My Most Expensive Tweet Ever

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Most days, my Twitter stream is about humor. Yesterday, it wasn’t. Most days, this site is comedic. Today, it’s not. This post is an attempt to document a successful method of publicizing a worthwhile cause via Twitter, as well as another chance to bring attention to that cause. I hope others may find it useful.

The Beginning

Earlier this year, I made mention of The Innocence Project in a post about wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project is a charity dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals, often saving them from Death Row. Since first learning about this charity over a decade ago, it’s seemed one of the most noble endeavors I could imagine. After yesterday’s questionable execution of Troy Davis, I felt it was worth mentioning on Twitter:

The Initial Tweet mentioning The Innocence Project

I donated $50 along with the tweet, but I was unable to shake the feeling that I could do more. Or more accurately, that I should do more. More than giving money, I wanted others to hear about The Innocence Project and the work they do. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized just how I could do this.

“Incentivize Information Transmission” (or “Make ‘Em Want to Share It”)

Last year, Mike Monteiro used a tweet to promote the American Cancer Society, offering the donation of a dime for every single favorite the tweet received on Twitter. Looking at my previous tweet, I realized I could build on Mike’s idea to broadcast information about The Innocence Project to thousands of people who might never have heard of them. Instead of incentivizing readers to favorite a tweet, I would make them want to retweet it1. So, yesterday afternoon, I tweeted this:

Ok, let's do this: retweet this tweet linking The Innocence Project (innocenceproject.org). Donate or not, but I'll give $1 for each retweet

As you can see, I offered folks a pretty good deal. All they had to do was tell others about The Innocence Project, and I would donate a $1. Sharing that message took exactly two mouse clicks. If someone liked me, they’d be encouraged to retweet. If someone liked the charity, they’d be encouraged to retweet. Even if someone hated me and simply wanted to see me lose some money, they’d still want to pass along the message. I figured that if I had the chance to use someone else’s spite to help my cause, I must be on to something.

Concerns and Issues

While the overarching goal was to spread the message of The Innocence Project, one concern I had was that the retweets might blow up to an enormous number. While that would be very good for The Innocence Project, it would not be so good for my bank account. However, I didn’t have any space in my tweet for a ceiling on my donation. More importantly, I didn’t really want to put one in there, fearing it might eventually stop the tweet’s spread. In my mind, I set a cap of “some big but not foreclosure-inducing number”. I wasn’t quite sure what that was but I knew that I’d feel alright having a cut-off. Anyone who found fault with that could, quite frankly, kiss my ass.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, or at least no good deed goes unquestioned. I hope this was a joke, based on an intentionally comedic misreading of my tweet. Sadly, this wasn’t:

R U a lawyer?

Yes, I’d really be screwing folks over if I didn’t donate. All that effort put in, clicking the retweet button, and then clicking the confirmation! But you’ll really show me if you just donate yourself instead2!

This particular individual even came back with more foolishness. It’s often wise to question things, but be sure to shave with Occam’s razor. At the very worst, if I reneged on my promise, I stood to gain approximately nothing while still spreading the word. These were minor problems though, and ultimately, things went quite smoothly.

The Result

I knew that no matter how many retweets I got, my own donation would be small relative to the needs of The Innocence Project. While I wanted to make a large donation, my broader goal was to make others aware of this lesser-known organization, reasoning that this attention would encourage support and donations from a much wider pool. So how’d I do?

Twitter tracks retweets, but after 101 retweets, it simply shows “100+”. I suspected the number would be higher than that, so I used my Favstar page to track the tweet. Things started slowly, but they quickly gained steam. There’s no real-time tracking for retweets, but you can watch the number on Favstar to see it grow. While it’s not possible to conclusively determine exactly who’s setting off a retweet avalanche, you can get a pretty good idea by looking for retweets from folks who have a large follower count.

Ultimately, the number of retweets grew from single to double-digits, then into the hundreds, before heading over 1000. When it came time to hit the hay, the tally stood at a monstrous 1213 retweets, representing tens of thousands of people who had now at least heard of The Innocence Project.

The final FavStar tally.

I hadn’t defined a time limit, but bedtime seemed like a fair time to cap things off, so I did. Before heading to sleep, I filled out the donation form and put it in an envelope along with a check for $1213. Over twelve hundred bucks and tens of thousands of new potential supporters – not bad for 140 characters.

The envelope
I’m sure only a canceled check will convince the doubters. If that.

Epilogue

This morning, I woke up to see that folks had continued to retweet the link. While my donation period is done, these retweets continue to bring news of The Innocence Project to thousands of additional people, and that’s an undeniably good thing. While this was easily the most expensive tweet I’ve ever posted, it’s also the most gratifying3.


Footnotes:

  1. In Twitter parlance, retweeting means sending your own followers a message which was written by someone else. When I post a tweet, it gets sent to the 3200 or so people who follow me on Twitter. That’s a decent amount, but if some of those folks retweet my message to their own followers, it can reach many times more people. ↩︎

  2. I’m also curious about her initial question. Would being a lawyer make me more, or less, trustworthy? ↩︎

  3. And not just because of tweets like these two. ↩︎


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