Is this tweeting ad executive really Mad Men’s Don Draper? Is this “old white man” really Pierce Hawthorne from Community? How about this one?

The rise of Twitter has created a marketing opportunity and identity crisis for media brands looking to do what they always say they want to do: “engage.” What Twitter does better than any other platform is allow brands to put on a more human face.

Whether you’re a New York Times reporter or an airport, Twitter makes engagement easy. But it also makes it easy for others to hijack your brand.

The rise of social media has brought back a classic dilemma: How much of their own content should brands control? Allowing fans to create their own works from copyrighted material has always been a perceived problem – just look at the tussles in fandom’s most celebrated community, the Trekkies.

Two decades ago fan fiction was a popular but hidden practice, distributed in underground networks, through gatherings, and in the mail. The old kind of mail. Yet the digital revolution has brought fandom out into the open and so far the evidence is clear: Fan-generated content is good for business.

Mad Men Wars

What’s the problem with fake Don Draper, now with nearly 13,000 followers? Two years ago cable channel AMC thought something was, and shut down a host of Mad Men Twitter characters, claiming copyright infringement and false marketing.

The Mad Men-Twitter wars, now peacefully ended, are instructive. Creator Matthew Weiner is notoriously protective of his show and its messaging, hating on spoilers to the extent that even the teaser clips at the end of each episode are so cryptic that they’re effectively pointless. He’s so obsessed with preserving the series’ historical accuracy that creating official Twitter accounts for characters from the 1960s probably seemed sacrilegious.

But AMC underestimated the zeal of its fan base. Character-driven – as opposed to plot-driven – shows inspire identification and, therefore, fiction. While online social networking clearly does not fit within the universe of the show, the themes of Mad Men – secrets, obfuscation, ambiguity – compel fans to fill in the blanks. AMC should have realized that it did not need a centralized Twitter campaign: The fans would do it themselves.

The Social Networks

Meanwhile, many younger and less high-brow TV series have experienced the opposite dilemma: So well-suited to Twitter are shows like Fox’s Glee and NBC’s Community that networks have felt compelled to participate. Glee’s official character accounts are among the most popular on Twitter, garnering tens of thousands of followers (Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester tops them at 120,000).

Yet despite its openness to Twitter, the network isn’t too active on the site. The official Glee characters have just a couple hundred tweets apiece; likewise for some of Community’s ensemble.

To cater to its base, the modestly-rated Community staged a “Twittersode” to promote its second-season premiere (it wasn’t the first twittersode: MTV did something similar last year with its transmedia web series Valemont). But the effort came off as a somewhat desperate attempt to generate some Glee-like buzz.

Community and Glee’s Twitter accounts are both pretty funny, but neither show seems to be able to meet the demand from their audiences.

To Tweet or Not to Tweet

What’s the takeaway from AMC’s and the networks’ diverging Twitter experiences? Serve your fans, or get out of the way. If your business or brand is developing a following, give consumers more content; if fans beat you to it, let them thrive. In the end, fan activity cannot be forced or faked.

CBS realized that the crowd has the answer when it optioned a Twitter account, now the decently-rated $#*! My Dad Says – a practice it is repeating. Old Spice followed demand when it had actor Isaiah Mustafa record dozens of personalized YouTube videos to Twitter fans.

If consumers want to hear more from your brand, they’ll say so. And if they don’t hear back, well, they’ll just do it themselves.