Lessons Learned from the MBteamS Twitter Race

For three days in February, my Twitter feed and large chunks of my day were taken over by the MBTweetRace, a real and virtual race to the Superbowl sponsored by Mercedes Benz. Four teams of drivers took off from four different cities. Destination: Dallas. Prize: a new Mercedes for the the winning drivers and $50,000 for their selected charity. The higher ed community was giddily stunned to learn that one of the teams was to be captained by Todd Sanders (@tsand) — student affairs webmaster at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, higher ed Twitter superstar, Packers fanatic, and bacon connoisseur.

The cars were powered by tweets containing the team hashtag #MBteamS: if your team’s Twitter tank ran low on fuel, the drivers had to pull over and wait. The #MBteamS tank was full from the kick-off to the finish line. Why? Because hundreds of people — mostly fellow Web geeks in higher ed — kept tweeting and re-tweeting that hashtag to the point where my Tweetdeck feed became a jumpy blur.

It was funny. It was inspiring. It made me feel like I was part of something larger — all while sitting at my desk on a snowy Wednesday afternoon. How? Why? Some thoughts:

Social media is about people. Duh. That’s why it’s called “social.”
I still occasionally run into a critique of social media that goes something like this: “Everyone just updates their screens all day. Why don’t you go out and talk to some actual people for a change?” To which I reply: Who do you think is posting all these updates and writing all these tweets?! PEOPLE! These *are* actual people, and because of social media tools like Twitter and Ustream (thanks so much to @sethodell for the live steam of the MBteamS send-off!), I can communicate with them even when we’re not in the same room or even the same city.

Social media is not anti-social; it’s hyper-social. Many of the people I follow on Twitter are people I’ve actually met. Only now we can stay in touch with each other’s lives even when we’re apart (a phenomena social scientists call “ambient awareness“). There are other people I follow who I have not yet met in real life, but who I have met in a very real sense on Twitter. I expect that during the next HighEdWeb or Penn State Web or SimTech conference, people will be shaking hands saying, “Oh yeah! We met during the MBTweetRace!” And they won’t be wrong.

It’s hard to balance the geo-distant people with the geo-present people.
So how do I explain to my non-tweeting-but-no-less-loveable friends in Rochester that I’m running late for our Friday night plans because I have to see how the “99 Tweets challenge” goes down? (Answer: awesomely, thanks to @juliafallon and @epsteada!) How do I explain that I need to check my phone every two minutes because a guy they’ve never met is winning something called a “tweet race?” I don’t have an answer to this one, but it is a good question that the MBTweetRace brought into sharper focus.

People + passion = community. And community = everything.
Todd of course is a person, and an amazing one at that. As Tim Nekritz has written in describing “the brand of @tsand,” most would describe him with similar words: creative, insane, crazysmart. But I’ve only met Todd in person twice. Sure, one of those occasions did involve waffles. But even that doesn’t seem to be enough to explain why I got as excited and involved in the MBTweetrace as I did. And it certainly had nothing to do with Mercedes Benz. I have nothing against Mercedes, but I have nothing *for* them, either. They ran a great event that I hugely enjoyed participating in and raised money for a good cause, and for that I thank them. But the race coulda been sponsored by Audi or Schwinn for all I cared.

I think the key to the success of #MBteamS lies in one word: community. A community that already existed coming together around a cause and a person we care about. A community that was build over years of conferences, blog posts, silly-ass YouTube videos, late-night beer runs, and thousands of “hey, can someone help me out with this?” calls and responses from one Web jockey to another.

As @radiofreegeorgy put it, “#MBTeamS is the best proof I have ever seen that social media is not about followers; it’s about community.” Couldn’t agree more. I’ve always disliked the term “virtual community.” You can’t create a virtual community. Or to put it more accurately, you can’t create virtual community where a real community does not already exist. Building that kind of community ain’t easy and it ain’t fast. It takes work. Just like in real life. Cuz, ya know, this *is* real life.

UPDATE: As I was writing this, the results of the Great Tweet Race were announced. The winner BY A LANDSLIDE is #MBteamS! Too exciting! $50,000 goes to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (plus another $5,000 raised by the higher ed community) and Mrs. @tsand gets a shiny new ride. Now all we need is a Packers win on Sunday. Go Pack Go!

4 comments

  1. Robin2go says:

    I’m glad I wrote my followup before reading yours, simply because we both came to the same conclusion: the community is key. It always is. And I love the point you make about a “virtual community”. Because that sounds like a “virtual” community, and neither are correct. This is a very real community in very real sense, and I think that was ABSOLUTELY the reason we won. I’ve also noticed I have absolutely NO INTEREST in the Ford Focus Rally, which seems to be identical to the Mercedes-Benz Tweet Race, with one glaring exception: Nobody from my community is a part of it, and I’m just not that into Twitter for the sake of Twitter. My community is another matter entirely.

  2. LoriPA says:

    Robin: And I’m glad I wrote my post before reading yours. :) I love your points regarding the celebrity participation. I think Mercedes thought that the teams would need the numbers that their “Twitter-savvy coach” brought to the table in order to rally support. In the end, nothing could have been further from the truth.

  3. Lori,

    You may have already seen the comment I made on my (revised) blog post (here: http://www.mstonerblog.com/index.php/blog/comments/818/thoughts_about_mbteams_and_the_first_great_tweet_race/) and I won’t repeat that here. I like your comment about community, but I don’t make a distinction between a “real” community and a “virtual” community. Our tools enable us to create a stronger community: the virtual links help us to be more closely linked IRL and encourage us to find opportunities to meetup at conferences and other kinds of events. It becomes seamless and stronger for all that.

  4. LoriPA says:

    Thanks, Michael, and thanks for including me in your post-MBteamS round-up. I think we agree regarding the nature of community, real and virtual. You have to have a community — a connected group of people with shared interests, passions, experiences, attitudes, something — that online tools can then help strengthen. My negative reaction to the term “virtual community” comes from the notion you sometimes run into in higher ed that you can create one if you just buy the right software. The tools don’t create the community. Just like a content management system cannot create content.

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