News of Osama bin Laden’s death brought a huge surge of activity to Twitter and other social media platforms Sunday night and Monday. So it’s a strange quirk of timing that this is the week that Sree Sreenivasan — digital media professor, dean of student affairs at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and longtime social media enthusiast — has agreed to go silent for 24 hours on Thursday.
It’s no accident that Sreenivasan shows up on such lists as Poynter’s “35 Most Influential People in Social Media” and AdAge’s 25 Media People to Follow on Twitter. When news began leaking out about Bin Laden’s death on Sunday night, @sree was right there with:
He followed with tweets pointing to background information about Bin Laden and even an explanation of how a city in Pakistan came to be known as Abbottabad.
How many messages does he send out on social media?
“I get a boatload, but it’s a good boatload,” said Michael Cervieri, co-founder of ScribeLabs, a media production and digital strategy firm, and founder of the Future Journalism Project. “It’s mostly tips, tricks and insights from sites I don’t visit too much on my own. So, if I think about it, he’s an ambient bookmarker I can turn to when I want to learn about new apps or changes in existing ones.”
But it’s not all business with Sreenivasan. His Facebook page is sprinkled with photos from family vacations or his brief forays away from his computer, BlackBerry in hand, out onto the sidewalks of New York.
SPJ Capitalizes on Loud Voice
So what could possibly silence him for 24 hours? The student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) at Columbia.
“A few years ago, Dean Sree was known for sending school-wide emails known as ‘Sree-mail,’” Columbia student LaToya Tooles told me. “He sent a lot of it and students begged him to stop. Now Sree does a lot of tweeting, and while we don’t mind the tweeting, we thought we would adapt a few fundraising models and capitalize on his rather loud web voice.”
When Tooles and her fellow student Andrew Seaman approached Sreenivasan with the idea, he said “absolutely not.” He reminded them of the Digital Death campaign last year in which a group of celebrities vowed to stay off Twitter until a certain amount of money was raised. He insisted that he would not engage in something he called “egotistical,” something that suggested his messages were so valuable that people should pay for them.
A clarification caused him to relent: This would be the opposite of the Digital Death fundraiser. Contributors would not be paying to receive his tweets; they would be paying to keep him quiet. “This is the idea that nobody really wants my stuff,” Sreenivasan said.
So a Silence Sree web page was set up and if 200 people donate $5 or more, Sreenivasan’s 4,999 Facebook friends and 19,400 Twitter followers will not hear from him for 24 hours. Columbia students who donate cash can give as little as $1. If fewer than 200 people donate, the silence will last for a comparable portion of the day. All the money will go to charity: 85% to scholarships for Columbia journalism students and 15% to earthquake/tsunami relief in Japan.
So far, the campaign is nearly halfway there, with 51 donors giving $443.
A Tall Order
Sreenivasan and everyone who knows him acknowledge that this is a tall order.
“I think Sree can do whatever he puts his mind to,” Tooles said. “He isn’t allowed on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare or Posterous. If he invents another social media between now and Thursday, I’ll be very upset with him, but probably not surprised.”
Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, said: “Sree is one of the most generous persons I know. He naturally has countless social media connections and he spends a lot of time coaching rookies on the tricks of the social media trade. He is a tireless facilitator, desiring for everyone to know everyone else. All that said, I’m sure he has the willpower to keep silent for a day — but just barely.”
Vadim Lavrusik, who just left Mashable to become journalism program manager of Facebook, had a devilish take on what might transpire tomorrow.
“I think that secretly, he will create a fake Facebook page for something entertaining and grow a following of a million people, all while being anonymous. We will never know,” he told me.
Computer in the Delivery Room
Perhaps the person who best appreciates the degree of difficulty is Sreenivasan’s wife, Roopa Unnikrishan. She awakened her husband on Sunday night when she heard the news about Bin Laden. And she remembers well that in 2003, when she gave birth to twins, Sreenivasan got permission to have his computer in the delivery room, “although he was mostly focused on video.”
Andrew Lih, an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, takes credit (or blame) for getting Sreenivasan involved in Internet journalism back in 1995 and he remains skeptical.
“Asking Sree to step away from social media communication?” Lih said. “You’d have better luck getting TMZ to ignore Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen for 24 hours.”
But Daniel Dubno, founder of the consultancy Blowing Things Up and president of the Hourglass Initiative, thinks there might be a future in “Silence Sree.”
“Perhaps next year, if he survives this challenge, he might give up the use of his iPad, Android, video chat, TV appearances, radio interviews, blogging, flogging, emailing, Gmailing, and the like,” Dubno said. “But I still wouldn’t take away his Xeroxing, faxing, Morse-coding, semaphore flag-waving, and his potential for nailing 95 theses on some door.”
Ironically, Sreenivasan is organizing the first Social Media Weekend at Columbia from May 13 to 15. It’s a good thing he won’t be silenced then.
UPDATE 5/5/11: Today is Silence Sree day. According to Sree himself on his Facebook page:
The Silence Sree campaign raised $748.58 — after PayPal fees — from 78 folks (THANK YOU!!!). The deal was I’d stay offline for whatever percentage of 200 people gave. So I’ll start at 9 am ET and be off Facebook & Twitter & Foursquare for 9 hours & 15 minutes — till 6:15 pm ET.
UPDATE 5/10/11: In the end, the fundraiser collected $1,172.25 (minus $41.32 in PayPal fees) from 104 donors. And Sreenivasan wrote on DNAInfo.com that he learned from the experience that social media was more important to him as a source of news than as a megaphone for his own thoughts.
“In the midst of a busy news week, I was afraid about what I was missing,” he wrote. “Turned out that my friends who were joking about my addiction were right — I was addicted and showing withdrawal symptoms. I had gotten so used to checking Twitter at every chance I get — it’s my main source of breaking news throughout the day — that not being able to check the feed and my @mentions was frustrating.”
Carla Baranauckas is a freelance journalist, director of Round Earth Media and adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She made a small contribution to the “Silence Sree” campaign.