Is Twitter one of the most important phenomena for the future of learning and business?

Nigel Cameron thinks so. Strategic adviser and futurist, he is Chairman of FutureofBiz, LLC (Chicago, Washington DC, and London) and President of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies (C-PET, Washington DC).

He consults, speaks and blogs about the emerging future and its vast impacts on business, and is writing a book intended to aid greater understanding of how to prepare ourselves and our organizations for tomorrow.

And he sometimes takes decision-makers from all sectors of society to task for their lack of understanding of Twitter’s potential.

I asked him to talk more about Twitter and how he believes decision-makers can use it to help shape the future. (Subscribe to the C-PET to follow Nigel).

You describe Twitter as “the miracle of reciprocal curation”. Can you explain?

I recently realized that I have hardly read anything in the past year that hasn’t come to me through Twitter – either through recommendation/discussion of a book or the many short pieces that are funneled as links – across the areas of my professional and personal interest.

I read many more short pieces than I did, which takes little time as one does not need to go hunting. And while I still love browsing the print editions of the New Yorker and Atlantic and the Economist, I’ve generally read the key pieces already as someone I am following drew them to my attention – or perhaps I to theirs.

I have memories of working in universities, where I could pay $10 an hour to grad students as research assistants to scope my fields of research and pass me key materials. Why do that when the leading global experts are loving doing it for free all the time on Twitter?

Do you find some people or groups failing to grasp this idea of reciprocal learning on Twitter?

I am surprised that so many generally clued-up people, including many who make some use of Twitter, see this, if they do at all, as a secondary feature.

Whether in biz, the academy, or the policy world – and I have a foot in all three! – much is still paper-based and self-directed research is seen as key. Whole systems, and careers, are designed around closed systems in which the, shall we say, designed serendipity of Twitter is seen as a random anomaly and not a salient into tomorrow’s knowledge ecology (which is also today’s).

Why is that happening?

Part of the explanation lies in how little people are aware of the “culture” within which they operate, which sets for most people the parameters of their capacity to question how and why things work as they do.

Shifting from having an assistant monitor/research, say, emerging privacy issues to following 20 key observers/players on Twitter involves a vast jump. And beware hiring an assistant and telling him/her to do that for you! Old wine in new wineskins.

Can you clarify the benefits and potential of Twitter as a learning network?

Part of the mindset needed for innovative and informed decisions in C21 involves engaged awareness in both converging ‘fields’ that have traditionally been kept very separate (true of scientific and other “academic” disciplines; the broader silos of policy/arts/business/S&T/US/global/journalism and so on) and the standard ‘functional’ divisions within the organization (corporate or other).

Across all three of these sets of silos Twitter offers integrative knowledge streams. Each morning I am in a top-level briefing on, say, Syria (locals tweeting as well as ‘experts’ as well as mainline journos curating what they see as the best material), privacy (politicians and advocacy groups and industry gurus on all sides), investment (grasping the unfolding debacles at Facebook and Groupon), latest thinking on innovation – to give 4 examples of great current interest to me.

An hour on Twitter leaves me much better informed than a day spent working my way through standard online outlets would.

You say that every corporation and government can use Twitter to engage with relevant groups. Who’s doing this well?

Well, two individuals who are stars are unlikely players: Darrell Issa (@darrellissa), conservative GOP member of Congress who emerged as a champion of the fight against SOPA; and Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch), who needs no introduction.

Murdoch joined Twitter around the start of the year, and tweets for himself (which Issa does too though he may also have help; I am not sure). You can tell Murdoch is authentic because he is not a very good typist…

As to organizations, I think the customer service function is being very patchily engaged. Try making a complaint with a hashtag for the company’s name and see what happens. Virgin America I found responsive. Virgin Atlantic not at all.

Who should be engaging on Twitter but isn’t?

The weirdest fact out there is that the Chief Information Officers of our large corporations are living contentedly in the dark ages. A recent study showed that only 4/250 had blogs and 25 of them had Twitter accounts.

And if the CIO thinks Twitter is for kids and jokes (we all know that’s what smart people who don’t engage believe), so much the worse for the C-Suite. Hardly any CEOs are on Twitter. One count said 16/500, but most of them don’t tweet and hardly any tweet themselves (Murdoch stands out!).

Big biz is taking the view that this stuff is for customer service and marketing to handle. They have no notion what they are missing.

Is change in the way we communicate happening fast enough? If not, why, and what’s to be done in your opinion?

I see Twitter as a pathway to the future of knowledge networking, which is and will become yet more clearly the driver of innovation, smart decisions, strategy, corporate culture.

I don’t know if what we use in 10 years, or 3, will bear this name. Probably not. But this is the test-bed. The nexus of knowledge, reciprocal curation, multi-disciplinarity, and relationships, is key now. Its keyness will only grow.

If Twitter is empowering, what happens to those parts of the globe where either there are no computers, or it’s censored?

What’s amazing is how parts of the world where resources are very limited (Africa is the most telling example) are rapidly discovering mobile which is leapfrogging traditional technologies (most African homes do not have landlines and never shall).

When last I checked, a full-feature smartphone (Android!) was available in South Africa for $35. It will be less now, and even less next year. The hundreds of millions of Africans with more basic mobile communication nevertheless have access to the global knowledge network at ever faster speeds.

And part of the utter beauty of Twitter is the fact that its model is SMS. You do not need a desktop, a laptop, a netbook, or even a tablet to have full functionality.

Plainly, censorship is effective in some parts of the world (and it will grow). But genies don’t go back into bottles, and in China (where interestingly their homegrown equivalent of Twitter carried twice the number of Olympics tweets than Twitter itself!) the principle of reciprocal curation and knowledge networking is alive and well.

Politically challenging speech may be censored, but even there smart dissidents use workarounds and in general the vast access these technologies provide to basic knowledge and informed opinion will slowly strangle the censors.

Over to you! Agree or disagree with Nigel? Have your say.

Liz Wilson
Liz Wilson writes copy in the Marketing Communications team at Orange Switzerland and used to edit this blog. She likes talking about content, copywriting and social media on her personal blog.

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6 Responses to “Nigel Cameron: Time for Leaders to ‘Get’ Twitter”


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