May 4, 2014: A few weeks ago, Thunderclap won top honor at the International Andy Awards, taking home the “Grandy”. In 2013, they won the first-ever Cannes Innovation Lion Award at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. In 2012, Forbes said Thunderclap was the future of social empowerment. What is Thunderclap, you ask? It lets you build a large (or even massive) support campaign for anything you care about. Then, in one dramatic moment, all your messages are blasted out to social media. Think of the impact of a very loud thunderclap heard in a storm – you can hear one for miles. That’s where the name comes from. I spoke with the founder and CEO of Thunderclap, David Cascino, and what I heard floored me.
Alex H. Yong: How did you come up with the idea for Thunderclap?
David Cascino: Thunderclap‘s story began with my frustrations with the SOPA/PIPA issues from a few years ago. For those who don’t remember, it was about the government’s plan to make a law that would let them shut down any website at any time, anywhere, just by issuing a court order. They could literally make a site go dark, with no trial, no due process, no committee, nothing. “Suspicion” was reason enough for a website to be shut down. There was a lot of outcry from people in the tech industry, myself included. I remember I felt so strongly about it and how I was sharing to social media, trying to get others to rally against it. I actually called my elected representatives for the first time in my life. I remember speaking to staffer after staffer, feeling like I was speaking into a void no matter what I did.
I thought: Who’s going to listen to one person?
Then one day I went for a walk near Zuccotti Park, the famous park in the Occupy Wall Street saga, and I experienced something called the human megaphone, which I’d never seen before. The purpose of the human megaphone is to counteract the law that says you can’t have a bullhorn, megaphone or PA system unless you can get a permit from the city. Well, Mayor Bloomberg wanted the Occupy protesters out of Zuccotti Park, so there was no way they were going to get a permit. So they borrowed a technique from the nuclear war protests where someone would stand up on a high point to speak, and everyone that could hear would repeat what was said word-for-word, and then everyone behind them would repeat it. The words would ripple through the park maybe three or four times until the message could be heard by the entire park, loudly and clearly, powered solely by human voices – no technical amplification at all. Watching this stopped me dead in my tracks.
It was like getting punched in the face. I couldn’t stop watching.
I realized there wasn’t a way for people to rally around a message and amplify it online all at the same time. As a developer and long-time technologist, I got really excited about an idea I had, which eventually became Thunderclap. I went straight home and started working on a prototype, first checking if something similar had been built already, and didn’t find anything. I also spent time researching the technical side, to see if there were any limitations with the APIs in social media sites which might obstruct the entire project. Again, I didn’t find anything. At that moment, I realized there was an opportunity to create something powerful which people could use to band together around a message. From there I joined an incubator and within three months, we launched.
Alex H. Yong: How were the early days after launching?
David Cascino: We were lucky enough to get a few early adopters with decent followings to do beta testing. Within a week of launching, one of the first users we got to help was Matt Taibbi, the Rolling Stone journalist. Within 24 hours, he had 500 supporters, and by the end of the week he had almost 2,000. We were so excited because it worked, and people were using it! We blasted out all of Matt Taibbi’s messages on Twitter – because at the time we were only on Twitter – and a few hours later, I got an email from Twitter – It said they revoked our API token! Yeah, they shut us down.
As you can imagine, we went from feeling all sorts of excitement to being shut down by Twitter – all within one week.
We got up and running on Facebook as soon as we could, and shortly after, our discussions with Twitter began. We wanted them to tell us what we were doing wrong, what changes we could make to get back in, because we definitely wanted to be on Twitter. It took about a month of back and forth through emails, trying to hone in on what specific terms we were violating, if any. We wanted them to know we were ready to modify our side of things to comply with their TOS. It took some time, but Twitter’s Trust and Safety team eventually saw the good in what we were doing and gave us our access back.
Alex H. Yong: I heard the White House uses Thunderclap – I need to hear more about that!
David Cascino: Yes, the White House called us a few weeks after we launched, wanting to know more about our concept. Our hopes got up because they took notice and we felt they were going to run a campaign, but nothing happened for months. We kept following up with them, including pointing out new features and interesting campaigns. One week I was in D.C. for meetings and emailed the White House to let them know I was in town. I didn’t hear back for days, but on the Friday I was scheduled to head back to New York, I got an email from their digital strategy team asking if there was any way I could stop by! I changed my ticket, headed over and gave my presentation, which included a feature they had been asking about. I showed them the new feature and they were really excited.
