Exploring the city, Twitter is an invaluable tool

Boloco located at 1080 Boylston St. Click image for more photos.

On a nice day Tom O’Keefe can be found taking a walk through Boston Common, grabbing a beer at Publick House, then closing out the night at the bars on Boylston Street. While enjoying his day out and about the city, he tweets about it.

O’Keefe founded Boston Tweet in order to bring attention to local businesses. With his iPhone in hand, O’Keefe ventures through the city broadcasting things he thinks Bostonians would enjoy.

“It’s really all about what I like to do and places I like to go,” he said. “It kind of is Boston according to me.”

From beer tastings to musical performances, O’Keefe tweets about it all. He also gives a voice to the people by allowing them to broadcast events and happenings on BostonTweet.com. Any tweet that includes @bostontweet automatically gets pulled onto the site.

O’Keefe said he is just an ordinary guy who likes to go out and explore the city. He has lived in Boston for approximately 20 years and graduated from Boston College with a degree in economics and politics. After a number of unsuccessful start-ups and the economy’s crash, O’Keefe started Boston Tweet in November 2008, and so far it has been the most recognizable thing he has done, he said.

O’Keefe said he really values things that students and 20-somethings would enjoy like cheap places to eat and free events. He does not get paid for doing this job.

“I don’t make a dime off this. It’s purely where I go,” he said. “Not being paid allows me to go wherever I want and not be worried to offend people. It makes it a lot easier.”

O’Keefe said that he does not plan on making money off Boston Tweet but in the future would consider expanding, possibly with an iPhone application. The reason he maintains Boston Tweet is because he loves this city. To pay the bills, O’Keefe also works for Groupon, a company that provides daily coupons for things to do and places to eat around Boston.

“I don’t make money off of my tweets, and prefer that, but I make a lot of connections,” he said. “I do it mainly because I love Boston, it opens a lot of doors for me and it creates a massive amount of exposure for me.”

O’Keefe has also not advertised Boston Tweet. Its popularity has picked up through word of mouth.

As of April 27, O’Keefe has 15,333 followers, and in the month of March, Boston Tweet had more than 17,000 unique visitors.

“It’s purely just the people enjoying the content and following me on Twitter,” he said.

O’Keefe said he has seen the popularity of Twitter expand in the last year and a half that he has been using it. He did not have a Twitter account before starting Boston Tweet.

“It definitely wasn’t as popular as it was today. The best quality of Twitter is that it’s mobile. I can tweet when I’m out and about. It’s easy and it’s free,” O’Keefe said

Other local businesses have turned to Twitter to enhance the conversation with their customers.

John Pepper, CEO of Boloco, the burrito restaurant with multiple locations including Boylston Street and Huntington Avenue, started using Twitter about the same time as O’Keefe did in order to create a dialogue with the restaurant’s customers.

“We don’t know what the return on investment is. There’s no proof it has increased sales or had any real effect on our business. All we know is that it’s allowed us to communicate better with our customers,” Pepper said. “For us, it’s not really about building the business, but rather giving more avenues to the customers.”

Pepper said that Twitter can be a slippery slope because any business that decides to use it must be prepared to be honest and transparent.

“If you’re comfortable being honest with customers and accepting the good and the bad comments, then it is an invaluable tool,” he said. “If you truly want to embrace customer feedback and build a business based on that, it’s an unbelievable resource.”

Kerry Israel, audience development manager for the American Repertory Theater, said Twitter is all about engagement, connecting with people and creating a stronger presence in the community.

“The beauty of social media is that you join a larger conversation,” Israel said. “People are always going to have something to say, so Twitter is a way to overhear that conversation.”

Steve Quigley, associate professor at the College of Communication at Boston University said he is amazed and awed like everybody else with the astronomical growth of Twitter.

According to Nielsen Online, Twitter’s unique visitors grew from 475,000 in February 2008 to seven million in February 2009.

“It’s the immediacy of it that’s just staggering,” he said. “For essentially no cost, anyone can publish and reach a large number of people who have given you permission to communicate with them. The permission thing is a huge deal. Anyone can get a megaphone and stand on the corner and shout at pedestrians, but if you think about it, Twitter is powerful because it works best when people have indicated that they want to keep an eye on you and are exposed to your thoughts.”

Israel made a note of the hard work that goes into maintaining a Twitter feed.

“It can get crazy monitoring Twitter, but it is always an exciting thing to do, especially when I’m having a crazy day,” she said.It’s great to see positive comments … and it also provides an opportunity for us to help out if things come up. That’s the beauty of it – instant, real-life communication.”

O’Keefe sympathizes. He said he is often out until 2 a.m. and that it is not something that can be easily done.

“I can’t keep up with this pace for many years to come,” O’Keefe said. “It is a hard job but it’s much better than sitting in a cubicle all day.”

Asked whether he considers himself a journalist, O’Keefe’s immediate response was, “No. Do you? Am I a journalist?”

Quigley would respond yes. In Quigley’s eyes, O’Keefe may not be practicing journalism, but he is definitely a citizen journalist.

Whether it is considered a form of journalism or not, the power of Twitter cannot be denied.

“Twitter is powered by its simplicity. People in awe of Facebook or even Google have been awed by Twitter’s simplicity. It is much more simple and some might say, more elegant than Facebook. I think Twitter is more powerful for real-time communication. The real-time immediacy of it is pretty remarkable,” Quigley said.

Simple is how O’Keefe views Boston Tweet as well.

“It really is a simple concept. Boston Tweet is all about going out, having fun, and tweeting about life in the city. That’s it. There’s not much more to it,” he said.

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