many people put on their bio why they are twittering and if they have different accounts for different purposes. Check out their bio and tweets and you can see if you want to follow or not. All fine and dandy!

As Steven Livingstone notes above, celebrities are unusual in that their twitter following is so huge that they cannot possibly read and answer all tweets. This is likely no different to their mail or email, though of course twitter makes following and tweeting your favourite celebs very much easier.

As many celebs use ghost writers for their more traditional communications, it is no surprise that many also use ghost writers for the newer social networking media - facebook, twitter etc.

It's fantastic that some celebs make the time to interact with their followers, but entirely understandable if some employ ghost tweeters. Best to be honest about it though and few would reproach them.

Stephen Fry does an admirable job of interacting with his followers as much as he can. When he recently did a talk at an Apple Store in London, he handed the twitter reigns to a 3rd party for the duration of the talk - but he was very clear ahead of time that this is what he was doing. His ghost twitterer repeated this a few times and then handed back clearly after the talk. Very nicely done and I am sure everyone understood and appreciated both the approach and the openness with which it was done. 

Bottom line - ghost twittering is bound to happen, but if you are going to use someone and you value your followers, be honest about it. As SL suggests, initialing the tweet is a good compromise.

over 7 years ago

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