The Collective Power of Individuals

Posted by: Helen Walters on January 07, 2009

Last night, two things happened on Twitter that seem to me to point to the reality of our present day connected world, with trends that are budding now that will revolutionize many an industry and many a life.

Happening # 1
David Armano (@armano), VP of Experience Design at the Chicago marketing consultancy Critical Mass, posted an enigmatic tweet on his Twitter feed. “Hey everyone. I am going to need a very BIG favor from you. It’s going to be asking a lot. I’ll let you know more very soon.” A few minutes later he posted a request for help for Daniela, an acquaintance in a bad situation.

Sadly, we’ve all heard similar stories before. But what happened next was nothing short of phenomenal. Armano’s network of 8,150 followers swung into action, spreading the word about Daniela. Within a few hours, donations had reached $5,000. Tweets of support poured in. By this morning, donations had topped $11,700, and there’s probably more to come.

Happening # 2
Tireless tech world figure, blogger, Tweeter (etc), Robert Scoble (@scobleizer) found himself in a jam.

The bus transporting him and eight blogger cronies to the CES show broke down about 100 miles outside of Las Vegas. “Getting taxis to come pick us up this time of night is proving troubling,” Scoble tweeted. “Any ideas?” Apparently so. Scoble’s network (of nearly 48,000) swung into action and a few hours later the day was saved. “Tons of people have been helping us get unstranded – all via Twitter,” Scoble noted.

There are a few forces at play here. First and most important, the importance and value of a true network. Both Armano and Scoble diligently respond to their network, engaging and discussing, merrily debating and disagreeing. No one would have given a dime to Armano, no one would have lifted a finger to help Scoble, if they hadn’t felt a genuine connection. That’s why businesses that are successful on Twitter have a human face. Where once a brand could tell consumers what to think (even if it was that their product was good for you), top down, authoritarian monologues don't cut it in this world.

Secondly, this isn’t the future. It’s just another step on the way there. Armano can’t repeat this trick. Scoble shouldn’t bank on his bus breaking down every week. People were galvanized because this is new as much as anything else. The surge of the crowd inspired others, and the good will was palpable and moving, but it strikes me that if another person in Daniela’s unfortunate situation tried to emulate the success of this experiment, they wouldn’t do so well.

Again, it comes down to individuals. Both the networks in play here have been built up over years. As Armano wrote, this is the first time he’s tried anything like this. Indeed, the experiment wasn't really planned; more an idea he put into action on a whim. But I bet it’s the last time he tries this in a while, too.

Nonetheless, I think both stories provide a great, salutary reminder that nothing less than humanity lurks among the bits and bytes. Don't you agree?

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Reader Comments

Chris Finlay

January 7, 2009 10:42 AM

Nothing short of thrilling.

Kudos to all the do gooders, retweeters and logistical good samaritans.

Sam Ismail

January 7, 2009 11:32 AM

I went to sleep last night strangely elated after $6000 had been collected for Daniela.

It's fair to say we always need to be reminded of the power of the human spirit, especially in the times we are living in.

Textbook awesome stuff.

Erin Dorr

January 7, 2009 11:34 AM

The power of community. Feeling lots of goodwill today.

Casie Stewart

January 7, 2009 11:35 AM

It was truly amazing to watch! I wrote a post while it was happening. Check it out!! http://casiestewart.blogspot.com/2009/01/power-of-post-social-media-with-love.html

John Jantsch - Duct Tape Marketing

January 7, 2009 11:36 AM

The key point - networks are built by giving first.

And yes, some of this is about the newness, but it's also about the evolution - I've seen the two events you referenced countless times on twitter, but I've also seen them in email and cocktail party settings too.

We are headed to the future, but it keeps moving away from us.

David Mullen

January 7, 2009 11:42 AM

I caught the middle of Armano's story - really Daniela's story - unfolding late last evening. I was impressed for a couple reasons.

First, it spoke of Armano's reputation and connection with his Twitter network, as you noted. Second, it was touching to see people giving a little, despite a down economy, to help someone they didn't know. In a time when most people are focused on self, it was great to see people giving instead of receiving.

