Women of (social media) influence

22:01, Jul 01 2014
Marianne Elliott
INFLUENTIAL: Marianne Elliott has almost 10,000 Twitter followers from overseas and New Zealand.

If we’re talking about social media and influence, we might as well begin with a tweet.

‘‘When you worry about your followers remember Jesus only had 12 and 1 unfollowed him.’’ So said Twitter user Priya (@thewordy) last week. 

It’s a less-than-140-character summary of what really matters on Twitter. The follower-hungry obsessive might believe influence comes down to numbers but with the option to ‘‘retweet’’ what a person has said, a single message to 100 followers can quickly spread to thousands.

Judith Collins
Judith Collins

If Twitter is an unfamiliar land, think about that old Faberge Shampoo commercial. ‘‘It was so good I told two friends about it. And they told two friends. And so on, and so on ...’’

Sarah Wilson (@writehandedgirl) says ‘‘numbers can be misleading’’. 

To be an ‘‘influencer’’ on Twitter, one is supposed to have more than 2000 followers but it simply doesn’t matter.


Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson

Wilson has fewer than 2000 followers. An average blog post would receive 500 hits but a post about Work and Income earlier this year ‘‘hit the right nerve’’, boosting her audience and getting 40,000 hits.

Wilson signed up to Twitter in 2009 as ‘‘more of an experiment’’. It wasn’t until she became chronically ill 18 months ago that she began to use it regularly.

‘‘It was a godsend because when I first came out of hospital, it was impossible to get out of bed. I was living by myself and although I had visitors, it was a way to connect with people.’’

She had been writing a blog (writehanded.org) documenting the ways in which her life had changed and the realities of living on a sickness benefit.

‘‘Part of that was just processing it myself but I also wanted to educate people. There’s so much stigma around being on a benefit, I wanted to explain how it was.’’

In March, she wrote a post detailing a visit to WINZ and tweeted the link to her followers.

It was retweeted 200 times and the post itself got 40,000 hits. She was contacted by MPs, her story was picked up by mainstream media and reported nationally. 

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett disagreed with Wilson’s summation of the benefit system but nonetheless, a line of contact that had previously been unimaginable was real.

Despite negative comments that she believes come to all outspoken women, Wilson has been pleased by the way social media has worked for her.

‘‘I’ve always been quite passionate about social justice and I can’t be the way I want while I’m sick. But what I can do is write and it’s an incredibly powerful tool to me when I’m just sitting at home in my pyjamas in my bedroom.

‘‘I’ve learnt so much from Twitter too. I wouldn’t have even called myself a feminist before I joined but it’s taught me well and opened my eyes up to new things.’’

Roy Morgan research from September last year said about 268,000, or 7.5 per cent of the population, used Twitter. Its users are growing at a faster rate than Facebook but Facebook has a far higher penetration with 2.2 million users, or 61.1 per cent of the population.

Covering all bases, Cate Owen (@CateOwen) has 7495 followers on Twitter, a Facebook page, website and is on Google+. Having studied media and computer science she first put her studies to use producing online and interactive segments for TV3’s Sunrise programme. These days she is a social media strategist and digital adviser for MediaWorks and other media outlets, a role that extends to advising high-profile New Zealanders, like Jay-Jay Feeney and Dom Harvey, and journalists on their personal Twitter profiles. As a personal interest she curates ‘‘Tweets of the Month’’.

‘‘Women are inclined to be more chatty on social media,’’ she says. ‘‘Twitter is one of those places you can find your own community. People who are naturally a bit more introverted or social phobic — they can really open up on social media. I’m a bit like that but I can be sitting up in bed with my cat and when I’ve had enough, I just close the laptop.’’

One of her tricks is to time posts on Twitter so she can keep up a regular feed while maintaining a social life. 

Even those who prefer to keep their anonymity can have a certain persuasive power on social media. One user who prefers to only be known as Jackie (@whaeapower) with fewer than 1000 followers has managed to change the lives of other women with a group of people she calls the ‘‘Twitter Aunties’’ or ‘‘Aunty Mafia’’.

As a volunteer for a women’s refuge in Auckland, Jackie started tweeting about some of the needs of the women, such as a microwave, kettle, winter bedding.

‘‘Then someone needed help with their power bill. I asked for help on her behalf over Facebook and Twitter and bingo, it was paid.’’

Then she decided to step it up a notch and collected Facebook friends and Twitter followers who were prepared to send Christmas presents for the six women and 18 children in the refuge over the festive season.

Someone donated a tree and decorations. The children each received six presents.

While perhaps not an influencer in terms of numbers, she is certainly a compelling force.

‘‘People care deeply and feel helpless,’’ she says. ‘‘They don’t know how to help, and I’m one of the the people on Twitter who show them how they can do that. 

Once people know how they can help, more importantly how they can feel needed, valuable, worthy – a base human need – then they’ll do whatever they can to help you.’’

Marianne Elliott (@zenpeacekeeper) had 9236 followers at the time of writing. As author of Zen Under Fire (her story of being a human rights lawyer with the UN stationed in Afghanistan), Elliot started her Twitter account because her publisher suggested she needed to build a follower base. A follower might mean a book order and pre-sales were important. She found the best way to increase followers was to engage with people who shared one or more of her various interests – teaching yoga, human rights, writing, politics.

While many of her followers are based overseas, one that gained a huge amount of attention in New Zealand was her take on rape culture in New Zealand following the RoastBusters scandal. To her surprise, it was retweeted many times and got 5000 shares on Facebook.

Elliott manages another couple of Twitter accounts, including the Mexican restaurant she and her partner own, plus her start-up company ActionStation (@actionstation), an online campaign site.

‘‘I learn a lot off Twitter, it’s a useful place to see what’s trending. If something is building it might be ripe for some sort of campaign action,’’ she says.

‘‘I use columns in my Tweetdeck, for example, New Zealand influencers. If they’re talking about something, there’s a good chance a lot of people are seeing it. 

‘‘Whether that’s political, environmental or social, or otherwise. It’s so immediate, if they’re talking about it now, then you can almost predict mainstream media will be talking about it the next day.

‘‘It’s about conversation. Twitter feels more like being at a party than anything else. 

It’s about conversation, whether that’s you taking part in it or just eavesdropping. Facebook feels a bit more like a noticeboard.’’

So while Twitter can have a vast spread, it doesn’t always pay to Tweet fast and loose. MP Judith Collins (@JudithCollinsMP) came unstuck earlier this year and decided a Twitter-break was in order.

At the time, Prime Minister John Key said he backed Collins’ decision because it was full of ‘‘trolls and bottom-feeders’’.

Perhaps Sarah Wilson is right. Outspoken women are under attack.

 Women of Influence NZ is brought to you by Fairfax Media and Westpac. To nominate yourself or someone else go to stuff.co.nz/woinz.