Snapping at Synapses: Why Digital Death Sucks

December 4th, 2010 | Shonali Burke | 36 Comments

I know I said yesterday that I couldn’t find the words to adequately express my thoughts about the “Digital Death” campaign, but I just couldn’t help myself.

If you’re catching up, notice anything different over the past few days?

No? Hmm. Are you sure? You mean the sun still rose in the east, and your days have been going (relatively) according to plan?

Uh oh. Someone had better tell Alicia Keys, Kim Kardashian, Ryan Seacrest, Lady Gaga and a whole host of other celebrities who, on December 1st, underwent a “digital death.”

Image: burnt out Impurities via Flickr, Creative Commons

That is, they made the huge sacrifice of not posting any more updates to Facebook or Twitter until their long-suffering fans had donated $1M to Keep a Child Alive, as a way to draw attention to the issue of HIV, primarily in developing countries in which the non-profit organization funds programs.

(Maybe someone should tell KK that tweeting two days after she’s supposed to be dead isn’t playing by the rules. This isn’t “True Blood.”)

And before you start looking around for stones to throw at me, of course KACA is a good cause… or, at least, its cause is a good cause, I’m not familiar with the organization itself.

Making the grade

I have no doubt that, from a financial point of view, the campaign will reach its goal. As of last night, fans had donated just over $201,000. So it’s likely that the $1M goal will be reached.

If nothing else, I imagine the celebs will strong-arm their own celeb friends with deeper pockets than you and I so as not to appear failures.

But there are so many things that trouble me about this entire campaign.

Philanthropic and informational fatigue

The first is the obvious one: we’re already living in an age of information overload. So to hear there might be a temporary reduction in the spewing of bits and bytes snapping at our synapses is actually a bit of a relief.

And when the country is still in the throes of a recession, when unemployment numbers aren’t pretty, it’s a little rich [sic] for people whose net worths have more zeroes than yours or mine ever will to essentially threaten us into emptying our wallets.

And when I looked at some of the comments on reports of the campaign, that seemed to be a frequently-expressed sentiment, like this one on PopWatch:

Hmm. Makes sense to me.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve been quite amazed at how philanthropic Americans are in general. You may not realize it if you were born and raised here, but that is not the norm around the globe.

But even the most philanthropic of people go through donation fatigue.

And a lot of us are fatigued right now.

What’s taking so long?

Second: if Keys et al wield the kind of online influence they apparently think they do, why on earth didn’t the campaign become an overnight phenomenon?

Did you even know about it? And more to the point, did you care?

Mainstream media reacted, by and large, with a yawn. Some celebrities like Danny Bonaduce, were displeased, as reported on

“After emphatically agreeing that the disease has had catastrophic consequences, ‘wiping out nations, millions of entire families,’ Bonaduce spelled out his irritation to anchors Ukee Washington and Erica Von Thiel.

“What kind of fight begins with quitting something? Bonaduce began.

” ‘Isn’t it sort of emotional blackmail? Ryan Seacrest isn’t going to tell me he just pet his cat until I offer some money?’ he continued.”

Go Danny!

If the celebs’ fans were really devastated by the sudden disappearance of their favorites pop tarts from their digital streams, why didn’t they fall over themselves to hit the $1M donation threshold almost immediately?

Blinkie [Animated GIF]Blink

The thing with social networks, particularly one such as Twitter, is that the streams move so fast, you barely notice someone’s absence. Now you see it, now you don’t.

Image: Shawn McClung via Flickr, Creative Commons

You have to really, really be paying attention to notice if someone hasn’t tweeted in a while, unless you talk to them every day. Depending on the size of your network, it’s a similar story on Facebook, which also applies sophisticated, even mysterious, algorithms to determine whose updates show up more frequently in your news feed.

And given that most celebrities still treat these platforms as megaphones, barely, if ever, actually responding to fans, who could be blamed for not noticing their absence?

Buying whose life back, exactly?

Third, I think it’s a little unfair to the “real” people who are joining in the campaign.

If you look at the home page, the donation counter – coffin-shaped, mind you – is next to an image of a perfectly-undead Alicia Keys. Depending on how much time you have to scroll through the celebrity mug shots, the main image switches out, while the coffin counter tells you how much “fans” have donated thus far.

It took me a while to realize that this clocks up the total amount donated both to buy back the celebs’ digital lives (I feel nauseated just writing that), as well as those of regular Joes and Jills who’ve been inspired to “sacrifice” their own DDs as well.

