April 29, 2014

Viral success: Lessons from the Death Star

September 2011, the Obama administration launched We the People to give all citizens a voice in the running of the US government. The site made it possible for anyone to petition the president, and if they could get enough signatures, get a response from the administration. Two years later, this gem appeared on the site:

Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016.

Those who sign here petition the United States government to secure funding and resources, and begin construction on a Death Star by 2016.

By focusing our defense resources into a space-superiority platform and weapon system such as a Death Star, the government can spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering, space exploration, and more, and strengthen our national defense.

The petition creator, who we know only as J. D. from Longmount CO, starting spreading the word and soon others started signing it and telling all their friends about it. The petition snowballed and drove more traffic to We the People than its had before or since. In a word, it went viral. Blogs picked it up, it trended on social networks, and people talked about it.

The petition quickly surpassed the 25,000 signatures required to warrant an official response, and Paul Shawcross of the Obama Administration shot back with this beauty:

The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

However, look carefully (here's how) and you'll notice something already floating in the sky -- that's no Moon, it's a Space Station! Yes, we already have a giant, football field-sized International Space Station in orbit around the Earth that's helping us learn how humans can live and thrive in space for long durations. The Space Station has six astronauts -- American, Russian, and Canadian -- living in it right now, conducting research, learning how to live and work in space over long periods of time, routinely welcoming visiting spacecraft and repairing onboard garbage mashers, etc. We've also got two robot science labs -- one wielding a laser -- roving around Mars, looking at whether life ever existed on the Red Planet.

Major news organizations began writing about the petition and response; headlines like “We the People want a Death Star” and “America's finally discover how to use We the People” popped up everywhere. J. D. From Colorado, at least for a moment, changed what millions of people experienced. The fans of this petition really did something remarkable; using social influence they got over 30,000 people to sign a petition, a petition to build a Death Star! And they got attention that money could not buy. That’s power, power that can accomplish a whole lot more than just getting signatures.  

The petition really was a win for everyone involved; nerds like myself enjoyed the ridiculousness of petitioning for a Death Star, the Obama administration showed a sense of humor, and We the People grew as blogs and social networks buzzed over the exchange. And as amusing as this story is, it actually points us to some crazy truths about how our world now works. It demonstrates how online social influence is impacting our society, how remarkable things go viral, and how we can use social media to our advantage.

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