I think at this point everyone’s written about the NYT article on advertising in tweets, but I want to highlight and add commentary to a couple of points.
It really makes me think about a major point that someone made in the research I did for my MA. Trust online is contextual. We were talking about if someone had lied to her about their gender and she said – if Martha is Mark and we talked about fandom, then I don’t care but if Martha is Mark and we talked about being pregnant, I would be furious (I’m paraphrasing here). So what does this have to do with the Twitter advertising case?
First social media is about connection and connections have a certain base of trust. That trust is that you aren’t misrepresenting what you are to a level where our connection feels false. This can be difficult for some people to understand because the connection is completely contextual. I can follow Henry VIII on Twitter, know that of course it’s not really Henry VIII, but have a level of trust that I will receive quality information and that information will be from the perspective of what if Henry VIII had a twitter account. I wouldn’t want either non-Henry info or even information presented from say, Anne Boleyn’s perspective.
Along with that is the idea of self-consistency. When you follow someone on Twitter you expect consistency of self-presentation. That is, when you follow @mannysdeli, you expect to get information about Manny’s Deli, related deli or food information, and maybe local Chicago related information. You don’t expect information about oil changes because not only is that not relevant, it’s not consistent. Delis =/= oil changes. When it comes to the Twitter accounts of individuals that are assumed to be based on the lived reality of an actual person (henceforth referred to as “personal accounts”), there’s more flexibility. We automatically know that people are complicated and have complicated lives. So we understand if someone who usually posts about say, SEM practices, might one day ask for information about oil changes. That is, we give a lot of wiggle room to personal brands and that actually helps make personal accounts seem more human. It gives us a more multifaceted view of the person that we are connecting with. We can identify with their oil change issues and that makes them more than a stream of SEM information. This is also why we don’t generally see this as irrelevant information aka spam. As long as it’s kept to a certain percentage of information, most of us actually see it as relevant.
That’s where the problem with paid advertising comes in. If it’s not relevant to our interests and it’s not based on the lived reality of our connection, it seems fake and, potentially, a break of trust. Advertising can be relevant and specially targeted advertising that is considered in regard to followers needs can be appropriate (e.g. specialty SEM software in the above example) but should always be considered in terms of quality. If it’s not a good product, that can also break trust. Additionally, some people may find paid advertising suspicious no matter what- which is why you should always honest about the nature of a recommendation. Meanwhile, if advertising isn’t relevant, the idea of connection becomes even more prominent. In essence it is a Martha becomes Mark situation. If you suggest a product and I am interested because of our connection and find out that your motivation isn’t sharing knowledge with me but making a profit off of our connection? I’d be surprised if people weren’t annoyed. You don’t usually go around making money off of your personal contacts if there isn’t a good reason and you certainly don’t do it without being clear about what you’re doing.
Additionally the level of advertising to real content mentioned in the article seems high enough to seem spammy (1/4); the ads seem particularly not targeted; and the individuals don’t seem to be portraying their tweets as an income stream (an example of this outside of Twitter is Dooce- she makes it very clear that her website is how she pays the bills. Even with that disclosure, she still gets a lot of angry mail about it). This post at GoingSocialNow also had some good points about the risks to those who tweet for cash.