Thursday, January 8, 2009

Flash Causes

Earlier this week, something happened involving Twitter that has convinced me and a lot of other social media watchers that on-the-fly “flash” advocacy—rapidly, self-assembled groups formed to instantly solve a problem—has already arrived, big-time.

On Tuesday, a Chicago design executive, David Armano, posted an emotional tweet on his Twitter feed to request help for Daniela, an acquaintance facing urgent family and economic problems. We’ve all heard about social media appeals but this one turned into a genuine flash cause, as Armano’s online social network of more than 8,000 followers galvanized into action. Within a few hours on Tuesday, Armano’s appeal had raised more than $5,000. By Wednesday, thousands of sympathetic tweets had poured into his Twitter feed along with donations topping $11,000. By noon today, the cash raised had exceeded $15,000—and growing. “OK friends,” Daniela tweeted this morning, "thank-you for an unforgettable day and a half [sic]. I’m cooked. Really am so proud at how you came through.” [One of the people who donated to Daniela called the flash group, in a tweet, “the social media compassion mafia” and congratulated it for its generous and rapid response.]

The significance here is that Daniela’s digital rescue isn’t an isolated phenomenon. For months now, people in social networks have begun to self-organize into flash causes using Twitter—as well as other forms of social media. [Much has already been written about’s recent Tweetsgiving campaign, which raised $10,000 in the 48 hours before Thanksgiving to build a classroom in Tanzania.] Earlier this fall, techPresident blogger Nancy Scola and colleague Alison Fine organized the Twitter Vote Report, which began as an effort on election day to create a real-time citizen-watch campaign to guard against voter intimidation—but also ended up providing a popular way for mostly first-time voters to share their personal experiences voting in a presidential election.

So what does all of this mean for social action? Can people like Dave Armano or EpicChange organizers Stacey Monk and Avi Kaplan be as successful a second time—if, say, they tried mobilizing their networks again, but this time on behalf of someone or something else? What makes people more prone to staging a successful flash cause than others? Are flash causes a temporary phenomenon fueled by the novelty of the technology, itself, or yet another powerful example of how one’s social capital online can be more powerful, in some ways, than personal wealth in fighting social ills?

There’s no science yet on the subject, of course, but there seems to be many things that flash campaigns have in common so far—a social network of highly motivated people who want to do something autonomously of any established group; the belief that no other group can help as quickly or as effectively; the shared desire to help create something new and unique, and the inspiration of an influential, highly engaged catalyst [or pair of them] with an already-large online social network poised to make a difference.

Still skeptical? HubSpot’s recent State of the Twittersphere Report estimates there are some 5 million people in the Twitter community and that it's growing by some 10,000 new accounts per day. Key to more growth will be the types of conversations the community will have; many social media watchers [myself included] believe Twitter use will become more cause-focused as it integrates a search function—and as more sophisticated mobile phone technology becomes ubiquitous this year. Watch for more efforts using Twitter as a “citizen watch” or flash-cause organizer locally and abroad.

For more on David Armano’s campaign for Daniela, go to Armano’s blog, here, and his Twitter page, here. For more on the rise of self-organized, online cause groups, see this video clip (below) of Clay Shirky addressing the recent Pop!Tech 2008 conference. Social media, Shirky says, are encouraging people to “design [new groups] for generosity” and are—in the process—“reversing everything we’re used to” about traditional philanthropy.

(Illustration, above, by Miroslaw Pieprzyk for

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Blogger Scott Drummond said...

Great post Marcia. I followed David's amazing initiative very closely and blogged about it myself.

The question you pose - whether David could do this again - is interesting to speculate about, but I don't think we should fixate on the power networkers who have raised huge capital with flash cause-wired initiatives (even though the case studies are fascinating).

The lesson from these examples is that we can all begin to leverage the latent social capital we accrue in our relationships for positive change.

ChipIn and other innovative widgetised tools allow any individual to become a philanthropic hub in their own micro-community.

Rather than ask whether David can do this again, I see his example as a challenge to everyone else to at least contemplate doing something similar in their own networks.

January 9, 2009 at 1:03 AM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Scott, for your comments. I, too, am hopeful that many more people will, as you say, "at least contemplate doing something similar." And, absolutely -- as Clay Shirky speaks about cognitive surplus, there also is latent social capital that could be pressed into service for others. Please stay in the conversation here about your observations and new examples you find. There is a lot to learn in this fledgling space from others.

January 9, 2009 at 1:28 AM  
OpenID kanter said...

Having mobilized my networks 7 times to raise over $220,000 for Cambodian children over the past 2 years using social networking tools - I think they can mobilize again. The question is scale AND how well they do their networking weaving and practice reciprocity between mobilizations.

BTW, there was a fascinating discussion of what Armano did - I summarize it over at my blog - but basically the fact that he no only raised money, but delivered the services directly.

February 1, 2009 at 7:45 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Beth. Your own work in this area has been very impressive, and gives hope to those also seeking to make a fast and meaningful impact via social media organizing tools. I look forward to following your ongoing initiatives for more insights! Thanks for reading and commenting.

February 1, 2009 at 7:54 PM  

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