Earlier this week, something happened involving Twitter that has convinced me and a lot of other social media watchers that on-the-fly “flash” advocacy—rapidly, self-assembled groups formed to instantly solve a problem—has already arrived, big-time.

On Tuesday, a Chicago design executive, David Armano, posted an emotional tweet on his Twitter feed to request help for Daniella, an acquaintance in a bad spot. We’ve all heard about social media appeals but this one turned into a genuine flash cause, as Armano’s network of more than 8,000 followers galvanized into action. Within a few hours on Tuesday, Armano’s crowd appeal had raised more than $5,000. By Wednesday, thousands of tweets had poured into his Twitter feed along with donations topping $11,000. By noon today, the cash raised was topping $15,000—and growing. “OK friends,” Daniella tweeted gratefully this morning. “Thank you for an unforgettable day and a half. I’m cooked. Really am so proud at how you came through.” [One of the people who donated to Daniella called the flash group, in a tweet, “the social media compassion mafia” and congratulated it for successfully halting Daniella’s eviction.]

The thing is, Daniella’s digital rescue wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. In just the past 2-3 months, Twitter-fueled “flash causes” have been rising up from the grass roots more frequently to solve a problem for someone or some specific group of people sharing a common concern. [Much has already been written about EpicChange.org’s recent Tweetsgiving campaign, which raised $10,000 in the 48 hours before Thanksgiving to build a classroom in Tanzania.] Earlier this fall, techPresident blogger Nancy Scola and colleague Alison Fine organized the Twitter Vote Report, which began as an effort on election day to create a real-time citizen-watch campaign to guard against voter intimidation—but ended up providing a way for mostly first-time voters to share their personal experiences voting in a presidential election.

So what does all of this mean for social action? Can people like Dave Armano or EpicChange organizers Stacey Monk and Avi Kaplan be as successful a second time, if, say, they tried mobilizing their networks again the next week—but this time on behalf of someone or something else? What makes people more prone to staging a successful flash cause than others? Are flash causes a temporary phenomenon fueled by the novelty of the technology, itself, or yet another powerful example of how one’s social capital online can be more powerful, in some ways, than personal wealth in fighting social ills?

There’s no science yet on the subject, of course, but there seems to be a lot of common attributes in these flash campaigns so far: a distrust of the establishment; a lack of credible, status quo institutions; a desire to build something new and unique, and an influential, highly engaged catalyst [or pair of them] with an already-large online social network posed to make a difference.

For more on the rising flash causes phenomenon, see this video clip (below) of Clay Shirky addressing the recent Pop!Tech 2008 conference in Maine. Social media, Shirky says, are encouraging people to “design [new groups] for generosity” and are—in the process—“reversing everything we’re used to” about traditional philanthropy.

Still not convinced? Consider HubSpot’s recent State of the Twittersphere Report, which estimates there are some 5 million people in the Twitter community and that it is growing by some 10,000 new accounts per day. Key to more growth will be the types of conversations the community will have; many social media watchers [myself included] believe Twitter use will become more cause-focused as it integrates a search function—and as mobile, cause-action groups wrack up more successes using Twitter as a “citizen watch” or flash-cause organizer locally and abroad.

For more on David Armano’s campaign for Daniella, go to Armano’s blog, here, and his Twitter page, here.

imageMarcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.