Video: Americans pledge help via text

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    >>> coverage of crisis in haiti. the outpouring of donations from around the world has been just incredible, and the emergence of texting has also become a major force in fund-raising for the disaster. joining me now for more on this is's columnist helen potkin. nice to have you with us tonight. i think it's safe to say that this tragedy, this event, has revolutionized how we give. it's impultion ssive giving. you push a button, you're sending $10 to the relief.

    >> it really does speak to how text messaging is now such a part of the culture. it's just shattering records. as of friday $11 million had been given in text donations alone, and that works to about 10,000 texts per second. it may even by the end of tonight be up to $20 million some reports say.

    >> how -- tell us how the money gets there. how does this work?

    >> well, there was some concern about that actually because generally when you do text donate, which this has been around for a couple of years, for example, in katrina text donations or microdonations reached about 40,000. compare that to the 20 million we might have by the end of tonight. usually it would take 30 to 90 days for that donation to get to the organization. now, because of the urgency of the matter and because of concerns by people that are making these donations, the major companies, verizon followed by at&t, sprint, and t-mobile are saying that they are getting that money directly to the organizations, getting it to the people on the ground, and at last report verizon said they had already gotten $3 million to the american red cross . they're not waiting for you to pay your bill. they're taking it on honor and just moving that money there directly and, of course, you should pay your bill when it does come. but they're not going to wait at this point in time.

    >> well, it's been absolutely amazing to see this all unfold. we are now in a position because of technology to send relief in an instant whereas in the past it would take weeks to do that. it almost gives organizers of organizations a chance to plan ahead faster because the money comes in so fast or am i maybe assuming too much?

    >> oh, no. it comes in rapidly. that first day the first day both the state department and you have to credit the people on social networks , on twitter and facebook, got the word out that you could donate by text messaging , and this is just really shown how important text messaging can be now and in the future, just how rapidly the money can get there, and it really is an excellent tool, one that the american red cross has been using since about 2007 .

    >> helen popkin, msnbc columnist, thank you for your time tonight.

    >>> when we come back, the

Helen Popkin
updated 1/21/2010 9:02:01 AM ET 2010-01-21T14:02:01

Isn’t that just like the Internet? Just a whole bunch of banal, self-important jibber jabber … until something of actual substance occurs.

If you’re not with Conan “Coco” O’Brien, then you damn well better be texting “Haiti” to 90999 to get your $10 to the American Red Cross … or one of the other Haiti earthquake charities everyone and their mom is posting anywhere cyberspace still has room.

Indeed, it is with eye-rolling efficiency Internet do-gooders are getting the word out about what YOU need to do RIGHT NOW to help Haiti. And to a comparatively inconsequential degree, how you can support “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien.

Just so we're clear: The Conan vs. Leno crap is inconsequential. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when a bunch of scrawny hipsters rallied on both coasts to support a multimillionaire’s right to host the “Tonight Show” precisely at 11:35 p.m. was, to say the least, off-putting.

Remember two weeks ago when ladies on Facebook attempted to spread breast cancer awareness by posting their bra colors as status updates ? Yeah, that was pretty silly, too. The Internet attracts many gestures, most empty, some not. And because the Internet is made of humans, you never know which one is going to take. So if you want the Internet to occasionally entertain gestures of stunning compassion, you have to accept them all.

A social network’s response to Haiti is one such gesture. Immediately following news of the quake, Facebook users posted status updates containing the word “Haiti” at a rate of 1,500 per minute, the company reported. Notably, people in Haiti and elsewhere used the social network, as well as micro-blogging site Twitter, to send and receive news about loved ones. (While cell phones were down, satellites kept the Internet going.)

Those without direct involvement to the disaster used social networks to share news stories or their own horror. The State Department quickly got the word out about text donations, and then people used Facebook and Twitter to spread the numbers and urge their friends to use them.

Naturally, as it is the Internet we’re talking about, sanctimony quickly set in. Plenty are still using the popular Internet equation: “How can you X when Y is occurring?!” Others suffer from abnormal eye fatigue brought on by the involuntary rolling that occurs every time another Facebook “friend” announces his or her latest effort to save victims of the island’s devastating earthquake.

While you’re well within your rights to demand (and please do demand) a “Tonight Show”-free zone in your personal cyberspace, this Haiti Internet meme is one of those rare (but not unheard of) occasions when the indulgences of the Internet mean something. What’s more, it’s something that can be measured, at least in part, monetarily.

The millions of dollars raised through online nagging and text-messaging ease enforce among us that philanthropy is not the province of the rich. One person still doesn’t make a difference. But when joined via the various paths of technology, the crowd sure does.

That $27 million-plus hasn’t yet surpassed Conan O’Brien’s (reportedly) $32.5 million NBC buyout, but it still makes up a nice chunk of the money raised for Haiti’s recovery overall. That’s $27 million raised at just $5 and $10 a texting pop. Dude, that’s seriously HUGE.

Consider: Text-messaged donations reached $400,000 after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and $200,000 after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, according to a Verizon Wireless spokesman.

So why now? And why Haiti? Social scientists and Internet culture bloviaters alike will blather on about this one for weeks to come. You know, like that one time us Americans turned our Twitter avatars green to support the protesters in Tehran? Except this time, we’re actually making a difference … you know, with money.

Does our increased dependency on cell phones equal second-nature texting habits? Do the social pressure from charity-promoting “friends” on Facebook and Twitter actually work? Could it be the unavoidable American Red Cross commercial featuring first lady Michelle Obama personally urging you to text “Haiti” to 90999 ASAP (thus adding your $10 to the cause)? Maybe. But it’s so much more complicated than that.

Here’s the thing. Early on, the amount rolling in after the earthquake calculated out to roughly 10,000 micro-donations per second. Math-wise, it means even Americans feeling the worst of the economic crisis, the ones without houses and/or jobs, texted donations. That obnoxious jerk blathering into and about his iPhone while you're trying to enjoy "Avatar" — that guy added at least $5 to his AT&T bill. Your sanctimonious friend upset that you tweeted about the state of your garden and not “what really matters now”? Her nonstop proselytizing made a difference.

Of course the Haiti charity scams showed up, ready to take advantage of our impulsive giving nature via bogus e-mails, text messages and Facebook groups. This is standard business anywhere society congregates, virtually or in real life.

One would hope the monumental generosity would finally take the steam out of that tired-ass argument about new-fangled techno-bobbles ending civilization — or at the very least, civility. Technology is neither good nor evil — at least not until Skynet takes over.

Until that time, technology is simply a tool that reflects human nature. If word gets out that donating to Haiti is easier than buying Starbucks, people will donate to Haiti. Is that bad? Not as far as the Red Cross is concerned. Go technology!

You can never underestimate the strangeness of the human creature. The dopamine rush that makes us frantically bid more than we can afford on eBay for a "Munsters" lunchbox that’s missing the thermos, dog pile a grammatically incorrect Internet post, or pull together over the “Tonight Show” is the same thing that made so many of us impulse donate using a tool that’s become second nature. It’s an impulse that can sometimes have unfortunate results, and as we’ve seen recently, moments of astonishing humanity.

What, are you chicken? Friend Helen A.S. Popkin on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.  All the kids are doin' it!

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