Twitter and the emerging medium for change -> “What are you doing?”

Twitter is giving rise to the most accessible, participatory public medium in history. The implications for social change, innovation, and entrepreneurship are huge but hardly explored. In the coming paragraphs I explain what I see and call out to you, to all, to help surface what’s happening and understand how it can help us create the world we want. I care because we need change like never before. If that matters to you too, please read, comment, and share. Let’s see where this goes.

dawn flare

What’s going on with Twitter (now at over 32m users – up from just 1.6m a year ago) is the emergence of a new medium based on the public micro-message – the most accessible, participatory public medium in history.

Think about it. That’s huge.

It’s the potential for 4B people to post, read, and respond to each other. Neither TV, radio, telephone, email, or the web have the same potential in terms of accessibility and participation.

Enabled by its ‘micro’ (140 character) and ‘public’ attributes, the medium fosters a communications DNA that makes it a hotbed for interest-driven sharing, discovery, connections and spontaneous collaboration. Being micro, it is also SMS compatible making it work with the most distributed communication technology we have – the mobile phone.

Social change is about people, engagement, and systems. Already, examples in citizen journalism and fundraising demonstrate some of the unique potential for real-time communication and spontaneous collaboration.  #mumbai and #hudson, broke news and photos of the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the crash landing of a United Airlines flight on the hudson river well before any other media were able to report it. #daniela raised $16,000 for a needy family in less than a week.  And in less than 18 days, over a dozen people peer produced #hohoTO, a sold-out party for over 600 people that raised $25,000 and 2t of food for the Daily Bread Foodbank. Taking it further, reasearch is underway into how it Twitter changes how we respond to disasters and even politicians are embracing the transparency. If this is what be happening with 5, 10, 20 million users,  what’s possible when we’re dealing with 100m or a billion users around the world?

Is it utopia and the solution to all our problems? Of course not. But we are talking about a medium with core attributes that make it the more compatible with social change and innovation than any other. This is not about ‘tool or strategy’ this is about the birth of a medium – and its potential as a medium for change.

Already there are some great starts at the infrastructure (SMOB, FETHER,, rsscloud, etc), standards (TwitterData, MicroSyntax,etc.) and usage questions (Kanter, Bravo, Wikipedia, etc.). But we’re just starting to scratch the service. Getting to the roots of this and how we can use it to make change needs a focus on social change and a coordinated strategy. Key tracks for that are:

  • surfacing what’s already happening in terms of use, research, and potential for social change;
  • studying the impacts and implication of the medium on making change; and
  • encouraging systems and standards that optimize the medium for public benefit (more on that in my previous post).

So let’s get to it. This medium is here to stay and the potential for change making is profound. What have you seen? What do you think? “What are you doing?” Please do comment, share and let’s take this forward.

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27 thoughts on “Twitter and the emerging medium for change -> “What are you doing?””

  1. We are trying to use Twitter for social change with, a voluntary effort to raise and keep raised the issues surrounding “health care reform,” a now-overused and ambiguous term. I think Twitter is an awesome tool for creating social change.

  2. That's great Francine. How does Twitter uniquely change/make possible what you are doing with it. Very interested to hear stories about how it changes the very way you can come at social change.

  3. Great post!

    I think the surface is just getting broken, and I am excited for the potential for dynamic collaborations that can arise from the Twittersphere. I am using the medium to engage local microfinance and development organizations, establish working groups, discussions, both formal and informal, to further our collective missions to end poverty.


    Scott Everett
    Grameen Foundation Technology Center
    2101 4th Avenue, Suite 1030
    Seattle, WA 98121
    +1.206.325.6690 x229
    skype: scottgf – combining the power of microfinance, technology and innovative solutions to defeat global poverty

  4. twitter is instant, not deliberate and is more valuable in the flow of an event with multiple venues than in most other places. it's multicasting of the same event is particularly strong. it deals with simultaneous complexity well. i recall some old style analyst saying he read all the tweets from #sxsw and couldn't find one that was coherent and comprehensive. he knows not twitter.

  5. 'he knows not twitter' – this is one of the challenges… understanding what twitter is and what makes it unique. We all have hunches and one-liners but really understanding what's going in something that could use some more serious digging.

  6. Help a friend launch his political campaign using only twitter and also raised $20,000 in donations in a single day. On top of that, already created a state-wide network of supporters who have pledged to volunteer when the time comes.

  7. yeah he sort of has a blog idea, but shrunken and condensed. the blog that became a raisin.

