Sunday, July 5, 2009

Twitter's Big Heart: #thankyouaaron

The next time someone says to you, "Twitter is for narcissists," feel free to tell them to shove it. Last night, the people who make Twitter the phenomenon that it is again confirmed the way they can open their hearts, demonstrate their concern for others, and spread the word about things that matter. The Social Media site, which often can be set abuzz by trifling topics, became a place to pay respects and consider those who gave their lives so that we can celebrate our independence.

On the Fourth of July at around 3 pm PST, David M. Masters, a weight loss guru who uses twitter to promote his business (@davidmmasters), sent a gut-wrenching message to his 2,000 or so followers: "They killed my son, Aaron!"

He soon followed that up with tweets that explained his son was killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber. And then he sent two more tweets that became a call to action for those on Twitter:
On Independence Day, a few hours ago, they killed my son, Aaron in Afghanistan.

I'd like to see "Thank you, Aaron," show up on the Trending Topics for giving his life on Independence Day in Afghanistan.
The news of Aaron Fairbairn's death in Afghanistan spread very quickly as Twitterers shared the story and offered condolences to David. Within a couple hours, the terms "On Independence Day" and the hashtag #thankyouaaron became trending topics on Twitter, and as I write this on the morning of the 5th, over 2,000 people have responded with the hashtag #thankyouaaron. Perhaps 2,000 people doesn't sound like a lot, but keep in mind this happened the evening of a holiday and many people aren't tracking Twitter like they do during the workweek; I believe we will continue to see the number of people who learn and care about Aaron's death grow in the next couple of days.

For me, this was a reminder of Twitter's power, not to the world but to me personally. I had just come home from a Fourth of July picnic. My mood was happy and carefree--I'd enjoyed the company of friends, ate well, and lit the fuses on more than my share of fireworks. Then I saw a tweet from someone I follow and it changed my mood instantaneously. Aaron's sacrifice, his father's anguished tweets, and the concern of those who are complete strangers to Aaron and David put the day and its meaning into perspective.

Of course, this is far from the first time Twitter has shown it is a tool for more than spam and self promotion. When, in the aftermath of Iran's contested election, Iranian twitterers became the primary source of information for news outlets like CNN, thousands of Twitterers changed their location to Tehran and colored their avatars green to support and help obscure the identities of Iranian twitters from that country's officials.

And a lighthearted approach to a serious subject was taken with #blamedrewscancer, which asked people to support Drew Olanoff by tweeting that Drew's cancer was to blame for everything from the war in Iraq to bad hair days. Thousands of people have voiced their support in humorous fashion, and the result was that Drew raised close to $3,000 for the American Cancer Society and $500 for Make-A-Wish.

Yes, Twitter is plagued with spam, prone to manipulation by marketers who tread a fine line between viral marketing and spam, occasionally threatened by malware, and sometimes full of inane chatter, but so is the Internet and the world at large. Twitter reflects the world, and increasingly the world reflects Twitter. This doesn't make Twitter shallow and narcissistic; it makes it human.

That human side is again being shown this morning, with hundreds of people thanking Aaron for his sacrifice every hour. For those who may think that a proper condolence cannot be offered in 140 characters, consider what Aaron's father might be thinking this morning if and when he checks Twitter. He asked for people to thank his son who sacrificed so much for our country, and thousands have done so.

Aaron has caused so many of us to stop and think this weekend about the significance of the holiday, and that more than anything shows the power of 140 characters.


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