Harvard Business Review

Twitter: Technology for Scaling Good


Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 25, 2011 9:45 AM

By Amy Jo Martin

Three years ago, I developed “Random Acts of Shaqness” — Twitter stunts designed to help Shaquille O’Neal bridge the virtual and physical worlds by, for example by posing like a statue in Harvard Square so fans could take pictures with him. Shaq wanted to surprise and delight his fans, to connect with them and make smiles scalable. No doubt this was a brand play at the time, and one that worked. Random Acts of Shaqness has been wildly popular and helped change the nature of O’Neal’s endorsement deals to include social media.

Recently, though, I had a revelation about the formula responsible for making RAoS successful: It can bring more than just smiles. It can be the technology that scales good deeds to the global level. It has already started.

This might strike some as counterintuitive, that Twitter, that channel for broadcasting narcissistic impulses, for branding and feeling good about yourself, might be the key to a global surge in kindness. In fact, Twitter creates a strange chemistry between the seemingly immiscible elements of self-centeredness and altruism. It turns out that people want to get noticed and they also want to do the right thing and Twitter uses the former to fuel the latter. And it scales. For the first time in history, we can do a lot of good, very fast, at a low cost.

Here are the five characteristics of Twitter that will make the act of good scalable in unprecedented ways:

Accountability and transparency spin narcissistic acts into selfless acts. You tend to be on your best behavior in public, and on Twitter, everything you say is public. Anyone in the world is invited to “follow” you. You may like to think of that word, follow, in the sense that one follows a leader, but follow also means trail, track, hunt, chase, go after, pursue. Twitter invites constant surveillance of your ideas. It’s the epitome of positive peer pressure, and leads to people using the channel to broadcast what they want the rest of the world to think of them.

The rate of committing acts of good is only bound by the speed of technology. In a race between the government, traditional media and Twitter to see who could disseminate important, useful information worldwide the quickest, Twitter wins. And it’s not that close. Twitter connects 200 million participants 24/7 on an open network that enables instantaneous delivery and nearly instantaneous redistribution.

The peer-to-peer nature of the open network pushes value to the top. Another difference between government or traditional media and Twitter is who determines value. Government agencies and media outlets use authority and gatekeeping functions, which are slow, and not always right. On Twitter, the users decide what’s valuable and how much any given message spreads. It’s a truly open market of ideas. Consensus is the only authority.

Participation is easily justifiable. Brevity reigns. Faster equals better (and therefore more valuable). Every decision we make about what we’re going to do takes into account how long it will take. The less time it takes, the more likely we’ll participate. Tweeting a 140-character message or re-tweeting one is a low-barrier, thoroughly acceptable act.

Accessibility and lack of boundaries create an equal opportunity space Social media, especially Twitter, also democratizes access. Gatekeepers (editors, authority figures, governments) and physical boundaries (distance) have lost their relevancy to a network where, if you show value, you and your ideas are granted global access.

I came to this revelation based on two recent, connected events. First, rewind to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a crisis that unfolded moment-by-moment via Twitter. I watched the streams of traffic and was amazed to see everyone’s typical Twitter motives (branding, self promotion) pushed aside. Suddenly, we were all in the business of helping humanity. The revelation was personally epic. People wanted to help and help was a click away. Just as a small community bands together in the face of local devastation, Twitter brought the global community together. Helping by disseminating valuable information and doing the right thing by instantly donating money became everyone’s focus.

Second, fast-forward to the Women’s World Cup Final when the team from recently-devastated Japan competed against the U.S. It was a record-setting night for Twitter; 7,196 tweets per second were sent, the most ever and much higher than the tweet rate on the night that Osama bin Laden’s death was announced or during the last Super Bowl.

Why was women’s soccer, historically an inferior sport, the source of this record-breaking tweet rate? It doesn’t hurt that, statistically, the US and Japan are among the countries with the most Twitter users, but it was more than that. The world had recently witnessed Japan experience compete devastation, and Team USA had played some dramatic earlier games, which along with the exposure of players’ personalities, humanized their brand.

Here we have a high-volume global user base and an emotional connection to both teams tightly aligned with the five fundamentals outlined above.

I attended the Women’s World Cup Final in Germany. Sitting field-side, I was able to expose what television feeds couldn’t and the content resonated. Analytics showed that nothing out-performed this photo that I tweeted of Team Japan thanking the world for their support. Not even live video of the crowd as goals were scored and exclusive behind-the-scenes photos performed as well.

Not only did the world want to see Japan celebrate and feel good, they wanted in on the feeling. So they participated in a record-breaking fashion. This wasn’t about soccer, sports or patriotism. This was about live emotion, feeling good and creating more “good.” That evening, good went viral. People want to help and people want to witness others helping each other. Both of these happen naturally on social channels, at a very low cost.

What does this mean to the corporate world? If large enterprises embrace social channels throughout every division of their company, then their community relations and charitable initiatives will gain momentum and naturally become part of this movement. (Serendipitous aside: I’ve discovered while writing this that Twitter’s own head of corporate social innovation and philanthropy, Claire Diaz-Ortiz, is thinking along the same lines, and has published a book about it. I came up with the title for this blog without knowing about the book.)

Additionally, the impact scaling acts of kindness will have on company culture is immeasurable at this point. One thing is certain: This is an opportunity to motivate employees and to add purpose to their work day in a way that’s unmatched historically.

To gain social authority, you must be kind because power is shifting to the hands of the masses and it’s trending positive. Twitter is the impetus for a global rise in goodness. How far will it go? Can it make more organizations forces for good? Could it bring world peace? No pressure.

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