Anna Barcelos

January 7, 2009 11:44 AM

Proof that humanity does exist despite all the negative outside forces. I truly love people and believe in their goodness.

kevinmhuff

January 7, 2009 11:45 AM

Great post -- I'd like to point out one very interesting observation.

Both @armano and @scobleizer have thousands of followers -- it's not that surprising that they both found the help they needed.

MOST users on Twitter don't have the reach to experience what these two networks accomplished.

So it's VERY, VERY cool ... but I would add it's highly isolated and falls way short of a what can be expected by most users.

http://www.twitter.com/kevinmhuff
http://ipersona.blogspot.com

David Armano

January 7, 2009 11:46 AM

Helen.

A very thoughtful write up. One clarification, Daniela isn't a family friend (well, I should say wasn't). She's someone we came into contact with as my wife does some coordinating for our Church's children with special needs group.

I actually agree with the "can he do it again"? thought. I probably can't. Humans can't scale the same way organizations can.

BUT, the collective is a powerful thing, fueled by millions of individuals who will take turns stepping up. The next time, I'll help someone spread a message when they need it. That's how the currency works.

But mostly, we like yourself are humbled. And that's about it.

Tim Brauhn

January 7, 2009 11:48 AM

This was all very exciting, I agree. Now all we have to do is flatten it, extend it out to more people, and build a functional, responsive, and responsible framework for the social web.

Sarah Montague

January 7, 2009 11:54 AM

It is amazing to see how quickly trends, stories and requests for help can circulate around Twitter networks. Kudos to all that helped.

twitter: @sarahmontague

Helen Walters

January 7, 2009 12:20 PM

Thanks, all, for your great comments.

David -- I adjusted the text of the post to reflect that Daniela is more of an acquaintance than a friend. And thanks for your additional insights on how this might scale.

John Jantsch -- I love this: "We are headed to the future, but it keeps moving away from us." And I agree that this phenomenon itself isn't new. As you say, people have been mobilized and galvanized by other means before. I guess I'm just keen to emphasize that the bonds of the network need to be strong before they are tested. Executives shouldn't see these case studies and imagine that they can simply start sending out sad stories and that heartstrings will instantly be tugged. There's many more complex forces at work, and humanity's at the heart of it all, which is a rather nice thought in these defiantly digital times.

Again, thanks all for the comments.

Caitlin Rosberg

January 7, 2009 12:50 PM

I actually think this *could* happen again, given the right circumstances. I doubt that David Armano has the time and funds to be taking in people that need help on a weekly basis, and I know that we don't have enough money as a community (or neighborhood as Armano put it) to be donating often either.

But we do have motivation all of a sudden. The scale at the bottom of the post about Daniela was KEY. People love seeing the RESULTS of what they're doing. Knowing that Scoble and his friends were safe, seeing that Daniela and her family were getting even more help than they ever could have expected, that is what motivates our community. We want to know how what we do is helping people, which is the power of the instant gratification we can get on Twitter.

I would guess that this trend of helping others out in emergencies continues, and continues to get smaller and more localized, with attention going to the people who aren't "rockstars" too.

Mary Anne Shew

January 7, 2009 12:56 PM

I finally remembered today who Armano reminded me of via this event: George Bailey in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life." In its last scenes, the whole town comes to George's rescue after the evil Mr. Potter steals the Bailey S&L's entire $8K bankroll.

I've only been on Twitter a few months but have followed Armano since the beginning, based on the recommendation of a dear friend, Yvonne Divita (@y2vonne), one of his many followers.

Even in that short time I've seen David post several giving tweets. I can only imagine what others lurk in the thousands of his tweets that I missed.

Like George, David has build up incredible goodwill among his followers. Like George, who never left Bedford Falls despite wanting to all his life, David (with his wife) was also already giving his personal best to Daniela, letting her and her children stay with them instead of having to go to a shelter.

And like what happeneed when George's wife Mary put out the call for help, David's followers didn't hesitate.

