Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Democracy In a Cell Phone

As I’m writing this, I’m looking at a report that the American Red Cross has received $22 million in donations for Haiti earthquake relief via cell phone text messages. By the time you read this post, that number will most certainly have been superseded by an even larger amount. Such an outpouring of generosity by texting is being called unprecedented. It is, but this is more likely to signal a new social trend than an amazing one-time event.

Texting on a cell phone.The $22 million figure is truly astounding when you consider it was raised in about a week in increments of $10 per donor. That’s a couple of million people acting independently but almost simultaneously when the request for help went out. They were, and still are, enabled by a process that makes giving faster and easier than ever before. In the case of this relief effort for suffering millions in Haiti, all that is necessary is to send the text message “Haiti” to the number 90999. In seconds you’ve made a pledge that adds $10 to your cell phone bill.

But there are already established ways to make charitable donations, right? Of course. They include writing checks and sending them to published addresses or in response to appeal letters that come in the mail. The Internet savvy, and who isn’t these days, can go to a website address, click on the donate button and enter their credit card information. They’ll get a Web or email confirmation and perhaps a letter of confirmation a week or two later. You can also call in your donation. Just call the charity’s toll free number and a friendly operator will take your information for a credit card donation or as a pledge that you’ll follow up with a check later.

Now, compare sending a text message to a short number to navigating the Internet, finding your credit card, entering your information online, or calling a number and waiting to be served. The first process takes seconds. The other processes take minutes to who knows how long. Texting is like instantly voting. Everything else feels like filling out a form... and it is.

Cell phone texting has established new behaviors and expectations in at least one generation of users. The expectation is that you can participate in anything instantly and in real time. The voting analogy is a good one and rooted in fact. “American Idol” taught millions how to vote with their cell phones. How soon will we be able to voice our opinions on local and national referendums by simply texting 1, 2 or 3 to indicate for, against, or neutral? How few years will pass when we expect to vote for actual candidates via cell phone text message?

Seriously. Which would you rather do? Take time off work, drive to a polling place you never otherwise visit, stand in line, fiddle around with a punch card or paper ballot, and then drop it into a machine that you only hope is working correctly to tally your vote. Or, cast your vote by text message or smartphone voting app and have the system ensure that your vote is counted and that you have voted once and only once. Both systems can be designed to produce honest and accurate results. But one is orders of magnitude faster and easier than the other. Now, which do you suppose will be more effective in encouraging public participation? Think about the Haiti relief donations before you answer.

The fact is that the rise of the cellphone in every pocket has changed the fabric of society. Actually making telephone calls is the least of it. Nearly every new phone has texting capability and most give you email and website Internet access, increasingly at broadband speeds. How about cell phone cameras? The combination of built-in cameras and YouTube has given rise to the age of the citizen journalist. Now everyone has the ability to capture the events that they are witnessing in both still photos and video. You see these contributions on TV news more and more. Often, the random person lucky or unlucky enough to be present when something momentous occurs is the only one who can act fast enough to capture the sound and images of a fleeting event.

More than any development before it, cellular technology is enabling us to function as individuals but act in concert on matters of importance to all or many. I think that we’re just at the beginning of this trend. As it plays out, our cell phones may replace our credit cards and even cash for most transactions. Wallet? Why would you need a wallet except to hold pictures of the family? Oh, wait, they’re right there on the cell phone screen.

In the present, you have an opportunity to participate in a significant way in the rescue and relief of an entire nation crushed by an unforeseen natural disaster. Have you got a few seconds? Then go ahead and text “Haiti” to 90999 to make your $10 donation. The carriers are participating by waiving their standard text messaging fees and are taking actions to get the funds to the American Red Cross as quickly as possible, so that we can support the Haitians in real time... which is what they need more than anything.

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