Seems to me the regular folk, who potentially have more to lose by shutting down their online activity because they’re actually, you know, talking to people without the additional megaphones that the celebs have, should be the ones highlighted.

If this is really about inspiring people, why not highlight those people?

Which brings me back to what this is all about, and what public relations, in its truest sense, tries to do: influence.

The biggest PR lesson here – because what is this campaign, if not an exercise in trying to raise awareness? – is this: if we are going to use social networks to build influence as a way to achieve organizational goals, we have to use them the way they’re meant to be used.

We say this all the time; we have to listen, talk, share … and once we’ve built up a network of relationships we can rely on, only then ask people to do something for us.

Simply assuming that because someone has been judged as having a high degree of online influence, others will do what they ask, isn’t enough.

In fact, it’s kind of arrogant.

Figuring out true online influence is still a bit of a guessing game. Someone’s Klout score is not necessarily reflective of that person’s “real” (i.e. online + offline) influence (though, to be fair to Klout, they don’t claim that is so).

And just because someone has a gazillion Twitter followers doesn’t mean they actually make a difference to how you and I live our daily lives, or whether they influence our day-to-day consumption, purchasing and other behaviors. Even if Fast Company tries to tell you so.

The kicker

What makes me most sad about this campaign is the effect it might have on non-profit organizations.

In fact, I wonder what effect it’ll have on KACA, because if there’s one thing I’ve seen so far, it’s that the attention this campaign is drawing is far greater than the non-profit organization or cause itself.

And that sucks.

Having worked at one, and with several, I know how important it is for non-profits to build and sustain long-term relationships with their stakeholders.

Campaigns will come and go. What’s important is for the organization and cause to receive attention, not the methods they use to do so.

Image: Kaptain Kobold via Flickr, Creative Commons

Walking the line

There’s a fine line between shocking people into action and shock tactics simply to get attention.

The latter might result in a short-term difference to non-profit coffers; but sustainability comes with time, which means acquiring stakeholders who are in it with them for the long haul.

Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke
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I'd like to chime in with a "hear, hear" on everything you covered, and add one note:

Once I heard what was going on, I actually got a little offended (and I have a pretty thick internet skin). AIDS has killed 30 million people and 33 million people face the possibility of that end every day (according to KACA's numbers), and the best campaign creative they could come up with was, "Let's have celebrities pretend to be dead! That'll be totally cool." This, too, is what made me realize it was all about the stars, not about the people they signed on to help.

Did the celebrities at least match the final donation amount? I would be more willing to forgive the bad campaign if KACA at least got double the money...

Shelly Kramer
Shelly Kramer

Great post, Shonali (as usual), and the comments are spot on as well. This is a ridiculous campaign and doesn't do a thing to raise awareness about KACA, which is what really matters.

To me, this falls into the ever deepening chasm that is .. what is influence, why does it matter (if it does) and how is that different than evangelism? Influencers often can't do much - if anything - to compel action. They might spread some awareness, but can they get someone to buy, do, click, act? To me, that's where all this hype around influence and Klout and the like fall short, because they're not taking that into consideration.

But campaigns like this - and blog posts like yours - help prove that this is, in fact, very true. And like Arik mentioned, influencers can often not be trusted, simply by virtue of who they are. We might want to dress like KK (stabbing self in eyes at the very thought), but do we care whether she disappears from the Twitter stream? And as someone mentioned - do we even notice?

I feel similarly about the cartoon campaign on FB - so many people changing their avvies without (1) knowing what it's all about and (2) without DOING anything about abuse. Grrrr, look what you've done - gotten me all riled up.

Suffice it to say this is a lovely post. And I agree wholeheartedly. It. Is. Stupid.


Kami Huyse
Kami Huyse

On one hand, the campaign was successful because it raised the $1 million from fans. On the other hand, I am not sure how dedicated to this particular charity these particular stars were and if they will take the message beyond the narcissistic nature of the campaign. Not to mention you could have gathered the stars, gotten a donation of $55K each and you are done. But campaigns are inherently about spreading the word and educating.

In fairness, the idea of getting attention with a death theme, which is what AIDS is to many people in developing countries, was not such a bad idea. Some small tweaks might have removed the objectionable aspects. For instance, perhaps "Digital Silence" would have been better. To symbolize the many voices that are silenced by this disease? Or maybe even digital facts, with celebs tweeting facts about AIDS until the money was raised. Maybe a donation that their fans would have to match to get to $2 million, though you would probably have fewer (or different) stars participating because they would have to care enough about the cause to give.