As you said, Helen, this is not something David could repeat, at least not any time soon. And I doubt the citizens of Bedford Falls would have jumped in a second time if George got himself in another jam.

Thank you David, for a great start to 2009.

Tresha Thorsen

January 7, 2009 02:26 PM

Helen, Thanks for your post.
Networks matter indeed. You trust you give. But to the point on your comment “Executives shouldn't see these case studies and imagine that they can simply start sending out sad stories and that heartstrings will instantly be tugged.” I would say Why not?

Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Monitor "to injure no man and to bless all mankind" because she was convinced we needed more objective reporting and good news. She saw that comprehending trends of good going on globally actually impacted world thought.
That hunch led to a paper now into it's 100th year of coverage.

Where would journalism be but for her bold risk?

Why shouldn't executives act spontaneously?

Consider two more examples:

1. In less than 3 hours, @kanter helped mobilize Boston's Social Media Breakfast to retweet Tyson Food's promise to deliver 100lbs. of protein to Greater Boston Food Bank per every comment on its blog. 3 hours into this, 700,000lbs of food later, Tyson Foods donated 2 truckloads. (full story: http://tinyurl.com/8j7uhv)

2. Toronto's "HoHoTo" campaign used Twitter to raise $25k for its Food Bank in just under 3 weeks (http://pistachioconsulting.com/hohoto-twitter-party/)

I would hope every single executive takes these stories seriously and challenges their employees to create a campaign using twitter to microdonate.

It's a movement that reflects the reality of humanity's yearning to help and heal.

Nothing like looking to these examples, imagining possibilities and making them happen.

Thanks for sharing the above stories.

Helen Walters

January 7, 2009 02:51 PM

Thanks again for the great comments. Tresha -- my point is not that executives shouldn't think spontaneously, nor that they should avoid using networks to mobilize forces. On the contrary! There are clearly powerful forces at work that can be harnessed for many different purposes and many different contexts. But it seems to me that all too often, people see a good idea and then simply try to copy it, without understanding those deeper issues at play. I love case studies, but when it comes to applying the learnings one gets from them to one's own world, context is critical too. Anyway, thanks again for the comments, all, Helen.

Catherine Ventura

January 7, 2009 04:43 PM

What was, for me, particularly compelling was the specificity of it. You knew exactly who you were helping, why, and how. It was practically irresistible, and one of the things that separates "community" giving from sending to a giant corporation like United Way, where there much less sense of connection to the actual effect you will be having.
It's been an exciting week on Twitter, first watching Rick Sanchez get hacked in real time, then watching this wonderful outpouring in real time. This was better!

@venndiagram8

Sean Moffitt

January 7, 2009 07:51 PM

Helen,

I would complement you the columnist too here...for being engaged enough to know that these two stories were going on implies a sense of savvy about what is swirling around social media's new shiny thing in almost real time...well done.

Although I find the A-list set of bloggers and Twitters maddeningly incestuous and self congratulatory...when I see @armano and @Kanter 's random and planned acts of kindness, it stirs my jaded soul and restores my faith in the "social" of social media.

@seanmoffitt

Beth Kanter

January 7, 2009 11:58 PM

This trend is not new -- many individuals outside of nonprofit organizations have acted as free agent do gooders - have been using social media/social networkings to activate their networks.

Okay, maybe their not big names or have the size networks that Scoble or Armano have - but they are getting results. Take a look at this list of Twitter fundraisers:

http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2008/11/first-there-was-trick-or-tweet-and-now-tweetsgiving-.html


In 2006, I discovered I could activate my network to donate small amounts of money to send a young Cambodian woman to college in 2006. I wrote a fairly detailed how-to in the hopes that other people might be inspired to do this:
http://widgetfundraising.org -

it was a small amount raised, but paved the way for me to raise over $210,000 to help Cambodian orphans using social media and my network.

Here's a few more well-documented case studies of the collective power of individuals to do good with social media:

http://gsp4good.wikispaces.com/

http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2008/08/tracking-the-fl.html

http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2008/12/social-media-breakfast-leverages-two-truckloads-of-tyson-food-donation-for-boston-food-bank.html

Maybe we will see more of this in the months to come from everyday people and a listers alike -- and not just during the holiday season or because it's trendy.

