#tweetbike – the last word (for now)

or what this social experiment was actually about…

What was #tweetbike?

The scene-setting post is here – but briefly, it was a last-minute experiment in real-time, self-organising social travel during a time of disruption. I monitored, and updated, the #tweetbike [you need to sign in to see the tweet stream, sorry] hashtag to see how well an impromptu, free biketaxi service would work during the Tube strike.

Why did I do it?

Twitter feels like it’s itching to be used for practical applications. There are a lot of ‘novelty’ information utilities there, along with quite a few bits of ‘usefulness’ (but they mostly tend to be using Twitter’s promotional ability to virally communicate). But you can’t get much more practical than a dirty great motorbike turning up at your door when you ask for it ;-).

Why did I really do it?

To have a laugh for a couple of days and indulge my love of randomness. A mash-up of a traffic-busting vehicle and a social network is pretty random… And no one had tried it before.

OK, really, really?

To understand more about, and share, what makes a real-world, real-time social utility viable, trustable, and sustainable.

The experience in words (I’ve put some pictures here)

A slow start on Wednesday, trawling up the A23, stopping every few minutes from Croydon onwards to tweet my location (discovering at Clapham that the GPS needed a manual nudge to update it – leading to some comments that I’d travelled five miles in what seemed like five minutes. *cough cough*…). One early taker from Tooting decided at the last minute to work from home, and I’d just missed intercepting the gallant @guyker in Fulham by a few minutes as he headed for his bus, even though he was very much up for it.

Headed west to follow the route of the Northern Line; ignorant – until @racarter told me – that it was still running. Doh! But then so were many of its usual passengers, judging by the queues at the bus stops. Still no takers. All the way to Clerkenwell to get the pre-booked, urbane and very chilled @heathtully who clung on as we navigated a horrendously blocked-up Commercial Rd to get to Tower Hill. Then another lull; even what must have been thousands of people at Liverpool St weren’t biting. But things slowly picked up, with a series of bookings already coming in for a little later in the day.

With a bit of juggling, and not too many disappointments, I managed to draw up a continuous schedule; Victoria to Charing Cross; Marylebone to Farringdon; Shepherd’s Bush to Clerkenwell; Charing Cross to Paddington; LJOTD, as @cabbiescapital might say, Kennington to Clapham; (if you know of a way that I could have tracked this ‘trail’ on the map, do let me know!) Needed to be back at home to take over childcare at 18.30, so inevitably disappointed a few hopefuls for the run home. Including the mission to pick up a wedding ring – now that was a worthy cause! But in the late afternoon things were definitely swinging.

The tweet profile throughout the day was interesting, and worth a look (via the #tweetbike stream). Early burst of retweets announcing the service got things moving, and whenever I gave a very real-time operational update, e.g. “at Holborn Circus, heading west in 5 minutes if I don’t get any takers”, this would also prompt a bit of ‘operational’ retweeting. But gradually, as the story became better known, the ‘story’ tweets and retweets began to dominate. When the audioboo went up, and later that night, the BBC Online story (erm, thanks, Daren), the channel became all about the story, not the operation.

The next day – although I’d deliberately not announced it in advance, I threw open the virtual doors again to any takers after lunch. I’d tried a couple of things in the morning; firstly, swapping to the noisier and more glamorous #tweetbikeextreme for a bit more fun (and recognising that with Twitter’s lightning-fast product cycles, 24 hours without some brand and product diversification really wasn’t on…) but more seriously, trying to warm up the message that #tweetbike wasn’t actually me, or my bike, but a concept.

You can create hashtags, but you don’t own them – and with my tweets I was pushing the idea a little more that any public-spirited biker might also want to join in and have a bit of fun giving a lift here and there. The channel was open for anyone to use, consumer or supplier. But no takers, which was interesting, but perhaps not that surprising 😉

So, there I was in town, fuelled by a delightful lunch with @tiffanystjames, wanting to see just how spontaneously such a service could spring up again, as another test. By this time, most of the tweets were retweets of the various online news stories and blogs that had sprung up. General agreement that it was a great idea, but very little in the way of actual takers. One brave chap, @handlewithcare, had asked for a lift earlier in the day. So he got one. That was one of the points I was testing – if a service, even as sketchy and notional as this one was, existed, what would it take to get people to actually seek it out?

End of Thursday, home, knackered, dirty, with a grin a mile wide.

Analysis (I over-analyse by habit, so this is abbreviated…I will discuss more on any point if you comment!)

