How a grassroots movement calling for a satirical D.C. rally, in response to Glenn Beck, grew from a simple idea to reality (backed by Comedy Central stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) through social media and the strong backing of the Reddit community.
This is the story of a brushfire. An early morning spark in the mind of an anonymous internet user, an idea kindled by an inspired web community. A movement that spread across multiple platforms within a day and received mainstream attention within four days. A raging fire that grew from inception to reality in just two weeks.
Embedded in this story are lessons on how a good idea, a crowd of motivated people, and a powerful medley of social media tools can spawn an entire movement.
Conservative pundet Glenn Beck hosts a rally labeled “Restoring Honor” on the steps of the Lincoln memorial. The rally is criticized both for its chosen date (on the anniversary of the MLK “I have a dream” speech) and for its fear-based motivations. The rally receives substantial media attention and buzz across social network.
In the days leading up to and following the rally, the web community Reddit had multiple negative links and discussions regarding the rally including disgust over a YouTube video that featured interviews with a handful of ignorant and/or bigoted attendees of the Beck rally.
Reddit user mrsammercer has an epiphany and shares it with Reddit. He proposes that satirist Stephen Colbert should lead a faux rally in Washington in response to Glenn Beck. The community embraces the idea and “upvotes” (Reddit allows posts to be upvoted or downvoted to determine their prominence on the site) it to the front page of the site.
Members of Reddit spring into action and begin brainstorming ways to get Colbert’s attention. An unidentifiable number petition Comedy Central executives to garner attention.
Lesson 1: Movements need passionate and motivated organizers behind them in order to get any traction.
A website is setup to facilitate communications surrounding the rally and a Facebook group entitled “100,000 Strong to Restore Truthiness to the US Capital” is created. The term “Restoring Truthiness” is widely adopted by those impassioned by the movement.
The movement is also getting notable attention on Twitter.
The buzz gets loud enough to get the attention of a few major bloggers, most notably the Huffington Post. Reddit user mrsammercer creates a “subreddit” (a category on Reddit) named /colbertrally to facilitate all rally communications.
Through the website, Facebook group, and the /colbertrally subreddit, supporters of the movement organize and execute Operation Restoring Truthiness. The movement’s goal is to have the collective participants search for and post about the rally on Google and Twitter simultaneously in order to get the topic trending. It was an incredible success.
Stephen Colbert first mentions the existence of the movement on his show. There are also hints by Jon Stewart that he will be making an “announcement” soon.
Lesson 2: The big key to unlocking media coverage for an internet-based movement is to become a trending or hot topic on major social media platforms. These are the modern press wires.
The New Yorker publishes an excellent article detailing their time spent observing Jon Stewart and his staff at work on The Daily Show. The article reveals that Stewart and his team were discussing the idea of hosting a rally in response to the movement, possibly calling it the “March of the Reasonable.”
Another coordinated movement is conceived. Operation Truthy Classroom coordinates Reddit users to contribute money to DonorsChoose.org, a charity that Stephen Colbert is personally invested in as a board member. The movement gets official endorsement by the Reddit Admins and surpasses its initial goal of $29,945 (to beat what Hillary Clinton was able to previously raise) within 8 hours. It would eventually go on to raise more than $250,000.
The administrators at Donor’s Choose vow to pass on news of the campaign’s success to Mr. Colbert.
Lesson 3: Putting your money where your mouth is legitimizes your movement and puts tangible numbers behind it.
Stephen Colbert sends a personalized letter to the Reddit administrators to share with the community thanking everyone for their generosity and proclaiming “we could stage a hundred rallies” with the momentum of the movement.
Jon Stewart announces that he will be hosting the Rally to Restore Sanity on October 30, 2010 at the Washington, D.C. mall during The Daily Show. Stephen Colbert then announces the March to Keep Fear Alive “competing rally” on the same date and location on his show, The Colbert Nation.
Reddit administrators create a special logo to commemorate the achievement and changed the site’s slogan to “Reddit – Where dreams come true.” Users still utilize the website to coordinate travel arrangements and share press surrounding the event.
This story is both inspiring and revealing. Social media has changed the political and social game and paved the way for unprecedented reach. In particular, communities such as Reddit have shown, on many occasions, the ability to organize and focus the power of the collective towards single causes. Sometimes they are inspired by the desire to help, other times they are inspired by a longing for change, and still other times they do it for the lulz (to laugh about it).
In the end, possibly the greatest unknown arising from all of this is how an organizer can petition the community to support their cause to begin with. A good idea that meshes with the hive mind’s beliefs is necessary. But what is the ultimate catalyst for a movement? Or will it always be a matter of luck? Maybe.
What I do know is this: Reddit should savor the deliciousness of their monumental achievement. I will see you all on October 30th.