Instant Karma in Moldova

Over the past few years, there has been no shortage of media stories about the use of the internet – whether it was hailing the Obama campaign’s vaunted online tactics or the role of social media in modern communication.

The dirty little secret of “viral” campaigns is that, often, they are anything but. Massive national campaigns and corporate communications departments rarely produce content or platforms for participation without some kind of backup plan to encourage membership. Obama campaign staffers followed up by phone with people who signed up online to make sure their online support translated into offline action; McDonald’s nearly ubiquitous Filet-o-Fish commercial has passed from email to email largely because it started with a national media buy and had broad exposure during the NCAA tournament telecast.

From the tiny European nation of Moldova this week, however, came a flash mob that started as 20 people and wound up over 10,000.

The success of the protest – measured by the sheer numbers of participants – is a result of using communications avenues to stoke emotions that already existed. A dozen or so young Moldovans, upset with elections that maintained a Communist government, took to the streets.

The failure of the protest – like so many web 2.0 failures – can be found in the question, “Then what?”

Having 10,000 fans on Facebook, or followers on Twitter, or friends on any of hundreds of social networks online is no big trick anymore; with online advertising those numbers can be bought. There must be some action so that those numbers actually mean something.

In Moldova, that lack of forethought turned ugly. The crowd evolved into a mob, and the mob became violent. People were arrested, 43 police officers wound up in the hospital, and the parliament building was looted and destroyed (and is no longer as funkadelic as it was even last week). The demonstration was a display of emotion, but far from an effective campaign for freedom.

Where’s the happy medium between joining and forgetting a Facebook cause and buring down parliament? Phone calls, letters, and votes are a good place to start. Depending on who is behind the strategy, the end goal may be product sales or market share, or testimonials from satisfied customers. Whatever that goal is, though, online strategies must be a way there, or else they are only opportunities for distraction.

Politically speaking, freedom-lovers in America eager to answer Obama’s online campaign would do well to think through their own strategies to determine the most effective path to change. There’s a big crowd out there, and without some form of leadership, they may just start throwing rocks.

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