Russell Davies
Russell Davies
A view from Russell Davies

Russell Davies: Tower Bridge Twitter experience shows how wrong it can go

Once upon a time, objects didn't Tweet.

This was an ancient time, lost in the mists of antiquity; it was 2008. And then an enterprising young developer called Tom Armitage discovered that buried in an official website, there were tables detailing the opening and closing/up and down schedules for Tower Bridge. And he took those details and fed them into a Twitter account called @towerbridge; morphing the dry tables into human-friendly, first-person announcements. It instantly became a hit in the still-small universe of Twitter users. Lots of people's days were brightened, in a tiny way, by news that @towerbridge was opening to let the MV Dixie Queen pass.

And soon other bridges acquired Twitter feeds and engaged in banter with @towerbridge, and so did other bits of infrastructure. And @towerbridge became a model of how large, inhuman services could acquire a human voice. It was constantly cited at conferences and written about in columns as it perfectly illustrated how Twitter could be a quick, easy and potent messaging system for much more than human inanities. Slowly, but steadily, it acquired more than 4,000 followers, changing from geeky novelty to a useful service for cabbies and other regular bridge crossers.

And then, one day, a couple of weeks ago, Tom got an e-mail wondering what had happened to the feed - all that useful information had disappeared. He soon discovered that @towerbridge was now transmitting PR-style Twitter-chat about the exhibition at the bridge.

The bridge management had asked Twitter to give the @towerbridge account to them and Twitter had done so. All the old Tweets had gone, the service was broken. Tom was understandably a bit miffed about this. He wrote an angry blog post and because of the affection and respect people had for @towerbridge, a small but influential crowd started campaigning behind the hashtag #givetowerbridgeback. The speed of these things can be frightening. The new incumbents of the account must have awoken to a small but confusing storm of opprobrium the next day. "We're new to Twitter," they'd said in an earlier Tweet. "Too right," the community tutted.

Things are, sort of, better now. A useful service got seriously bent but Twitter has restored the old account under a new address (@twrbrdg_itself, 4,409 followers and rising) and @towerbridge chatters away to 202 people about the tourist attraction. There is no obvious moral. No-one behaved abominably, though there was a lot of naivety. It became clear how messy these things can be and how much new technologies can blur once-clear lines. And how important it is for marketing people to be familiar with the culture and histories of the technologies they try to play with.