What Happens When Acts Of Kindness Go Social

Global communities have rallied to support two terminally ill Kentucky children in the past few months. What can we learn from these collective acts of kindness, organized via social media?

In Spreadable Media, my co-authors and I suggest the most fundamental change in communication in a digital age is the role most of us now play in the circulation of media content. As such activity becomes an everyday part of life, we have begun to see how spreading media content gets connected to some small action to get involved.

Over the fall and winter here in Kentucky, I've witnessed one particular phenomenon that has captured the hearts of a wide range of Bluegrassers and spread far beyond: a public role, organized via social media, for granting the wishes of terminally ill children. Twice these past few months, grassroots campaigns launched that required some small, discrete action from hundreds of thousands of individuals and, in the process, mobilized a community.

First, this fall, word spread of 13-year-old Beech Grove boy Lane Goodwin, who had been battling a rare form of cancer called Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma since 2010. Lane's wish was to receive more than 100,000 likes on the Facebook page his family had set up to communicate about the teen. The effort started among friends and family via Facebook.

Since Lane had always given a thumbs up in all the pictures taken of him to indicate his positive spirit through all his treatments and setbacks, the "Thumbs Up for Lane Goodwin" campaign was born. Not only did people like the page, but they were also taking pictures of themselves giving the boy a thumbs up in return. Through a community effort, soon the media and a range of celebrities alike became aware of the campaign.

Lane received "thumbs up" over the next few days from the Kentucky State Police, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, a range of University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University sports figures (including a whole stadium of WKU football fans), Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, the crew of Duck Dynasty, Johnny Depp, Flo from the Progressive commercials, Kyle Busch, the U.S. Marines, WWE's Vince McMahon, Christie Brinkley, Anderson Cooper, Matchbox 20, the Oklahoma State basketball team, the San Francisco 49ers, the Blue Man Group, Paula Deen, and Turtleman from Call of the Wildman, among many others. (See pictures here).

Only days after word began circulating more widely about the "Thumbs Up for Lane" campaign, his Facebook page reached 100,000 likes. That total had doubled to 200,000 likes soon thereafter. By the time of Lane's death a month later, his page had received 369,000 likes.

Then, this Christmas season, word spread of a 9-year-old Salyersville boy, Dalton Dingus, who has stage-4 cystic fibrosis and who wanted to break the Guinness world record for number of Christmas cards received. While other Christmas card campaigns have been organized previously for terminally ill children, what has been particularly amazing in this situation is the rapidity with which a Christmas card campaign was organized online, and the wide geographic range of those who have participated in sending physical mail to the boy in a short amount of time.

From a giant, 46-pound Christmas card from the postal service, to cards from throughout Europe and Asia, Dalton had 12,000 cards by early December. According to Good Morning America, the campaign went from a neighbor suggesting friends and family send Dalton cards via Facebook, to wider pickup in social media, to local media, to national and international coverage, and led to home visits from Miss Kentucky and, once again, Turtleman. Businesses got involved, too. In some areas, Kroger posted signs for customers to bring cards there, and the grocery chain would handle getting the cards to Dalton's family.

By the day after Christmas, Dalton had received more than 500,000 cards. The postal service has moved to delivering the cards to Dalton's grandfather's church, where volunteers (50 on Christmas Eve alone) sort and organize the cards, flagging those they want to show Dalton directly. By Dec. 28, the numbers had topped 700,000, and the cards continue coming in.

On its own, this distributed "make-a-wish" effort, carried not not by a visit from one single celebrity but by collective, small action by hundreds of thousands of people, show how small acts of mobilization are becoming a greater part of everyday life. They align with the call from Frank Eliason and others for us to consciously use our social media presence to make positive contributions to the world, via the Positively Social campaign.

But such examples also point toward the potential for action and visibility beyond an initial moment of kindness. For instance, Lane Goodwin's story drove discussion in communities across Kentucky and around the world. My Facebook feed was filled with conversation threads about the Goodwin's family's plight and the need to intensify the battle against childhood cancer to find cures during the fall, and those posts persist, months after Lane's death.

People also reached out with financial support that, even before Lane's death, the Goodwin family focused toward the Thumbs Up for Lane Goodwin Childhood Cancer Foundation, aiming these small acts of kindness for one boy toward greater visibility and action for a larger cause.

Fundraising or helping children with cancer is not new; church benefits and donation jars at convenient stores have been a staple of local efforts for decades. But new means of communication have allowed such local efforts to reach a wide scale, with great rapidity. And an era of social media brings these stories into people's homes and into common visibility throughout their social networks. That new environment increases the potential for moving from awareness to action.

Recently, I shared Mr. Rogers' quote: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" Despite all the negativity we see so frequently in both the news and in online communication, it has been inspiring to see how communities have mobilized in response to these wishes from Lane Goodwin and Dalton Dingus. And I hope it proves to people the potential of what we can all do to use new means of communication in a digital age to support others on a micro level and to raise visibility of key issues--and take action--on a macro level. Time will tell what we might be able to accomplish together in 2013.

[Image: Flickr user Brett Davies]

Sam Ford is director of digital strategy for Peppercomm and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. He is also a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. Sam was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. He is also co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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