In some ways, the Keep a Child Alive org understood something that most fundraisers already know. People like to feel like they are contributing, even if it is only RT a message, digital slactivism. Celebrities are no different.

Mary Deming Barber
Mary Deming Barber

Thanks Shonali,

I hadn't heard about this campaign but did note several other, more positive, World Aids Day programs. There are several things I find "interesting" about this campaign:

1) It doesn't seem to me the celebrities involved understand their audience all that well. As evidenced by the relatively low amount of money raised, their loyal fans desperate for them to return to Twitter aren't those who can generate this amount of money. Lesson: Know Your Target

2) As you pointed out, it's hard to keep track of who is/isn't tweeting/facebooking every day so they likely weren't really missed in someone's stream. Lesson: Understand the Medium

3) As I mentioned, there were several other World Aids Day programs that caught my attention although this wasn't one of them. The lesson here may be timing.

This is just an all around miss but, on the other hand, we've all had them too. Hopefully the organization will learn from this and have a more effective campaign for World Aids Day in 2011. It is a fabulous cause.


When I first heard of this campaign, the focus was on the celebrities not using social media. The actual cause was barely mentioned. In that respect, I don't know how useful the campaign could be. Perhaps celebrities using their large followings and influence to educate people about the cause would be a better way to go.

As a previous poster mentioned, I don't follow celebrities either. Mostly, I don't know who many celebrities are, and I don't look to them for information on causes.

Joe Hackman
Joe Hackman

What a great opportunity to silence them once and for all :)

Rachel Kay
Rachel Kay


Fantastic post. Justin and everyone have added such great commentary I don't have much to add. I just want to point out that if you search the #digitaldeath hashtag on Twitter you get as much, if not more, derogatory feedback as you do good. The strategy could have been so much more powerful had they better harnessed the camaraderie that goes with social networking. Kim and others could better rally their fans if they were using their networks to encourage giving.

Rachel Kay

Justin Goldsborough
Justin Goldsborough

Hey, Shonali. As usual, you make several solid points here. But this was my favorite: "There’s a fine line between shocking people into action and shock tactics simply to get attention."

Let's take that a step further: If you read recent research by organizations like Convio, a couple of points are abundantly clear -- 1) The economy had been bad and people are strapped financially, thus donating to causes less; 2) Peoples' passion for causes has done nothing but grow. But they are finding other ways to get involved besides just giving some cash.

Therein lies the problem in this campaign. Not only should the celebrities have put up the money because, well, they have it. But if the real goal was to raise awareness, then it's obvious they haven't done their research. What if Alicia Keys and KK has agreed to donate $5 every time someone shared an AIDS story on a certain hahstag. Or for every person who shared a message of hope about AIDS on Twitter. Those are the kind of campaigns that raise awareness and build community -- and you nailed the importance of community for nonprofits.

In other words, the celebrities launched a campaign to promote themselves instead of action for the cause. Which is why I agree with Matt ($999,999.99 -- classic) and Arik's point about allowing people who have built community and trust to spread the word and bring others to action.

I believe in fighting AIDS in developing countries and I may even donate to it this month. But I won't donate through the DD campaign. Instead, I'll find a nonprofit and community I respect and trust.

Matt LaCasse
Matt LaCasse

You know, I was going to do a post about the whole "digital death" campaign, but you wrote it so much more eloquently than I would have, Shonali.

I'll leave the analysis to you, Arik, and Robin. All three of you have analyzed everything that needs to be analyzed. I'll simply say this:

I think we can all win in this situation if we raise $999,999.99.

Robin Luymes
Robin Luymes

Thanks Shonali. I hope a lot of money is raised for the cause but maybe their approach should have been to tweet INCESSANTLY so that we pay them to stop! :)

Frankly, I don't follow celebs much in social media because, for the most part, they're not very social. There are few celebs actually looking to engage in a dialog with their audience. It's more about blasting us more with their super celebrity personas and opinions which have not been refined by the fire of the dialog they avoid. And I'm not talking about this particular cause, since you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be sympathetic to the plight of children with AIDS or orphaned as a result of that disease.

