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Goodness on Twitter: from attention-sharing to tweet fund drives to good mobs

Twitter's "suggested users" list is a Who's Who of Twitter celebrities, featuring the likes of Al Gore, Lance Armstrong, Ashton Kutcher, John McCain, Martha Stewart, and others with millions of followers.

Maple and Leek

Twitter’s “suggested users” list is a Who’s Who of Twitter celebrities, featuring the likes of Al Gore, Lance Armstrong, Ashton Kutcher, John McCain, Martha Stewart, and others with millions of followers. The New York Times claimed that a spot on the list would guarantee 500,000 additional followers and reported that social media guru Jason Calacanis had offered $250,000 to be listed.

Last Friday, Twitter did something remarkable. It added a number of well-known social entrepreneurs and innovators to this list, among them Social Edge, Skoll Foundation, Kiva, Matt Flannery (Kiva co-founder), Acumen Fund, Jacqueline Novogratz (Acumen Fund founder), charity: water, GOOD Magazine, Kjerstin Erickson (FORGE founder), and Room to Read. Not knowing what was going on, Kiva’s Flannery thought there was a spam attack and complained about the 500 new users a minute he was getting. But not for long.

Twitter’s move is huge, not only because it propels social entrepreneurs to enter mainstream but also because the microblogging service--THE trading floor for attention on the Web--has decided to give away some of the attention it attracts to promote good causes. Consider it the New Socialism: a redistribution of attention, not of material wealth. What’s even more remarkable is the reaction of one of the benefitting organizations, Social Edge, which immediately sent out a message to all its new users pointing them to a list of 100 other social entrepreneurs and innovators on Twitter. Give more than you take: that’s the power of meaningful marketing and exactly the kind of giving that makes companies thrive in the ‘share economy.' Good creates more good.

There are other, even more immediate ways in which Twitter can be used for doing good. My colleague Jacob Zukerman proposed it the other day, and I found the concept instantly compelling: instant social action, enabled by Twitter. Tweet Mobs for collective action. The idea is simple: Convert all the attention on Twitter into real-world action--in real-time. With some twitter users attracting more than a million followers, their social influence is significant--why not use it for social good, especially when you can “eventize” it by creating artificially scarce moments of real-time public collaboration?

The link between tweet and deed is not new on Twitter and exists in various formats (Mashable has provided a great overview): Cause-related fundraising (Tweet fund drives) via Twitter has been made popular by Twestival, Tweetsgiving,12for12k, Tweetathon, and others. An alternate concept is Twollars, a Twitter-based currency with no hard money value that allows users to pledge money to charity using Twitter. Describing itself as “a currency of appreciation for Twitter,” it effectively connects micro-payments with micro-blogging. (Speaking of currencies, PollyTrade links Twitter accounts to E*Trade account and allows brokers to trade stock via Twitter.) And there are Tweet-Ups--offline events initiated and organized via Twitter--but in this case, too, the tweet and the deed are asynchronous. Carrotmob, a congenial social media platform for social activism, uses Twitter, but it still requires a moment of translation as well: good will and a commitment to a cause can be immediately “socialized,” however, the output--the action--still occurs via intermediary.

All these formats do not convert instantly into offline action in the way Flash Mobs do. What if followers not only follow but do (in the best “Here Comes Everybody” style)? What if Blog Action Day became Twitter Action Minute? These Twitter Mobs or Smart Tweets would capitalize on the unique combination of peer pressure, presence, location-based eventization, and of course, sheer reach. The train wreck Sarah Lacy-Mark Zuckerberg interview at SXSW 2008 was a negative example of live-mobbing on Twitter, a disaster unfolding in real-time, amplified through the synchronous meta-conversation on Twitter. The #CNNfail campaign in response to CNN’s deficient coverage of the Iranian election, was another one. The enormous power of these real-time conversations is frightening, but it is also promising. The more optimistic equation goes like this: Attention = social capital = social action. What if a group of Twitter followers all picked up one piece of garbage from the street? What if they all gave food to a homeless person? What if they exchanged money, products, hugged a stranger, etc.? And so on. It’d be a real-time, real-world transaction that would be as swift as the transactions taking place at breathtaking pace every second in the highly virtual realm of international finance. A smart attention-to-action cascade. A Good Mob.

Maybe a fantasy--but a good one.