A guided tour through Twitterville

This review was originally posted at Flip the Media. Paolo likes reviewing books.

The only thing certain about Twitter may be its uncertainty. The microblogging service is booming, but more than 60 percent of users quit Twitter after a month. Partnerships are rumored, as are acquisitions, but so far these remain mere gossip.

Considering Twitter’s fickle future, Shel Israel, coauthor of Naked Conversations and The Conversational Corporation, is risking immediate antiquity with Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods, which hit bookshelves and Kindles on Sept. 3. However, much like a sports commentator providing deep analysis mid-game, Israel takes a look at what’s happened with Twitter so far, explains it with enthusiasm and candor, and leaves us with a better sense of what’s happened and what’s ahead.

For those immersed in social media, Shel Israel comes with serious street cred. He coauthored Naked Conversations with blogger and tech evangelist Robert Scoble. Groundswell author and Altimeter Group founder Charlene Li provides the foreword for this book. Brian Solis, principal of FutureWorks, took Israel’s booksleeve headshot. And in the book, Israel name-drops hanging out with Jeremiah Owyang, perhaps the most visible tech consultant on Twitter. The average citizen of Twitterville wouldn’t recognize these names, but communications professionals — the intended audience of this book — recognize these names as prominent social communications experts, setting up high expectations for the book.

In an entertaining and compelling first half of the book, Israel doesn’t disappoint. With strong narrative and detail, he describes how Twitter’s founders built the company from the ground up, outmaneuvering competitors like Google’s Dodgeball. He recounts how Twitter became a sensation at SXSW 2007, after which it became a viral success and forever changed digital communications.

Israel also provides a comprehensive view of how businesses — small and large, local and global — are using Twitter.  He leads these business case studies with an in-depth analysis of Twitter’s most storied companies — Dell and Comcast — and uncovers missed opportunities by Continental Airlines, Motrin and U-Haul. Moving from case studies to methods of practice, he debates whether companies’ Twitter identities should be corporate or individual, arguing for a more personal approach: “If Starbucks’s CEO says the brand is about people, why doesn’t Starbucks encourage its own people to tweet under their own names, thus helping to humanize the brand?”

Twitterville starts off strong, but midway loses momentum. The range of topics is so great that I was often reminded of Apple’s “There’s an app for that, too” marketing slogan. Want to learn how politicians are using Twitter? How charities are fundraising through microblogging? “There’s a chapter for that, too.”

Because of Israel’s diffuse approach, sections covering topics that should be of great value to communications professionals — such as using Twitter to create value  business-to-business — are shallow compared to other sections of the book and provoke more questions than answers.

Equally disappointing is the book’s discussion of Twitter’s role in current events such as the Mumbai terrorism attack and the Israel-Gaza conflict. These stories should make Twitterville shine because they demonstrate the potential societal impact of Twitter, but they play out like repeated newscasts and sink like an anchor.

In the book’s closing chapters, Israel explains how global communities are being formed through personal communications delivered via Twitter. These chapters are imbued with Israel’s personal passion for philanthropy and goodwill, but they feel rushed because the initiatives he describes are relatively small and short-term compared to the global business initiatives he synthesizes earlier in the book.

Although Twitterville loses steam midway because of less-developed ideas and weaker anecdotes, the book overall is an excellent reference for communications professionals who understand the basics of Twitter but want to know how organizations are successfully or unsuccessfully using Twitter. Israel has created a library of anecdotes for a wide variety of business and organizational scenarios, which should stand against time and the ever-changing state of Twitter.