Karen Wickre gets what is perhaps the most important thing about any social media channel, be it a blog, Twitter, or any other service: it is what you want it to be; there are no rules. Before becoming editorial director at Twitter, where she shapes the way the company communicates publicly,Wickre spent nine years at Google. Her key achievement there was to create, build and nurture the search giant’s blogging presence.
Google had bought Pyra Labs, the company behind Blogger, which was the platform of choice for more than one million blogs, in 2003, not long after Wickre joined Google. “It was not unusual for (Google) to buy something and not to have a plan for it,” Wickre told Informilo. “I said we should use this because Google is a company that people are interested in. I did face some resistance from folks who said that a blog is a personal account.” But Wickre insisted, “it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Her job was to develop Google’s corporate content strategy and build its blog and Twitter platforms into global channels.Today Google has dozens of blogs, ranging from the official Google Docs Blog to the Google Ukraine Blog. “People say there are too many [Google] blogs, but [Google] has a lot of products. I won the day in that more or less all of those blogs now promote their own news and info,” says Wickre.
The understanding of the importance of process and the need to curate content so that it’s useful and meaningful is a key skill for social media leaders these days, but these same skills are rooted in the old school of print editorial – the world Wickre comes from.
“My editorial background precedes my Silicon Valley background,” she says. “I’ve long been a writer and an editor.” Indeed, Wickre has worked on the editorial side of publishing as an editor, author and columnist and is the founder of News Foo Camp, an annual O’Reilly Media “unconference” to foster new ideas about delivering journalism.
She became a part of the tech sector via a circuitous route. While living in Portland, Oregon Wickre was recruited to run a membership organization for journalists in San Francisco. One of her board members hired her away to work with him on a computer magazine company.
“I knew very little about computers, but it was a magical time, and a group of wonderful people,” she recalls. “I learned a lot. I would not call myself technical in any way, but I began to get into the rhythms of this world, with building software, roll-outs, versions.”
That made her adaption to Google and later Twitter all the easier. “I was interested in Twitter for a long time,” she says. She encouraged Google to embrace the micro-blogging service in much the same way she’d encouraged Google to make use of the blogging platform it purchased. “I made the case for Google to be on Twitter in early ’09,” she says. “It became clear fairly quickly that it was a good thing. And the only rule I had was that every tweet had to have a link to something else in them.”
Such a clear and early understanding of the power of a new tool had stood Wickre in good stead. And in many ways, the move to Twitter brings Wickre’s distinguished career full circle: from editorial at a traditional magazine to shaping content online for a tech company, to managing the conversation at another maturing but still cheeky and young Internet start-up in a new-media editorial role.
The move to Twitter makes sense for Wickre. Although Twitter is user-driven, it has increasing importance as a news source and tool for journalism.
“Twitter is woven into the media landscape,” says Wickre. “If you’re tuned into it, you turn to it immediately.” She also points to how much it’s grown up in the past four years, noting how differently it’s being used by the main players in the forthcoming U.S. election to how it was used in the 2008 election. “Four years ago, we were saying that was the first election online. But now every national politician in the US has a Twitter account – as well as YouTube channels and Facebook. It’s now common to make an announcement online rather than distribute a press release.”
Additionally, Twitter has become much more widely adopted in that period. It first came to the notice of the geek community at the 2007 SXSWI (South by Southwest Interactive) festival in Austin, Texas, having been created and launched the previous summer. “The early wave of adoption was techies,” says Wickre, referring to that March 2007 surge of interest. “The next big thing I observed was journalists and media organizations getting on board. It’s an easy way to get your news out quickly – reporters took to it very quickly as a rich source of info,” she adds.
Now, however, it’s part of the fabric of daily lives for millions of people. “For a big event such as the Oscars or the Grammys, if I’m sitting watching it with friends, we’re looking at our laptops and reading each others’ tweets,” laughs Wickre. “And it’s made the water cooler moment now – you don’t have to wait till the next day to talk to your friends at work about something. You’re seeing that rich commentary as it happens.”
Wickre sees beauty in this form of communication. “There’s a universe in every tweet,” she says. “Who said it, who sent it, is there a video clip, is there a photo, is there a conversation: that’s made for a richness around every moment, idea and thought.”
The next stage for Twitter is producing curated content for big live events. Wickre points to NASCAR racing, which is very popular in the US. “We are creating curated pages; Twitter is putting together lists of drivers and car owners that fans can tap into. So we’re saying, ‘here’s what they’re talking about, this group of people very close to the event’. You’ll begin to see more of that kind of activity.”
If Wickre, with her decades of experience of leading and curating a strong editorial voice, has her way, voices on Twitter will increasingly find their own distinct channels.