Tresha Thorsen

January 8, 2009 02:49 AM

Helen, Worth stating: Beth Kanter (Beth.typepad.com) has raised over $215,000.00 for children in Cambodia through social media fundraisers using the 'collective power of individuals' that you speak of. Her story, expertise, and experiences is well worth a separate article in and of itself.
And there's several other stories of people raising anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. What all of us surely will be asking is to what degree can corporate leverage help these individual campaigns..whether it should or needs to. This is a movement whose direction none of us can yet measure. But it's moving....case studies formulated or not.
Thrilling is the thought that lives can help each other with such little effort and where titles and labels are dropped and connections between nations are built and nurtured heart by heart.
Thanks again for this story.

Mark

January 8, 2009 08:57 AM

I just heart happy endings...and now that Armano has raised this money for Daniela, what's he gonna do? He's out helping her look for an apt., in the $1,000 per month range.
Daniela's income, if Armano is to be believed, isn't even $1,000 per month...
So I want to see what happens once the money runs out, and he has to continually bang his friends on the social media sites more money for Daniela.

Mark

January 8, 2009 09:14 AM

Talking to @HelenWalters on Twitter, she readily admits that she has no proof, other than the one photo that Armano has posted online, that this "Daniela" even exists.
Great investigative reporting by the folk at BusinessWeek!

HelenWalters

January 8, 2009 09:39 AM

Mark,
Thanks for the interesting exchange on Twitter (for those interested, visible in the #daniela thread.) You raise some interesting points. But please note, I wasn't writing a story about Daniela per se. I was writing a story about a socially driven experiment to help a woman called Daniela, brought about by the power of one man's hard-won digital network. Whatever the truth of Daniela's own story, the fact remains that a large amount of money was raised in a short period of time because of the faith that 8000 or so people had placed in the sincerity of one man most of them have probably never met. BusinessWeek readers are interested in the phenomenon of social networking -- and the impact that such could have on their business. My story was an attempt to alert them to what was going on and to parse the meaning of these events in a useful way. You, of course, are welcome to pursue a different angle of the story. Good luck. Helen

Chris Flanagan

January 8, 2009 10:24 AM

For those of us who have been in the throes of this phenom for a while, I think you're most prescient point in this post Helen was "This isn’t the future. It’s just another step on the way there."

@armano and @scobleizer stories are not new, they are just another addition to the overall social networking story. Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody is chock full of similar events (albiet most of them are pre-Twitter).

Like Shirky, I believe we’re in the midst of a revolution as profound as the advent of the printing press. Can't wait to see where it all nets out.

@chrisflanagan

james

January 8, 2009 12:07 PM

Would Design by Humans or springleap.com be examples of crowdsourcing?

Sarah

January 8, 2009 03:56 PM

Wish it would work for everyone. I have lots of Twitter followers—but 12,000 fewer blog subscribers than @armano, and haven't been able to get near as much help for my friend dying of cancer:
http://cli.gs/WY0btp

David Armano

January 8, 2009 11:55 PM

Mark,

Some of us are using technology to help, as best and as imperfect as we can. If you really wanted to know the truth about what is going on at my house at this very moment, you could have called my mobile number which is listed on Facebook.

It's true that you can't access this anymore because I chose to de-friend you. That's because you chose to go on some kind of offensive that I really don't comprehend.

We've both made our choices. As Helen says, good luck. -David

Andy McGinnis

January 9, 2009 02:18 PM

Superb observations here. While there are a few, grand-scale examples, there are probably thousands more of small, one-off examples of the power of social media.

A local journalist needed a ride to the airport last month. He put out a plea on twitter, and was able to get a ride — during one of the worst snowstorms on record. And from a follower he had only met once in "real" life.

I'm very interested to see how this social phenomenon of faith and trust in people you've only built relationships with through social media will play out in business.

Very exciting. Thrilling, in fact!

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About

What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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