Accountancy in the Twitter era

This article is reproduced with the permission of CAmagazine, published by the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, Toronto.

By Jim Carroll

We stand at a seminal moment — a crossroads as it were — between what we might call the new age of disclosure and the new era of inattention. On the one hand, an enraged citizenry is seeking scapegoats for everything that has gone wrong with the global economy. (News blog The Huffington Post summed it up pretty well with a headline commenting on a meeting between President Barack Obama and various bank CEOs: “My Administration is the Only Thing Between You and the Pitchforks.”)

The people are mad as hell, and understandably so. As part of the process of reconciliation, we will see all kinds of new rules and regulations within the financial sector and beyond, including most of the business world. Let there be no doubt, in the year to come we will witness a new, onerous set of regulations surrounding financial disclosure — let’s call it SOX 2.0. There are going to be new forms of regulation, more financial disclosure and far more detailed reporting requirements.

On the other hand, while we ponder an emerging need for more detailed disclosure, media reports seem to indicate that the general populace is rushing off to Twitter-ize itself. Twitter, of course, is the latest rage online — in the past few months, it has become the most popular online social networking service next to Facebook and MySpace. In a nutshell, you post to Twitter short messages of up to 140 characters about what you are doing at any point in time, and anyone can choose to “follow” or read your posts. The result is an entirely new form of online interaction that can’t really be described — you’ve got to experience it.

It’s growing fast: a search of headlines in a popular database reveals a several-thousand-percent increase of references to Twitter in blogs, news stories and television shows. Even late-night talk-show host Jay Leno is talking about Twitter.

So here’s the thing: to satisfy the demands of angry investors, the typical 10Q and SEDAR filings will have to quadruple in size, if not more. Pretty soon, a typical public company will need to file several thousand pages of disclosure documents to keep up with regulations. Financial statement footnotes will become complicated enough to deserve their own dead tree. An army of accountants will find itself dedicated to the cause of digging deeper with every single sentence.

At the same time, the audience for whom these lengthy documents are targeted is concentrating on writing 140-character texts. When they send a tweet (as a post in Twitter-land is known), they will also find tweets from those who follow them. In the course of a day, someone might post a dozen tweets; they will find hundreds of similar 140-character pearls of wisdom from their followers.

Not only that, but people are starting to add to their Twitter posts 12-second video clips on 12seconds.tv. In other words, short bursts of information, plus video! A day on Twitter is like a day of hyperactivity, with rapid-fire communication, some of it nonsensical and other parts of it brilliant — all happening at a scattershot and furious pace.

So, the big question is, what is the relevancy of accountancy in the Twitter era? Since no one seems to be asking the question, I thought I would. Might you soon find that verbosity is not the path to take with SOX 2.0? Might you instead find yourself one day writing a financial disclosure that goes like this: Qlfd opn’n. Gng Cncrn vr m2m vln on unreal(dude!)ized rvnu.

If you understand that, then your brain synapses have shrunk enough to fit the speed of information in the modern age.