Looking Back on the Greatest Twitter Experiment Ever

Sweden’s social media culture experiment was derailed, but that doesn’t mean it was a failure.

In December 2011, Sweden decided to try something odd with its Twitter account. The Tourism Ministry, curators of the @sweden Twitter handle since January 2009, handed the account information to writer Jack Wermer. He had no real connection to the government, nor any experience representing the whole country. But that was perfect for the Swedish government, which believed that the best way to present their country to the world would be by giving control of their digital presence to average citizens.

Wermer was just the first in a chain of everyday folks—priests and teachers and coffee-addicted lesbian truck drivers—nominated by their peers and vested with the power of being the temporary face of the nation. These citizen-spokespeople were lightly vetted (based on their writing skills, specifically for engaging tweets), gently discouraged from using the account for illegal activity or politicking, and then told to just go wild. The soft touch involved almost guaranteed that the experiment would eventually breed some distasteful commentary and become problematic. But although the Swedish Twitter project failed to connect with the global public in the long term, don’t call it a failure. By abandoning artifice and ceding control, the Swedes created perhaps the most innovative social media campaign ever, setting up a template that—with some tweaks—can and has helped other organizations recreate themselves in a more human, interesting light.

If the greatest Twitter experiment ever appellation sounds like rank hyperbole, consider for a moment what usually passes for innovation in the social media sphere. To spice up an account, marketing blogs and experts usually recommend corporations to try different colors and graphics, post fun photos and links, and maybe even (gasp) tie in a competition or call to action. At the far extreme, companies are encouraged to explore judicious wackiness—tangential GIFs, photoshopped stunts, and so on. As of last year, the latest shocking and innovative social strategy was complimenting your competitors over Twitter. In other words, what passes for innovation is usually just a stilted attempt to guess how your average jerk navigates the internet.

But by turning themselves over to whatever the Scandinavian equivalent of Joe Sixpack is, the Swedes sidestepped the problem of simulated emotion and artificial zaniness to create something truly unexpected, engaging, and informative. Even if they weren’t able to answer everyone’s practical questions on the nation, we still got a taste for the everyday and diverse culture of the nation with straight talk about masturbation, meta-tweets from an 18-year-old, and accounts of moose hunting. It was just absolutely bonkers fun.

Then in the spring of 2012, along came Sonja Abrahamsson, a self-described “27-year-old womanlike humanoid” slash single mother of two with little formal education living in Gothenburg. Abrahamsson’s tweets, like: “Whats [sic] the fuzz with jews. You can’t see if a person is a jew, unless you see their penises, and even if you do, you can’t be sure!?” understandably struck many around the world as troublingly anti-Semitic. By her own account, Abrahamsson honestly wanted to work out a few questions about an ethno-religious group she knew nothing about and could not figure out what was offensive about her questions. But when things got rough, she cut and ran. Soon after, @sweden returned to more formal control under predictable pressure.

One Abrahamsson does not negate the value of a direct-to-the-people, truly-unexpected-and-revealing social media strategy. The project probably could have continued successfully with better vetting. (Abrahamsson reportedly kept a blog that made frequent in-jokes about Hitler, which should have been a red flag.) And even vetting and control is no guarantee of perfect conduct. There’s inherent risk in the real-time, reactive presentation of a company or country. So it seems better to take that risk on something a little more interesting and worthwhile than hyperlinks to crazy Buzzfeed quizzes related to your newest product launch. Fortunately, at least a few groups appear to buy into that logic. Organizations in Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have all played around with variations on the Sweden model in recent years. Even if the nation’s radical experiment didn’t fly immediately, it’s taken hold in pockets of the internet, and as it refines itself, deserves another chance to revolutionize an otherwise fairly stagnant world of official tweets.

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