Twitter to the rescue?

By Allison Kennedy, Social Media Strategist

“Don’t you know, social networking solves everything?” says a commenter on facebook in reply to an initiative created by BBH interns to help raise awareness by giving 4 homeless men in New York City pre-paid cellphones and access to Twitter.  Judging by this user’s additional comments, it is clear his first rhetorical question should have included “[insert eye roll here].”

Up until recently, I would have been right there with him – until I realized the power that social networks can actually harness, and the real change they can actually bring about.

From the streets in Cairo, where protestors graciously thanked facebook for existing as a platform to start their revolution, to the streets in New York, social media has become a force to be reckoned with.  But what does it take for social media to ignite and sustain a movement?

Just like other forms of technology, social media needs to be constantly evolving – sending an e-vite or creating a cause page is no longer sufficient.   To break through the clutter, those using social media as a channel need to be constantly changing their approach to disrupt our usual behaviors, and give us a reason to take notice.

I had the opportunity to speak with the BBH team that developed Underheard in NY, the project that gave 4 homeless men pre-paid cellphones to allow them to tweet their stories and day-to-day thoughts.  Rosemary Melchior, Robert Weeks and Willy Wang were issued the challenge to do something good, famously, which Melchior and her team interpreted as, “make people listen.”

The great thing about Twitter is there are such low barriers to enter since you can use it on a prepaid cellphone; you don’t have to have a computer.  And that’s it; your voice is out there – [Twitter is the] most accessible platform out there.

[…] We didn’t ask for anything but to have people [follow and] retweet them.  People decided that wasn’t enough – they wanted to help out in other ways. Social media makes these communities possible. (Weeks)

When asked about the criticism that the approximate $1,000 in funding could have gone to more conventional use, Zac Sax, creative at BBH, explained that this concern “initially came up when project launched.”  Since then, Sax says, “the community [we’ve built] has come to these guys’ aid.  As much as you can help someone in the short term with these [traditional] resources, having an entire community upwards of 4,000 people [has proven] far more valuable.”

The Underheard in NY team is not alone in their quest to bring about change in a unique way.  BBH interns, Jana Heiss, Caroline Chambers and Lisa Taber are tackling the same do something good, famously challenge by championing social media to raise awareness for breast cancer prevention and early detection. 

“We knew that this is a saturated market, and wanted to take a unique approach,” Taber says.  Man Cans 2011 is doing so by targeting men in their 20s and 30s, a demographic that has not traditionally been given a reason or opportunity to interact with breast cancer, by asking them to consider “a world without woman’s boobs.”

Using humor and digital platforms to connect to their demo, Man Cans is creating a calendar that depicts “iconic boob moments” featuring (you guessed it), men.  The calendar, which the team hopes will spread online, will be distributed as a monthly physical reminder for men to share responsibility for the breast health of the women in their lives.

This message wouldn’t have been as effective if executed on a t-shirt or as a walk, Taber tells me.  It had to be done in a way young men could feel comfortable interacting with and sharing the subject matter.

From protests abroad, to local and national awareness campaigns, social media is leveling the playing field.  It is not giving people a voice, as some have suggested – social media is making everyone’s voice equal and accessible.  And if used the right way, it is amplified and brought to the ears of people who wouldn’t otherwise be listening.

Wael Ghonim, the activist who became a symbol of the Egyptian revolution said after Hosni Mubarak stepped down, “I’ve always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet.”

To the facebook commenter who originally got me thinking about this – no, I didn’t know that social networking solves everything.  At least I hadn’t thought so before, but I do believe (to a certain degree) it’s possible now.

For more information on these initiatives, check out:

 UnderheardinNewYork.com   and follow:  Twitter.com/underheardinNY

To be a part of the Man Cans 2011 calendar (shooting in NYC on Saturday, Feb 26 – act quickly!) or to get your copy once it’s done, please visit: Mancans2011.tumblr.com