I'm glad celebs want to leverage their fame to benefit causes. But you're right, I wish they'd first showcase what THEY have done to help financially. Lead by example.

Arik Hanson
Arik Hanson

I haven't followed this campaign that closely, but two comments of yours struck me, Shonali:

* "The thing with social networks, particularly one such as Twitter, is that the streams move so fast, you barely notice someone’s absence. Now you see it, now you don’t." Bingo. If it weren't for Sarah Evans this week I would have never even noticed. However, one of the plays here may have been to use Twitter as the appetizer to gain mainstream media attention (I'm assuming it's garnered some of that). So, I can't completely fault them for that approach if that was their plan (and assuming it worked--again, I haven't been following along).

* "Simply assuming that because someone has been judged as having a high degree of online influence, others will do what they ask, isn’t enough." Playing off a point I've heard (and have been agreeing and reinforcing for a while): Don't just target the "A-listers" (in this case, celebs). Celebs aren't the only ones with "influence." I mean, who really TRUSTS Kim Kardashian? Anybody? Trust is obviously a big piece of the influence issue. And, as you alluded to, it takes a lot more than a Klout score and a follower count to determine levels of trust.



Nice post, Shonali. Oh the many reasons a campaign like this fails, despite the massive attention it received in traditional and online media. I actually think shock tactics can work if they are directly tied to an issue, and there is some type of action to take as a result. This is not the case here.

First off, I agree with you about the awareness problem. Paying to get your favorite celebrity back on Twitter has absolutely nothing to do with this issue. The buzz of this campaign is centered entirely around celebrities "dying" off Twitter and paying to get them to return. The idea of "keeping a child alive" has been completely lost.

And, what a waste of celebrities. It's not an easy feat getting celebs to participate in something like this. Imagine what they could have accomplished, say, if they created some type of challenge -- groups who raised the most money for the cause would win a private performance by Alicia Keys -- something like that.

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

... Jen, or had at least set the bar higher. $1M for the star power they threw behind this? Chump change for them.

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

Thank you, Shelly! This has just been in my head, I can't get rid of it. Don't know if that's a good or bad thing. You probably saw the news that they hit their $1M mark through a $500k-ish donation from an NY philanthropist, but I still think the campaign missed the mark because that did not seem to be the intent when they started out - they were trying to get their fans/followers on socnets to donate that amount. Interestingly, when I looked at the coffin "counter" this morning, the numbers are back to increasing drip-style, i.e. drip, drip, drip, instead of flowing in.


Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

I love when you stop by, Kami. :)

I'd say yes and no; it didn't actually raise $1M from fans, because the way they reached their goal was by getting a sizable donation from a wealthy NY philanthropist. So if the point of the campaign was to raise the money from their socnet fans, they failed.

And in terms of awareness; yes, maybe some of us know more about KACA now... but are we really acting on it? And is that awareness beneficial to the nonprofit, or is it going to see it's reputation somewhat diminished because of the ridicule this campaign received. I don't know the answer to that, and only KACA could tell us, if they conducted that kind of research.

I completely agree that they could have changed certain aspects of the campaign to make it more palatable; Jen G. had a great comment about that as well.

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

Thanks, Mary! It's really sad that the campaign is taking such flack (rightly so), when it could, instead, have become as an example of what do when embarking on a social media-driven campaign.

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

I think you hit the nail on the head, Deb. This could have been a golden opportunity for education, instead of taking the silent approach.

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

... except that some of them are already tweeting again, Joe...!

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

Exactly, Rachel. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

I love how you bring a great perspective, Justin. You're exactly right: this campaign isn't about the cause at all; it's about the celebs. I think that's why it bugs me so much.

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

That's the thing, Robin; this is such a great cause, it's almost mind blowing to see the celebs blow it like this. KACA was co-founded by Alicia Keys, so I suspect there was some heavy "celebfluence" at work when they came up with this idea.

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

You're exactly right, Arik. And honestly, I'm still shaking my head over the narcissism of it all. Amazing.

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

KC & Erica, that's one of the major "fails" of this campaign for me; that it's driving awareness of the celebs and their fascination with their own personas on social networks, as opposed to what is such a huge problem worldwide.


I agree with you, Erika! The tactics of this campaign doesn't bring back the audience's attention to the cause. That is the major flaw in this campaign.

How does this question raise awareness of the facts regarding AIDS or HIV? Actually, it doesn't. Wasted opportunity, indeed.


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