From politics to pop culture, the power of Twitter to shape events, people and brands continues to surge.

From politics to pop culture, the power of Twitter to shape events, people and brands continues to surge. While 25 million people now follow Lady Gaga, across the world, Twitter was also on hand to break down traditional media barriers as a key tool in the Arab Spring protests.

Twitter has just published its transparency report, sparking a debate about the ownership of tweets. Against this backdrop are millions of small and large businesses that are navigating their way through the labyrinth of the new social media universe. How many followers you have on Twitter, how many re-tweets you generate and, yes, eventually, how many sales you can make from a promotion you tweet are all measures of a successful and integrated media strategy.

The concept of generating ‘followers’ however, is not new to digital marketers. For years now, acquiring email addresses has determined the perceived success or failure of any retail ecommerce department. And a subscriber is not vastly different to a follower. Both represent customers or potential customers, who have agreed willingly to receive communications from the retailer. However, if you overload customers with too much, or inappropriate, information, they will unsubscribe or unfollow you in exactly the same way.

So what’s the difference? Ownership and control. Ask any digital marketer, and they will know that their list of customer names is backed up several times over by their IT department. It is saleable to third parties, where customers permit, and is tangible and forms part of the assets of a company. And in valuing an online retailer, it can be a significant part of that equation.

But who owns what with Twitter? It’s free to join, so there is no consideration and contract. While Twitter in its own self interest will seek to provide a good service, its users have no real power to demand it. You would never send out key messages via an email at the moment you were upgrading your website, for example. But Twitter can do what it likes. If you are the US government, you can ring up Twitter and ask for a delay to planned maintenance so you don’t interrupt tweeting Iranians. But few of us could pull this off. And if Twitter one day ‘loses’ your followers, who will you pick up the phone to call? It is unlikely that this would happen, but the point is that retailers investing in building up their base of Twitter followers have no control, no contracts and no idea what Twitter will do next or where it will head strategically.

Many will argue that Twitter has put the consumers back in charge of marketing.

Search already gave customers the ability to ‘pull’ information rather than relying on advertisers to ‘push’ their content. But companies such as Google also worked hard to provide retailers with analytics and tools to regain some of the lost control. None of that presently exists with Twitter.

One thing is certain. We can’t afford to ignore it, just because we can’t control it. But if Twitter wants a serious place on the retail agenda, it will have to give us something tangible with which to work.