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While the BBC drools over Twitter, look what UK's up to: Hospital superbug breakthrough

Blabbergasm overdrive masks life-changing bacteriophage research

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Comment The BBC has gone Twitter-crazy this week, with every pre-IPO twitch reported in the top-of-the-hour bulletins. But when you peek beneath the hype, it's not the wonder-fest you might think.

Twitter "changed the world, hashtag-by-hashtag" gushes the website. "Could we hatch a British Twitter?" asks Rory Cellan-Jones. Short of Lord Reith rising from his grave and striking Paul Dacre dead during an edition of Strictly Come Dancing (Judgement Day edition), nothing could get the BBC's news hounds quite as excited.

Compare the slack-jawed adulation of an internet company (which, remember, has never made a profit) to the recent British breakthrough that promises to solve a huge threat to human life and happiness. The resistance of bacteria to antibiotics is increasing, and has been compared by the World Health Organisation to a new plague. Dr Clokie's work promises to open a whole new branch of science: the understanding and manipulation of bacteriophages to provide an organic response to infectious bacteria.

However, the capital investment funding the British research has come from a US company, Ampliphi, which acquired exclusive IP rights to its work. The profits from this British invention will be banked in the United States.

Yet on with the Twitter show we must go. In stark comparison to the US media, which has an audience of retail investors, the UK has paid little attention to the risks. These risks are very real, and assessing them may lead one to question Goldman Sachs' valuation itself. Risk ratings outfit Rapid Ratings has its own metric that gives Twitter a risk factor of 92 per cent - compared to LinkedIn's 46 per cent and Facebook's 33 per cent. It says 92 per cent is in line with the stinkiest dot.coms that went to market between 1997 and 2000.

How could this be?

Listeners to BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Tuesday heard the ubiquitous Martha Lane Fox (aka Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho) telling listeners that Twitter is a "quite remarkable" engagement tool. Twitter certainly has some potential as a feedback pipe for big media companies, and "engagement" basically means bring audiences to advertisers during popular TV events, such as X-Factor, and for celebrities to boost their egos. Lots of small service companies take advantage of social media to do this, such as Zeebox.

Yet even a cursory look at the numbers reveals how weak this really is. Seventy-two per cent of Americans are on Facebook, compared to 22 per cent on Twitter. Thirty-six per cent of those twitterers never Tweet: they use it for following their favourite sports or movie celebs. It's fairer to say that Facebook has replaced email in the daily lives of lots of people, while Twitter remains a passion for a few.

The problem of fake Twitter accounts was also sidestepped. Last year the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones did a brave piece about Facebook's fake accounts - but it's actually a far bigger problem on Twitter, as even children now know. Fake followers can be bought by the thousand:

The synthetic Twitter economy of fakes

One would think twice about investing in a junk currency that anyone can print in their own shed, so why should we buy Twitter stock?

Amazingly, the Today programme's "expert" on Twitter's financials James Whatley appears to have no financial experience, and previously worked in a public relations function for "speech recognition" company SpinVox. Surely none of "Whatleydude"'s 10,589 followers could be fake followers - could they?

If we wanted a cool-headed rational assessment of Twitter's risks, alas, we weren't going to find it here. It was left to the more sceptical Today anchor Justin Webb to burst Lane-Fox's bubble, and she sounded surprised that he'd done some homework.

Indeed the biggest threat to Twitter's much ballyhooed "engagement" magic comes from people "engaging" using something other than Twitter, as Webb suggested. And it's already happening: the fastest-growing sector on the internet is messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Viber and even BBM.

They already boast more active users than Twitter and they haven't yet begun to tap the commercial potential of this engagement in a professional way. With people engaging in their own groups, Twitter will be left to monetise what's called "loose engagement" - essentially becoming a graffiti wall with a filter.

It seems rather vulgar to raise any of this on Twitter IPO Day - a day on which we're required to point at the sky, like yokels seeing an aeroplane for the first time. Meanwhile, I have yet to see the question "Could we hatch a British Ampliphi?" asked by the BBC - or anyone else.

It's surely one worth asking. ®

Tweetnote

@ruskin147 is Rory Cellan-Jones' personal Twitter account.

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