What the Shortmail Tweetstorm Teaches About Social Media Crisis Monitoring

[ Updated 16 March 2012 13:30 CET to add response from 410 Labs ]

On 15 March 2012 actor Stephen Fry installed the Shortmail app on his iPhone. Unknown to him Shortmail tweeted to his four million followers "I just installed Shortmail on my iPhone 4S. Claim your account and join the Shortmail revolution."  This tweet is so obviously out of character that everyone assumed rightly that it was not something he really meant to say.

Soon after he discovered this tweet, deleted it and added a new one saying "Grrr! I hate apps that automatically send tweets without asking you. Am deleting Shortmail & want nothing more to do with it. Good night x". Many of his followers retweeted this and others like me commented on how tweeting in the name of other users is a risky design choice. In the tweetstorm that ensued "Shortmail" and "fail" appeared very often together.

You might have expected Shortmail to respond to this, but they did not. The most likely reason they did nothing is simply that they were asleep. Literally.  Mr Fry tweeted his critique of Shortmail just before going to bed but unhappily for Shortmail he is in New Zealand shooting the movie "The Hobbit; There and Back Again".  Many hours passed before they did tweet a reply. "@Stephenfry We would only be able to send a tweet on your behalf with three (!) separate confirmations.What is the link to the tweet?".  When Mr Fry woke up the next day he replied "@Shortmail. Well it was a most unfortunate accident then. I certainly didn't send the tweet."  Here is the whole sequence:



Mr Fry is no novice and he is keenly aware that when you have four million followers you need to be a little bit careful. I find it hard to believe that he didn't know what he was doing. And if the interface is designed in a way that even Stephen Fry can't see he has authorized a tweet then what chance do lesser users have. I suspect that the problem lies in the interface design. I have already written about a design issue of the Shortmail website when I first tried it in July 2011 in Errorproofing Web Site Design. At the time I also communicated my concern to the company but nothing ever came of it.

Startups everywhere should be learning lessons about interface design and also about the use of promotional tweets like this, but I hope that they also learn the value of social media crisis monitoring.

Many hours passed between Mr Fry's tweet and the response. This is almost certainly because of the time difference but this is no excuse in 2012 when a social media crisis like this can start anywhere in the world, even in New Zealand.

Every company needs to have some way of monitoring social media either by humans or by automated tools so that they can be alerted to a crisis situation and be ready to respond immediately, 24/7.  Even the smallest startup can arrange to have friends around the world to keep an eye on social media and alert the team if something needs immediate attention. Larger companies can either pay an agency or buy an automated monitoring tool that alerts them when it detects an anomaly that requires human attention.

If you don't have this in place today then I suggest you make a note to put that on your To Do list for Monday morning. Better prepare now because a social media crisis can strike anywhere, anytime.

REPLY FROM 410 Labs

Soon after this was posted I received the following reply from David Troy at 410 Labs which provides some facts not available from the Twitter record:

"Appreciate your comments, Andrew, but unfortunately you're not exactly correct.

We went to great trouble in our design to prevent ANY kind of "accidental" tweets of the kind which Mr. Fry claims to have sent. 1) We ask for use of the Twitter account (which is optional), 2) We require two additional clicks (Tweet, Send) in order to send a Tweet (which is optional).

That meant that Mr. Fry would have had to have clicked, in the affirmative, three times that he wanted to tweet. Additionally, he was given the opportunity to edit the text. So, the action was his and his alone – there's no ambiguity or bad design about it, I'm afraid.

We don't consider this a "crisis," and we feel we handled it professionally and courteously; we disagree with your assessment that we should react to this sooner, because many of our users (and Mr. Fry's followers) immediately pointed out the same things that we did to him. Unfortunately having a few million followers doesn't shield someone from just being wrong.

We all make mistakes, and we wish Mr. Fry the best. The best lesson here is likely to think things through and pause before speaking without all of the facts. That seems like something we all can learn in this fast-paced world of social media.

And in the end, being polite, careful, and courteous is what matters most."


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One Click from Disaster: Errorproofing Website Design
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Comments

Matthew koll said…
Andrew,
Go to http://shortmail.me and sign up for a new Shortmail account. Take screen shots if you like. See for yourself how you have to explicitly send the tweet yourself. It's the same with our IPhone app.
Dave Troy said…
Appreciate your comments, Andrew, but unfortunately you're not exactly correct.

We went to great trouble in our design to prevent ANY kind of "accidental" tweets of the kind which Mr. Fry claims to have sent. 1) We ask for use of the Twitter account (which is optional), 2) We require two additional clicks (Tweet, Send) in order to send a Tweet (which is optional).

That meant that Mr. Fry would have had to have clicked, in the affirmative, three times that he wanted to tweet. Additionally, he was given the opportunity to edit the text. So, the action was his and his alone – there's no ambiguity or bad design about it, I'm afraid.

We don't consider this a "crisis," and we feel we handled it professionally and courteously; we disagree with your assessment that we needed to react to this sooner, because many of our users (and Mr. Fry's followers) immediately pointed out the same things that we did to him. Unfortunately having a few million followers doesn't shield someone from just being wrong.

We all make mistakes, and we wish Mr. Fry the best. The best lesson here is likely to think things through and pause before speaking without all of the facts. That seems like something we all can learn in this fast-paced world of social media.

And in the end, being polite, careful, and courteous is what matters most.

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