  8. I'm just scratching the surface, but want to learn it all! Where to begin?!?! I remember when it just first came out! I've been working in the online advertising world for a little over a year, but my heart is with philanthropy and nonprofit work. I volunteer, while working to make a living. I want to launch a philanthropic, social networking website that will raise millions of dollars for good causes, but I'm still piecing it all together still. I really want to learn about all the magical powers of twitter and the internet. It's been a year and I know a world's difference from what I had known previously…by the end of 2009, I hope to have figured the rest of it out (or met the people who know what i don't). As for now, I'm just Twitting all of the nonprofit websites that I visit, and/or articles that I read. I put up a post when/where I'm volunteering, what I'm donating too, etc…
    What else can be done?!?!?!? What are people doing? How is it being tracked? How do you get people to “follow” you?
    Any help is MUCH APPRECIATED!

  9. I joined the Twitterverse in October 2008 as a way to get the word out that I was entered into the Ideablob contest. I quickly saw that I could learn a lot by following smart people on Twitter and reading their links. Somehow, as time went on, I started gaining followers (not really sure why or how, but that is part of the Twitter mystique). I also started tweeting a lot about the development and progress of Lend4Health (a site I started to facilitate microloans for health). For me, it was a way to document or archive what I was doing. It then became a great way for me to quickly and easily tell people what was happening with individual loans. For example, so-and-so's loan has been paid off, or that a monthly repayment installment was received on somebody else's loan. While these are not *exciting* tweets by any means, I do believe they have become an important aspect of the Lend4Health transparency that I am trying to build for credibility/trust sake. As time goes on, those who follow me see that loans are being repaid, and they also see when a loan is delinquent. This consistent posting of small bits of process-related info gives current participants easily digestible updates on their actions and their impact; it also gives potential participants several entry points to get involved. And in my mind, I feel it serves as a great transparency medium. A year from now, nobody can tell me that I didn't involve people or that I didn't give people the chance to have input or that I wasn't clear about what was going on with loans. I have a body of tweets to back it up (if, that is, these tweets are saved for eternity, which I'm thinking they might not be).

    Another very important use I'm getting out of Twitter is the ability to reach new people who I'm sure would not have otherwise known much about autism, or about the treatment of autism, or about how to make a quick loan to help somebody seek that treatment. People who follow me (more than 1,300 now) and people who follow those who follow me might have never made a loan on Lend4Health were it not for my being on Twitter. These loans did not start immediately after I joined Twitter; it took a few months of my immersing myself in Twitter and establishing some presence and community there that people started to, I am guessing, feel comfortable enough with me and trusted me enough to want to make a microloan on my site. This has been really great.

    Going along with that, I really am excited and amazed to tell you that many of the Lend4Health loan recipients/families are starting to get on Twitter too. I believe they join Twitter because they know Lend4Health is there, and then they start creating their own communities. But the REALLY cool thing is that, because there are now Lend4Health *lenders* and Lend4Health *recipients* on Twitter, they can follow each other, and they are! This completely changes the dynamic because there is no filter, there is no middle-man. The family can update the lender directly on the progress of their child's health. The family can thank the lender directly for their loan. The lender can express their support and encouragement directly to the family. This adds an amazing dimension to the peer-to-peer lending experience, I believe, and it happened totally organically. It is still very new, but it seems like it could have some amazing effects. I mentioned this new Twitter experience to some people at Opportunity International, a 37-year old non-profit organization doing microloans for the developing world, and they were dumbfounded. One mentioned the incredible “power” that something like that could have in their organization if even 1/3 of their donors started interacting directly with 1/3 of their microfinance clients. It really brings out a brand new experience in terms of community-building, direct impact, crowd sourcing, peer-to-peer, trust, transparency, and reach.

    In some ways, this might be “scary” for traditional nonprofits — it feels like you are losing control. Oh my gosh! What happens if a borrower in the developing world can tweet directly with the donor that made their loan possible? What role, then, does the nonprofit have? I think @kanter has started talking about a lot of this when she talks about the “tower vs. the cloud” in the nonprofit sector. For Lend4Health, this is not really “scary” because Lend4Health has basically been built and developed THROUGH Twitter and other social media channels; we never had a tower to begin with, so this new use of Twitter is certainly intriguing and exciting, but not really “scary.”

    I'd also like to add that Twitter has given me direct, unapologetic access to thousands of people whom I would not have otherwise “met.” And from these thousands of people, I have met new lenders, but I also have met the person who is helping develop my new website pro-bono, I have met a Director of my new non-profit, and I have met tons of supporters. I believe Lend4Health would be in a completely different place right now if it were not for Twitter.

