Just another journey on the bus

One bleak1 January morning in 20092, Susan Boyle left her council house in Blackburn, East Lothian and set out on a journey that was to change her life. As the story goes, some six buses later she arrived at Glasgow’s Clyde Auditorium just in time for her Britain’s Got Talent audition — only to be told there was no record of the appointment. After a nerve-jangling wait, the receptionist informed Susan that she could be squeezed in.3 It was hardly an auspicious beginning for the diminutive singer, even if history later showed4 that she was in exactly the right place, at the right time.

Susan Boyle wasn’t the only runaway success of 2009. At the same time as she took her six buses, the London-based press team at Hitwise UK were putting the finishing touches on a news release for one of their clients, Twitter. It was already apparent that Twitter was a phenomenon: the number of subscribers had increased5 ten-fold[^ (947%)] in the previous twelve months, making it, “one of the fastest-growing websites of the year.” Less clear at the time was just how successful it would become, nor the impact it would have.

Spurring Twitter’s success in America was some careful use of online tools by presidential hopeful Barack Obama – a report on the campaign by PR agency Edelman noted how, by the time of the election three months before, Obama had over 13 million subscribers to his email list and 5 million ‘friends’ across 15 social networking sites.6 Twitter’s contribution was relatively insignificant: 115,000 followers, a figure that increased to 140,000 by January 2009.7

All the same the still-nascent social site, which forced its users to limit themselves to 140-character broadcast messages, was intriguing people from all walks of life. Not least actor Ashton Kutcher, who joined Twitter just five days before the Hitwise announcement (and indeed, Susan Boyle’s audition).8 Five days after both events, on 26 January his (then-)wife, Demi Moore found herself caught in Twitter’s spell.9 The pair rapidly accumulated followers: by the start of April, Ashton already had 675,000 followers and Demi, 380,000 – over a million connections between them.10

Back in the UK the following week, press releases from Britain’s Got Talent production company Talking Thames announced that a phenomenon was about to take place.11 Insiders and those who had attended Susan Boyle’s live audition were already in on the act. Many felt that they had seen it all before — in the first series of Britain’s Got Talent, ‘lump of coal’ Paul Potts had surprised everyone with his rendition of Nessum Dorma,12 and his album ‘One Chance’ went on to chart at number one in nine countries13. Surely that was a one-off?

The Susan Boyle episode of BGT was broadcast on Saturday 11th April. Producers and editors at Talkback Thames had done their best to maximise Susan Boyle’s potential for success: while her opening comments about wanting to be like Elaine Page were doubtless from the heart, they were carefully spliced with footage of disdainful looks from audience and judges, maximising the impact of the then-dowdy performer.14

The standard media frippery worked. Like Paul Potts before her, TV audiences were unexpectedly wowed by Susan’s rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – rightly so as she gave the performance of a lifetime. But the story didn’t end there. Some viewers (200 of them15) were so entranced by the performance that they uploaded a clip of the show to YouTube — without a glance to copyright, of course!

Susan Boyle’s online video was almost immediately popular: through a fortunate trick of time zones, by the time US audiences were paying attention the clip had already seen several thousand views in Europe, drawing the attention of the Web-savvy Kutchers. At 7.35am UK time on Sunday April 12th, Ashton tweeted a Digg link to the video16 with the message, “This just made my night.” Eight minutes later Demi Moore tweeted back, “You saw it made me teary!”

Demi and Ashton were no strangers to obscure, even titillating messages such as “Race you to the bedroom” sometimes with photos attached17 which encouraged their followers to click18 on whatever link came their way. There was no mention of the singer in the exchange, but in the fortnight that followed, Susan Boyle’s YouTube clip was watched more than 50 million times.

Of course, this wasn’t entirely down to the popularity of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore – but their interest catalysed a wave of Twitter activity that snowballed across the continents. The level of interest across public and press, in both the UK and US, exceeded everybody’s expectations – not least Talkback Thames and Simon Cowell’s Syco. While the producers felt they had done everything they could to big up Susan Boyle (as well as that of other contestants across the series), they had not planned for this. It took a full ten days to allocate Susan her own a PR firm,19 despite the number of press mentions breaking the thousand mark.

A week after the show, American talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell described both Simon Cowell’s reaction and the greater impact of Susan Boyle’s audition20. “This was so rare... something authentic in a world that is usually manufactured,” she said. “It was a perfect moment which will never happen again." She may have been right. In the years since Susan Boyle became a global phenomenon,21 we have seen social tools such as Twitter and Facebook become instrumental in all kinds of world-changing events. While the exact causes of such an avalanche effect are difficult to unpick, celebrity involvement undoubtedly helped, not least because at the time Twitter’s biggest hitters were competing for followers. It’s not unrelated that under a week after Susan’s audition, Ashton had achieved his own goal of being the first Twitter user to amass over a million followers, pipping CNN22 at the post:

“In the much-publicized duel, Kutcher's Twitter account crossed the 1 million mark on Twitter about 2:13 a.m. ET Friday, narrowly beating CNN's breaking-news feed, which had 998,239 followers at the time. CNN passed the mark at 2:42 a.m. ET.”

