Tweet the Public

If a Tweet Falls In the Forest…

A new app built in New York (Chinatown!) lets Twitter users raise their voices as one.

de de team If a Tweet Falls In the Forest...

Twitter has proven to be an effective way for the average Internet user to get @ your favorite NBA player or indie rocker. And yet as the site grows, the noise of individual tweets is being drowned out. Enter Thunderclap, a Twitter app from Chinatown-based De-De (for “design and development,” not the Chinese word for “little brother”).

Yesterday, Rolling Stone writer, noisemaker and hero-journalist Matt Taibii sent out the inaugural Thunderclap at noon, causing 1,921 people to tweet simultaenously at Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) in order to entreat the pair to keep their hands off the Dodd-Frank Act (and also plug Mr. Taibbi’s recent article, “How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform“). The tweets were exposed to a combined 4 million people, Thunderclap estimates.

Thunderclap is a platform for people who want to send a directed petition signed by a crowd of people to a specific person or group via Twitter. Post a tweet, state your case, and ask others to join you—and if they do, it’ll trigger a mass of identical tweets all at the same time. Somewhat like Kickstarter, the app requires a message to reach a tipping point for the trick to work. Hopeful Thunderclappers must set a minimum number of supporters—Mr. Taibbi set his at 500—and a timeframe to reach the goal. If no one’s interested, the Thunderclap fails.

“Kickstarter has opened up a new world of crowdfunding. We think Thunderclap will be a new way of ‘crowdspeaking,’” said Hashem Bajwa, who was the digital strategy lead at ad agency Droga5 before founding De-De in January. The agency is best described as “Betaworks meets Mad Men,” he said, and Thunderclap is the first of many playful vanity projects that will surely earn mindshare for the fledgling agency. De-De works out of a dilapidated building in Chinatown where the elevator is manned by a Chinese man who sings on Fridays. “I call it the ‘Silicon Sweatshop,’” Mr. Bajwa said. “I kind of like that we’re not at General Assembly.”

The next Thunderclaps are already in the works. Today at noon another Thunderclap is scheduled to blast out from 128 accounts: “Tell Congress to provide simple access to congressional data. Innovation in government depends on it! @RepHalRogers.” David Cascino, who posted the Thunderclap, only has 224 followers on Twitter; another project by Soraya Darabi, who has more than 400,000 followers on Twitter, did not reach its goal.

This shows that even small-fry tweeters can amplify their voices, Mr. Bajwa said. “The person’s following who creates a Thunderclap is not as important as the social quality and ‘shareworthy-ness’ of their message,” he said. “You dont have to have a huge following to have a successful Thunderclap.”

Having a large following certainly helps, however. Mr. Taibbi’s effort earned endorsements from Sarah Silverman and Cory Doctorow, which helped goose the numbers. Thunderclap tracks the number of clicks each Thunderclap receives after all the tweets have been sent out. The link in Mr. Taibbi’s Thunderclap got at least 2,000 clicks after it was fired off, Mr. Bajwa said. Since the campaign had about 2,000 supporters, he figures the Thunderclap at least doubled awareness for the issue.

Thunderclap was inspired in part by the human mic at Occupy Wall Street, Mr. Bajwa said, wherein one speaker’s words are echoed sentence-by-sentence by the crowd, so that hundreds of people can hear. “Twitter is a very easy place to say something but an incredibly difficult place to be heard,” he said.

This idea has been tried at least once before, with New York-based Kommons, which attempted to direct tweets at public figures. Kommons failed to gain traction and pivoted to a different business. But it didn’t have the tipping point element, which seems key to Thunderclap’s success.

Thunderclap will introduce a version for Facebook in the next two weeks, Mr. Bajwa said, and he’s been approached by at least three big names wanting to do a Thunderclap.

There are two major challenges, though. Thunderclap spits out such a mass of tweets at a time that it could be considered spam by Twitter and banned. “Yeah, I really hope Twitter doesn’t shut us down,” Mr. Bajwa said. If the microblogging platform decides to cut Thunderclap off, he has some ideas for workarounds—the Thunderclap may not include an @ reply in the future, for example, if Twitter decides to restrict its access.

The other challenge is more essential. Just as the growing volume of tweets decreased the impact of each tweet, a growing number of Thunderclaps may decrease the impact of a Thunderclap. Imagine a senator whose feed is inundated with 500 duplicative tweets a day about an issue, where each tweet required no more commitment than a few clicks. It might be impressive at first, but Thunderclap will have to keep innovating once the novelty wears off.

Follow Adrianne Jeffries on Twitter or via RSS. ajeffries@observer.com