    I know this is very long, but I have a lot to say! hahah 🙂


  10. Tori – thanks for sharing your story – this is a mini-case study – worth being a standalone post. Incredible and a great depiction of how it can spread and takes hold and add unexpected value.

  11. Great post and I completely agree with Scott's and Tori's (particulary the emerging Lend4Health network) comments. I am less interested in the the ability to reach out and pull in with Twitter. The node centric model has a lot of communication mediums. What is most fascinating about Twitter is the opportunity to focus on and strengthen the network which is i believe is not about the some of its parts but instead, a network is measured by the strength of its connections.

  12. Yes – it's about the connections – discovery of new connections –
    collaborating/conversing with existing connections. The point is
    connections – loose, fluid, strengthening, leading. Where else could we
    forge these light-weight yet surprisingly potent connections with 4B people
    around the world. This is the potential.
    I'm also finding a big part of what makes that work is the public
    (undirected) posting of things we are interested in. Its the fuel of these
    connections. Without that the medium moves toward a hollow shell – back to
    piece of technology.

  13. Great Thoughts Michael, funny to see you on this thread too Kevin.

    It seems one thing that twitter offers in the public sense is being able to see who else is doing what you are doing. Though I haven't actually gotten deep into twitter exploration surfacing similar pursuits could be extremely helpful for cause-based organizations dealing with specific issues. Also, the local nature of twitter(local place as well as real-time) lends itself to encounters much more so than IM(a private digital instant medium) or sign posts(a public physical asynchronous medium)

    Do you see a need for a semi-private, or temporarily private aspect of micromessaging. Something like the blocking feature or even like

    Ultimately micromessaging highlights that its not about the technology, but more so about how it is used. I would say twitter is a dumbed down internet, which might in the end lead to smart people, as smarter interfaces.

  14. Pat, the real-time and location-based aspects are valuable it is also much more than a dumbed-down internet. I see it as an interest driven contextual layer that is 'rewiring' the web on that basis.

    That's enabled by the accessibility (mobile and web) and default to public nature of posts and the culture of posting it creates.

  15. Is it rewiring the web? Or is augmenting the web? It seems the underlying structures of uri's href's and /url/strings/ are still very much alive.

    The accessibility aspect(4 billion) is quite removed from that web. SMS is a limited messaging system. It doesn't hook up to the larger web of things, that larger web that makes the contextual layer possible. Much like a computer without a browser, a mobile phone without access to http, seems to me crippled.

  16. While not technically rewiring it is rewiring our pathways bewteen the nodes – the pathways that get us to the other object/account/topic we connect with. And the web is not really about web pages it is about people, conversation, and collaboration – the content, in whatever form, supports that.
    So, to me, public micro-messaging is a lot more than sharing links. It's about interest-driven contributions that weave together – wrapping context and connection around every person, topic, and link. The frequency of small, public messages is what makes it a rich tapestry that dramatically increases the linkages bewteen things – linkages based on real-time interest. That's the rewiring I see.

  17. People, conversations, collaboration, I'm all over it. Makes sense, human & meaningful, great!

    This is my hangup “contributions”, “weave together”, “wrapping context”, “rich tapestry”.

    All of these things assume a centralized, or at least aggregated whole, an overarching space where these messages exist. Right now, that's twitter, but twitter is on the web. The way topics are identified are hashtags(unique strings), or uris(more complicated unique strings).

    SMS is neither centralized nor aggregated(unless I'm missing something). Where will the context be stored? Who will own that? How will it make money to survive?

    You mentioned Laconica before in passing, this seems really valuable: a distributed storage for all words micro. Your point about the 4 billion possibility is very attractive, but my question is: how do you aggregate, and how do you make assessable that wealth of real-time interest?

  18. aha… yes! Twitter is serving it right now but these are early days – and
    it's a private company. For this *public* medium to reach it's potential it
    needs a network-grade infrastructure. I wrote some about that here: and there has since been some work by @davewiner
    on and another google related one. It's too early to
    tell what will emerge but it's necessary and a central thing I'm advocating
    for in ChangeMedium (more on that here:…)

    2009/7/31 Disqus <>

  19. aha… yes! Twitter is serving it right now but these are early days – and
    it's a private company. For this *public* medium to reach it's potential it
    needs a network-grade infrastructure. I wrote some about that here: and there has since been some work by @davewiner
    on and another google related one. It's too early to
    tell what will emerge but it's necessary and a central thing I'm advocating
    for in ChangeMedium (more on that here:…)

    2009/7/31 Disqus <>

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