May 20, 2010 -- As @SilentClark, Clark Harris is communicating solely through social media channels during the month of May to raise money and awareness for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Harris started the experiment as a tribute to his mother, Ruth Harris, whose 10-year battle with cancer ended last February.
Thinking back to a more traditional fundraising campaign he participated in in 2006, Team in Training Century Ride, Harris began "looking for a bigger challenge to accomplish in her memory." How could a cause campaign in today's social media-enabled world compare to a primarily direct mail campaign from only a few years ago?
Soon the concept of SilentClark was born. "What better challenge for a guy who never shuts up than to not talk for a month?" Clark can communicate on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube(), Flickr(), LinkedIn() and Google Chat; e-mail, talking, writing, text messaging, and sign language are not allowed — not with friends, not with colleagues, not even with Harris's wife.
We "met" @SilentClark through Twitter and caught up with him via Facebook to find out more about the Social Media Experiment, how the project is going, and what it's like to speak only through social media for an entire month.
The Challenges of Social Media Silence
When Clark Harris says he was looking to have his "normal life challenged," he wasn't kidding. For a guy with a self-professed love of gabbing, going silent except for social media for an entire month is no easy task.
"I'm a talker — that's my primary means of keeping in touch with people. My phone gets a workout while I am driving and I can happily talk for hours on end with various people. If I can't talk in person, I'd like to do it over the phone."
So what's been the biggest challenge thus far? "It sucks to lose something. Before I could just speak when I wanted to speak. Now, I have to find a phone or computer or I'm stuck. It makes being social in public more work." As a result, a lot of thoughts that would otherwise be conveyed get dropped. "It's too much effort to tweet a response to everything. My percentage of talking to listening has completely reversed."
'The Delay Factor' Complicates Social Media-Only Communication
Harris says that being involved in the technology world professionally has helped the project along significantly. Without an existing network there, "it would be nearly impossible to get through it. I've been able to chat, tweet [and] Facebook message with everyone because all the people I deal with are in that world now. Just a year ago, I don't think this would have been possible."
The intense and frequent dependency on technology to mediate communication has been one of the major hurdles during the experiment, which Harris refers to as the Delay Factor.
"The times I need to talk most are ones when the Delay Factor is really apparent. Times when my wife really wants to talk about something or when we both get frustrated and have to wait on the iPhone to load for me to be able to convey a response. We've just had to bite the bullet and flex our patience."
Reactions to the Social Media Experiment
Face-to-face silence introduces an inevitable wild card into every in-person meeting with a stranger. How would people react? How would friends and family deal with a month of social media-only communication? Harris says the reactions have by and large been overwhelmingly positive. "It's amazing to see how quickly people adapt," he marveled.
Despite being shocked by the idea at first, friends, family and co-workers quickly grew supportive. "I've been pleased with the words of encouragement and with people telling me it's an 'honorable' or 'inspiring' endeavor." As the online world has learned of the Social Media Experiment, strangers have been supportive as well. "I've had a great response from people I don't know. Some retweet me with personal messages, others send encouraging words, and some even donate."
In person, things get a bit more challenging.
"At times they think that I am actually mute, so I have to tell them that this is a choice and not a disability. When I tell them it's a fundraiser for leukemia in memory of my mother, it's the same response as above, they are taken aback." In the face-to-face world though, most of the encounters aren't with social media natives, so even the nature of the experiment itself requires "a little more explaining." He carries around a card for just such encounters that reads: "I CAN'T TALK! Why? www.socialmediaexperiment.com — How can we communicate? You talk. I respond via Twitter @SilentClark."
How is Social Media Conversation Different… Or Is It?
We wanted to know if the types of communication possible through social media made day-to-day conversations radically different, or whether the nature of a personal connection tends to foster a similar way of relating across different social media channels. "I have not seen a big shift from my friends to adapt to speaking to me," says Harris. On the flip side, a month "may be too short" to spot those kinds of shifts.
"Before the SMX, there were people that I would only Gchat with. Obviously those people have been the easiest to communicate with. I have found myself on Facebook Chat more than before, but that is because I check Facebook more often and crave conversation. Chat is really my only way to talk to people in a semi conversational way. Tweeting someone may or may not result in a timely reply."
Work, somewhat surprisingly, has changed very little: "My business partner and I chat more than we talk in our office, even though we are in the same room, so the SMX has not changed that at all."
Overall, "conversations on the whole, across all mediums, have gotten much shorter. I have not had a solid 30-60 minute 'chat' with anyone, including my wife since April."
Social Media Versus Traditional Cause Campaigns
How has the Social Media Experiment compared to the 2006 direct mail fundraising campaign Harris completed just a few short years ago? "My reach is much wider by using social media. I've had people from Asia and Europe show their support through sending me encouraging words and spreading information about my endeavor to their followers. In 2006 I didn't have any strangers offering their support."
Harris also hopes to maintain longer connections with some of the supporters he's been able to meet through the Social Media Experiment. He's since lost touch with the other members of the 2006 campaign. "It is yet to be determined if any of the relationships I'm developing here with the SMX will pass the test of time. I hope they will."
Financially, although the campaign is still ongoing through the month of May, it's already eclipsed the 2006 direct mail fundraiser. "In terms of donations and raw dollars, the passive donations are crushing what I did in 2006. I didn't have any strangers donate, and already I've had several people donate who I have no affiliation."
Harris credits much of this to the advent of social media tools and the establishment of an online identity. "Now I have a proper online identity and people have the ability to get to know SilentClark Harris far better than the 2006 Clark Harris."
How You Can Help
There are a number of ways to help SilentClark achieve his goals in the Social Media Experiment. He hopes to encourage 20,000 individuals to contribute a nominal $5 donation. Head over to the Ways to Help section of the SMX website and click the "Donate Now" button to add your contribution.
You can also follow @silentClark on Twitter, friend SilentClark Harris on Facebook, and "Like" the Silence Cancer Page on Facebook. Whether or not you are able to donate to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, do consider helping to spread the word about the Social Media Experiment.