Twitter likes a ‘story’ so much that perhaps operational services could always get overshadowed.

– The lifecycle of interest makes a mayfly look like Methuselah.

– Not commercially viable (at the moment). Even with a strike on and no charge, the big interest was beginning and end of day, not round town during it.

Logistics: although a ‘handler’ for the messages would have been nice, it wasn’t actually as hard as I’d thought to coordinate a schedule. I arrived at every pick-up to the minute, if not a few minutes early. I’d love to know how this would have changed if other #tweetbikes were operating, but didn’t get the chance to find out.

Trust: amazing. I remember a conversation in 2003 where I swore blind that anybody who used eBay was insane (I hadn’t quite cottoned-on to the concept of community reputation: let’s just say I’ve been on something of a journey since then…). Whatever reputational capital I have through my Twitter profile was clearly enough to reassure my passengers that I wasn’t going to eat them. Or that if I did, I’d soon be found out…

Sustainable? Probably not. Twitter channels that appear suddenly seem to be promoted initially, enjoyed for a while, then tolerated, perhaps then suspected, and eventually can become an irritant. Sometimes this progression can take as long as, oh, 12 hours… Yes, I think I did get a comment at some stage using the phrase ‘show-off’, and though that’s probably fair :-), it’s always a balance that’s needing to be struck in a medium as fertile and volatile as this one.

What did I find that I didn’t know before?

It’s really hard to tweet while riding a motorbike [joke].

It is actually possible to update a GPS position safely at the traffic lights.

Predicting travel time on a motorbike in London is easier than you think.

Very real-time, spontaneous decisions didn’t happen. People needed time to plan and adapt their travel plans.

I thought I might need to go into detail on some of the etiquette involved in asking people to use the # channel sensibly; to look at existing bookings and manage their own requests accordingly; to respect the order of requests put in, even though I was still riding and hadn’t managed to respond, and so on, but I didn’t. Self-organisation does, I think, work extremely well. Would love to test this with more riders and passengers…

You’ll always need more power than you think. Thanks to @coigovuk for the quick top-up at 4pm.

Sitting on a motorbike all day in leathers gives you a really sore arse.

Invitations on the street to non-twitterers. Not a hope. Really very likely to get you arrested. Don’t go there. Sorry, lady-at-Paddington, who stopped to ask me directions. You can certainly run fast, can’t you?

I can’t disagree with a word of this very well-put analysis


The #tweetbike – a 2004 Yamaha Supermoto XT660-X. 45 horsepower, single cylinder, grunty dirt/track hybrid. Aftermarket Carbon Cans exhaust to let ’em know you’re coming…

The #tweetbikeextreme – 2009 version of the same. Spec as above, but with Carbon Cans stubby carbon fibre kit to let neighbouring planets know you’re on your way.

Pillion kit. Hein Gericke overjacket and lovely supermoto gloves rammed inside an Arai helmet enclosed by a helmet bag (which virtually garroted me as I carried it – another learning point there!).

Legality. I’m insured to carry non-paying pillion passengers. (Though nobody actually asked or checked…) This was all completely legal, and as it wasn’t for commercial gain, didn’t fall foul of the taxi licensing authorities either. Quite how the Twitter stream would have played in court is a matter of debate…

Camera – EOS 40D dSLR. Complete waste of time as I only took about 5 pics with it and still managed to drop it, busting a rather pricey lens. 🙁

GPS/phone/mobile internet. Battered and somewhat ancient O2 XDA Orbit. The experience finished off the phone, which died completely on Saturday.

GPS/cell tracking. Inspired by @Whateleya, driven by Google Latitude and using a piece of bodged-together code hosted on a free website.

Inspiration: community-minded people like @lloyddavis, @ivoivo and @robertloch who are slowly teaching me that the strangest things are possible if you give them a go… and @treefroggirl for a chance comment the day before that helped me crystallise a few existing thoughts.

Self-appointed PR and marketing busybody: @darenBBC 🙂 with added contributions from @helenjbeckett

Lovely, intelligent and accurate write-up: @jemimah_knight from @bbc_HaveYourSay

Tea: @alex_butler and @tiffanystjames at @digigov.

Amazingly trusting passengers: @heathtully, @katiemoffat, @lisadevaney, @lexij (twice!), @pocketsons, @tiffanystjames, @handlewithcare and Sharon Cooper.

Video by Flip, operated by @neecouk. Background laughter by @brianhoadley.

Audioblogging via Audioboo.

My hair by Phil Spector.

Thank you all and goodnight.

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