In the initial hours after the horrific bombings in Boston on Monday, Twitter was, as has become customary during major news events, a gusher of news, commentary, rumor, emotion, and (occasionally) useful information. In the midst of this, AdWeek published a piece — since taken down, but here’s a screenshot — suggesting that brands should be careful what goes out on their Twitter feeds after a crisis. Scheduled posts promoting something or other can appear insensitive in the middle of a bunch of sincere personal expressions of grief and horror. This did not go over well. One person accused them of “newsjacking,” a term you heard a lot on Monday (at least on Twitter), and the general consensus was that AdWeek should’ve followed their own advice and not tried to leverage a tragedy in the immediate aftermath for clicks. (They would have been better off waiting a respectful day and a half before doing so, as I am here.)
Despite their horrible timing, AdWeek‘s critics agreed that the sentiment wasn’t wrong. Indeed, even before the article came out Twitter users were calling out (or accusatorily retweeting, as has become the fashion these days) the Twitter account of celebrities, companies, and media outlets for following their standard practice of issuing chirpy, self-promotional tweets on a regular basis throughout the day. Atlantic writer Richard Lawson, for instance, caught poor Johnny Weir promoting an upcoming appearance in Springfield an hour after the explosions — without acknowledging the blast at all. (See also.) To have these interruptions pop up in the midst of our reaction to the crisis felt not only insensitive but deeply disconnected from the reality otherwise playing out through our feeds.
But why would we care? When we’re watching CNN cover an unfolding crisis, for instance, we don’t mind that they cut to commercials every 7 to 10 minutes, and we certainly wouldn’t call out, say, Busch’s if an ad for their Boston baked beans ran immediately after a major CNN newsbreak about the explosions. Nor do we care that the major networks break into their regular entertainment programming to give us the news of the tragedy, but then return to an episode of Judge Judy that has nothing to do with the crisis. NBC preempted one of its biggest prime-time shows on Monday to air an hour-long report on the explosions, true, but none of the other networks followed suit, and we didn’t seem very angry at them. Nor did we decry NBC for airing The Voice immediately before their report. We accept ads in the context of other kinds of news. But for Twitter, it seems different.
This points to the still-unsettled nature of what, exactly, Twitter is. For some people, it is essentially a constantly-updated news source, a sort of lazy person’s RSS feed, making it easy to get the latest content from everything from CNN to the local police to Justin Bieber. And indeed, Twitter has often been thought of as an information source, a service useful primarily for the immediacy and openness it brings to sending around messages. But again, if Twitter were just a news source, the regular interruption of ads wouldn’t seem disrespectful. That seems more suited to a social environment, which Twitter is, too. People use it as a way of kibitzing with their groups of friends throughout the day. But again, that doesn’t really align with any other existing forms of mass communication. If we’re just chatting among friends, we wouldn’t also invite CNN and Justin Bieber into the conversation, as we essentially do by following Twitter accounts that we’d never chat with directly. (Though we sometimes try.) This would be weird even on other online discussion forums — imagine, for instance, a message board that would occasionally interject personal appeals from McDonald’s.
The flatness of Twitter is what makes brands’ appeals turn icky in the context of a crisis. During the normal course of a day, personal and non-personal tweets can peacefully coexist on your feed, just as an inbox will have messages from family and co-workers alternating with the Gap telling you about an exciting new sale. When everyone’s talking about different things, Twitter does feel like a random information flow, like an exterior thing you happen to be browsing. But when almost everyone is talking about the same thing — like Boston, or the Super Bowl, or the presidential debates — to experience Twitter is to feels like you’re experiencing an event that is actually happening, and you are walking into it. On normal days, in other words, tweets seem like things that exist independent of Twitter, separate bits that don’t need to have anything to do with one another. But during an event, the content is Twitter itself, the flow rather than any individual bit of it. And because those branded tweets look the same as other tweets, rather than being set off in some way as TV ads are, we expect them to be performing the same function as all the other tweets, which is to drive the event and the flow. When they don’t, it feels far more like an intrusion than normal. It’s impoverishing the experience for us.
Of course, for most people, it doesn’t seem odd that we’d dislike brands piping in on Twitter during a crisis. Which means, maybe, that eventually everyone will figure out how to do Twitter in a way that we can all be comfortable with. But for now, we’re left with a medium that is a different beast depending on the date and time. Twitter before noon EST Monday was a fine place to promote toilet paper or snack cookies, but then, suddenly, it wasn’t. TV, because it’s controlled by a small number of programmers, is able to adapt to these new expectations moment-to-moment. But because Twitter is created collectively, sometimes it sends out sour notes. What makes it fascinating is that these social norms are still emerging, still being figured out. Every time the system is tested, something changes. But here is what we know for sure: saying nothing when an awful thing has just happened is almost never a bad idea — for brands and private citizens alike.