If you weren’t paying attention to the internet or to Twitter on Friday, you may have missed one of the most heart-warming examples of web-powered social good in recent memory: as a gift to 5-year-old leukemia sufferer Miles Scott, the Make-A-Wish Foundation organized a massive effort to turn San Francisco into a version of Batman’s home town of Gotham, and turned Miles into a pint-sized version of the superhero called Batkid, complete with awesome costume and Batmobile.
Batkid’s adventures on Friday — which included rescuing a damsel in distress (played by Sue Johnston, who is married to the guy who spent the day playing Batman and helping Batkid through his various tasks), as well as apprehending both the Riddler and the Penguin — were organized by Make-A-Wish, but a big part of what made the spectacle so incredibly moving was the participation of tens of thousands of San Francisco residents who cheered him on, along with the mayor, the police department and even the Justice Department.
As I was watching the events unfold on Twitter, and trying to keep from getting teary-eyed as young Miles ran through the streets of SF in his little Batman costume, it occurred to me that this kind of thing simply wasn’t possible before the internet and social media came along. It’s an artefact of the real-time hyper-connectedness that we all share now — the same connectedness that we’ve seen during events like the Arab Spring, or the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation and similar groups have been around for a long time, and have been creating experiences like the one they set up for Miles for decades now (his leukemia is currently in remission, the foundation says). But tens of thousands or even millions of people weren’t able to participate directly — even from a distance — in those events before. It’s a testament to what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties,” the kind that are facilitated by social networks.
Since the Batkid phenomenon took weeks or even months to plan, it doesn’t really qualify as a true “flash mob” — the kind of event that the group Improv Everywhere pioneered, where thousands of people converge on a location and have a pillow fight or conduct an impromptu wedding for an unsuspecting couple. But that same networked social behavior is what powers things like Batkid, or similar events like Caine’s Arcade, where a young boy’s cardboard arcade at his father’s automotive shop quickly turned into a nationwide sensation.
Reddit loves to do this kind of thing: it routinely organizes to do things like send pizzas to children in the hospital — and it is able to draw on a pool of millions of dedicated users, each of whom is willing to drop everything and take a train or a bus somewhere for the right cause. Sometimes it happens spontaneously, as with a recent flash mob organized for a lonely veteran’s funeral.
It might seem kind of trivial, but it is a tremendously powerful force for good — and also not-so-good. The same phenomenon allows charitable groups to raise staggering amounts of money with a single tweet or text-message campaign, or allows someone to crowdfund a pool of more than $500,000 for a woman who was bullied by the young kids on her bus — but it also makes it easy to generate a kind of mob mentality in other cases, one that can be turned into a weapon.
But on Friday, it seemed like enough to remember that these social tools also allow us to participate in — or even admire from afar — a truly heart-warming project to make a sick young boy smile, even for a day. And that is a good feeling.