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What Happens When Your Tweet Becomes a Subway Ad

Twitter’s latest branding campaign features tweets from its users. The authors did not get paid, but they did get swag.

Photos: Sarah Emerson

OOne day in early September, San Franciscans stepped off the subway and straight into a sea of Twitter ads. “Twitter is garbage and I am a raccoon,” says a blown-up tweet that currently looms above a stairwell at the Powell Street station downtown. Dozens of other tweets — embiggened and printed onto posters — hang on walls, wrap around poles, and cover the tile floor.

The inescapable ads are part of “Twitter Is,” a new branding campaign that is “meant to further establish the platform as the one place where all people can express themselves in a truly authentic way and to erase any line that exists between what happens on Twitter and what happens in the real world,” according to Forbes. The campaign has transformed more than 100 tweets from regular people into ads and is running concurrently in San Francisco and New York.

Some Bay Area residents have grimly noted the disconnect between Twitter’s whimsical, feel-good ads and its persistent plague of platform abuse. At my subway stop, where police routinely eject homeless people who are looking for a warm place to sleep, one ad proclaims, “Twitter is not just an app. It’s a home for us.” The company also stenciled tweets onto the sidewalk in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, in violation of the city’s vandalism laws, and later agreed to remove them, reported the San Francisco Examiner.

But according to several people whose tweets were featured in Twitter’s ad campaign, the experience was quite positive. In most cases, Twitter contacted them in a tweet or DM from its Twitter Notify account, which alerts people when their tweets have been used in promotional material.

“We love your Tweet and may want to use it for promotional materials and signage,” the account tweeted at users for this particular campaign. “Let us know ASAP if you have any objections! Thanks!”

“I wasn’t upset or anything like that,” Twitter user Steve Bezner told OneZero about his tweet — “If Twitter is a snack, what is it? Maybe Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?” — being prominently displayed by the turnstiles at the Powell Street station. “It’s a tweet about Cheetos, so it’s not anything profound,” he added.

Twitter user G.M. Palmer recalled, “They messaged me a while ago to say they wanted to use my tweet in an ad campaign and did I mind. I said I didn’t and also that it was nice of them to ask since the end-user license agreement says they don’t have to.”

Indeed, Twitter maintains the right to sublicense, broadcast, and display tweets as advertising and share them with an ecosystem of partners. Twitter’s terms of service state that “what’s yours is yours,” but by posting, you grant the company a worldwide, nonexclusive, and royalty-free license to use your content.

“I would have been weirded out if they didn’t ask permission, but Twitter made sure I was okay with it,” said user Sulama Traoré, whose tweet I pass every day on my commute to work. “It was a pretty surreal feeling — I couldn’t believe it.”

Twitter appears to have messaged users when their tweets went up as ads, usually sending them a photo — in Bezner’s case, a photo of his tweet hanging in New York’s 14th Street–Union Square subway station.

“Whatever you post ends up being the company’s property,” Bezner said. “I thought, those are some of those terms and conditions that I should have read more closely.”

“Like a month later, they contacted me on the main Twitter account and sent me a pic of the poster,” said user Henrysometimes. “That was when people were posting about their ads showing up.”

Twitter declined to comment on the record about its ad campaign but offered to send OneZero a selection of positive reactions from people whose tweets were featured. It is unclear how the tweets were chosen, though two obvious criteria are 1) starting the tweet with “Twitter is…” and, 2) being flattering to the company — for example, it opted for “Twitter is hallucinogenic fortune cookies” instead of “Twitter is a dumpster fire” from this user.

Everyone OneZero spoke to said that Twitter eventually mailed them a care package containing stickers, T-shirts, a water bottle, and a framed printout of their tweet in lieu of monetary compensation.

“It’s in my kitchen right now, mostly to annoy my children,” Palmer said of the framed print.

“I don’t know that I’ll be hanging my print,” Bezner said. “It probably belongs more in a subway station.”



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Sarah Emerson

Staff writer at OneZero covering social platforms, internet communities, and the spread of misinformation online. Previously: VICE