Many such battles have already been won, then almost immediately rendered irrelevant. Oprah Winfrey, who ‘launched’ her Twitter presence on the same day, has over seven million Twitter followers at the time of writing; the most followed users are Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Barack Obama, which says as much as we to know about our celebrity culture. With active Twitter users totalling more than 250 million23, there is no longer any ‘first mover advantage’ to be gained. Even Twitter itself is flagging in the bigger race for social media supremacy.

The potential for such online tools to have a profound impact is still being bottomed out. Events include the ousting of President Mubarak in Egypt,24 the public backlash against the News of the World which brought down the Sunday paper, or the incitement to riot and loot in the UK. Each time that a snowball effect occurs, millions of individuals contribute one tiny part but the overall effect is far-reaching.The darker side of such minuscule moments of glory that our actions may not always be entirely our own. Psychologists are familiar with how people follow crowds: on the positive, social tools enable power to the people and new opportunities for democracy; conversely however, we leave ourselves open to the potential for a hive mind, which brings out our worst character traits.

Not only might this lead us towards less savoury kinds of group-think, including cyber-bullying and other forms of online abuse; it is also highly open to exploitation. Media organisations are already learning the lessons from examples such as Susan Boyle’s success, and are researching ways to maximise their impact, ‘leveraging’ our online and offline characteristics to maximise the impact of any campaign. On Egypt, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, a producer for the Al-Jazeera English news network was quoted as saying,25 “"Social media didn't cause this revolution. It amplified it; it accelerated it." However, the boundary is diminishing between such efforts and manipulation of audience, customer and citizens, and history suggests that if the opportunity for exploitation exists, some will take it.

Susan Boyle found herself in the eye of a perfect storm, the specific likes of which we may never see again. However, the social media phenomenon is not the last time technology and demographics will work together to disrupt the ways we act, and indeed interact. We are already entering the next waves, of machine learning and algorithmics, of the Internet of Things and sensor networks, each of which will strongly influence our thinking and behaviours.

The news is not all bad, indeed we stand to gain a great deal as a race and as a collection of cultures, with as much cause to celebrate as to be concerned, as we shall see in the next chapter. Anyone fancy a tipple?

  1. http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/2009/january.html 

  2. Wednesday 21st January 

  3. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1317220/Susan-Boyle-come-said-doctors.html 

  4. http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/editors-choice/2010/01/21/hard-to-believe-but-true-one-year-ago-nobody-had-heard-of-susan-boyle-86908-21983825/ 

  5. http://weblogs.hitwise.com/robin-goad/2009/01/twitter_traffic_up_10-fold.html 

  6. http://www.europeanbusinessreview.com/?p=1627 

  7. http://crave.cnet.co.uk/software/re-tweeting-obama-twitter-and-the-presidential-inauguration-online-49300681/ 

  8. http://twitter.com/#!/aplusk/statuses/1123211498 

  9. http://twitter.com/#!/mrskutcher/statuses/1150053991 and http://twitter.com/#!/kevinrose/status/1150514889 

  10. http://articles.cnn.com/2009-04-03/entertainment/moore.twitter.threat_1_tweet-twitter-message 

  11. http://news.scotsman.com/entertainment/Interview-The-prime-of-Miss.5196739.jp 

  12. http://www.contactmusic.com/news.nsf/story/paul-potts-to-release-album-in-15-countries_1036331 

  13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Potts 

  14. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/16/britains-got-talent-susan-boyle 

  15. http://corp.visiblemeasures.com/news-and-events/blog/bid/9115/Susan-Boyle-s-Got-Viral-Video-Talent 

  16. http://digg.com/d1oVwl 

  17. “Bed time” December 4 2009 http://twitpic.com/s2aoh
    http://twitter.com/#!/mrskutcher/status/6328572928 -
    http://twitpic.com/s2bjm RT @aplusk: http://bit.ly/4Xh4De RT @mrskutcher: is it http://bit.ly/566UFw” 

  18. http://thebosh.com/archives/2009/12/demi_moore_and_ashton_kutcher_perfect_twitter_flirting.php 

  19. http://www.dada.co.uk/casestudies/susan-boyle 

  20. http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20273553,00.html 

  21. Susan Boyle video – 73,027,839 views now on Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxPZh4AnWyk&NR=1 

  22. http://edition.cnn.com/2009/TECH/04/17/ashton.cnn.twitter.battle/ 

  23. https://investor.twitterinc.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=862505zhttps://investor.twitterinc.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=862505 

  24. http://www.fastcompany.com/1720692/egypt-protests-mubarak-twitter-youtube-facebook-twitpic 

  25. http://news.cnet.com/8301-13577_3-20031600-36.html