Within three days, the White House was up and running on Thunderclap
Even better, the GSA (Government Services Administration) heard about us and asked if we could amend our TOS to be more compatible with the federal government. We went through a long process to create a separate TOS for government clients, which then unlocked Thunderclap for all the different government agencies. Since then, we’ve seen FEMA run a campaign, and the Ad Council in conjunction with some government agencies ran one about drunk driving. A few months ago, we had a meeting with the FBI down in D.C. about using Thunderclap for missing children and capturing fugitives.
It’s definitely taken a life of its own. It’s such a simple platform, but at the end of the day, it’s a tool. The real excitement comes from how people are using Thunderclap – We’re always amazed at the creative concepts our users apply to it. We’re just trying to create a simple way to organize people to amplify a message.
Alex H. Yong: Thunderclap isn’t dominated by politics, is it?
David Cascino: No, we see lots of campaigns created around medical and environmental causes, even crowdfunding projects. And now we’re seeing more and more entertainment-based campaigns. W magazine used Thunderclap to engage with social media users about who should appear on the cover for their 20th anniversary. People magazine used us in conjunction with their famous “Sexiest Man Alive” issue. Blake Shelton, country music star and judge on The Voice used Thunderclap to announce his tour dates. We’re seeing content from all across the spectrum! Politics, as you can imagine, are well-suited for Thunderclap because when people are passionate about a certain issue, they want to raise the most awareness about it.
Alex H. Yong: To be clear, users need to drum up support and hit a minimum, is that right?
David Cascino: Our minimum goal is 100 supporters. If you don’t hit 100, your messages don’t go out. It’s hard to predict what people will respond to. In our queue where we can see each campaign, we sometimes see clients with large followings not get the support we guessed they would, and conversely, an individual person might receive an amazing amount of supporters.
If you think about it, Thunderclap is low-risk. It takes 5 minutes to set up and it’s a simple way to find out if your content resonates with people or not. If it does, great; if it doesn’t, you can try another idea. We’ve seen a big uptick in the amount of crowdfunding enthusiasts using our site to vet an idea before they go ahead and do a concerted crowdfunding effort. To do a successful crowdfunding campaign takes months of preparation. You need to create a really compelling video, you have to figure out what your rewards will be for different tiers – It’s a lot of work. Thunderclap is low-risk compared to that. We can help you get a sense if anyone cares about your issue, meaning, does the world want the thing you’re trying to create or promote? Is it even interesting? One vivid example is Dave Hakkens and Phonebloks,
the modular phone. When we first saw it on our site, we thought it was kind of cool but within 24 hours, 100,000 people had supported it. It struck a chord none of us expected! By the end of the Phonebloks campaign, Dave had 950,000 people link their Twitter or Facebook accounts to it. We were blown away that it skyrocketed. The day Dave’s Thunderclap was blasted out, Motorola announced they’d be partnering with him to bring his vision to life! Project Ara, as it’s known, was amazed that one guy got a million people to express enthusiasm in a concept phone. It was a remarkable match because here they were with their skunkworks prototype, and here was Dave with a large, target audience. I’m blown away by these types of stories.
One person really can spark a massive groundswell of interest.
Alex H. Yong: Yes, that’s amazing – and it’s a far cry from the day you felt it was hard for one person to make a difference. I’m thinking the Thunderclap story might make a good indie film or something. Tell me more! I can’t get enough.
David Cascino: Another amazing moment is when I see some of my personal heroes supporting and making Thunderclap campaigns. For example, Lawrence Lessig, the IP attorney known for his role in setting up Creative Commons, popped up on our radar a few times. I knew about his work with regard to campaign finance reform, an issue I care strongly about personally. Well it turned out his Thunderclap involved a rally and march down the state of New Hampshire. The walk was set to begin in Dixville Notch and end in Concord. Along the way, random people would join the march like Ben Cohen from Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. I said “I wanna do this!” So I packed my son and wife in the car and drove up to New Hampshire on a Friday night to join Lawrence’s march and speak with him in-person. It was great – we ended up walking a few hours discussing the things we’re passionate about. Now we’re actually collaborating on a new project, and he mentioned it in one of his recent TED talks. It was cool to get his thoughts on the idea – and now his support.
Alex H. Yong: I’m thrilled I got the opportunity to speak with you. This has truly been amazing David. Thank you!
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