Photo by hyfen from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Last night, six hundred of Toronto’s Twitter elite (we heard the term “Twitterati” a couple of times) and top techies descended upon the Mod Club for HoHoTO, a charity event in support of the Toronto Daily Bread Food Bank. There was reason to celebrate: the organizers, spearheaded by Ryan Taylor, Rob Hyndman, and Duarte Da Silva, handed over a donation of $25,000 and boxes of non-perishable foods. The amazing part is how quickly HoHoTO came together: some events take months to plan, but from conception to party night, HoHoTO took just eighteen days.
The idea sprang forth when an attentive Twitter user noticed the Montreal tech community was hosting a charity event and wondered if something similar could happen in Toronto. The organizers of web conference Mesh jumped onboard and, within forty-eight hours, basic plans were laid out. Using Twitter, says Hyndman, “the idea passed from one person to another and there was almost geometric progression. We got the word out to a lot of different people at the same time. Without it, we wouldn’t have had the same visibility.”
What’s great about the involvement of Twitter is the ability to trace the origins of HoHoTO. (You can view Tweet Zero here from Paul A. Marshall.) A palpable excitement is created by tracing the back and forth, the plume of tweets that snowballed into one of the buzziest events of the season. Taylor attributes the momentum to people’s desire to do good: “HoHoTO is not really based on any new idea: flash mobs have been around for a while now, and it’s common for groups to organize ‘tweet-ups.’ All we did here was take those ideas and create a flag for the community to rally behind.” Adds Hyndman, “We got a lot of the energy from Christmas. It’s the Food Bank, there’s a recession, and the community is suffering. We had fire in the belly.”
Photo by pipesdreams.
So what is a Twitter party like? Garbed in geek chic, attendees mingled, drank, danced, drank, and Twittered like crazy (and drank). Onstage, Da Silva and Taylor DJed and took requests from the crowd via Twitter (and sometimes in person). (While Kanye and Justice did not move the crowd to dance, apparently number one request Journey did.) Screens on either side of the stage showed viral videos, tweets from the crowd (including a Missed Connections-esque groaner), and clips from well-wishers.
Around us, people had out iPhones and BlackBerrys, Twittering while socializing. As a relative Twitter neophyte—illiTwitterate, if you will—we were slightly overwhelmed: it was like sneezing with your eyes open. The party felt like a high-school reunion. You know a few people, sorta recognize a few other faces (“Did we have math together?” as a friend put it), and there’s a sea of faces that do not compute at all.
Thus, while the party was a smash, we were more of a crash. We tried tracking down fellow blogger Adam Schwabe (of Dear Toronto) to no avail. We spoke to Heather, who we thought we knew, but actually didn’t, which led to this awesomely awkward conversation:
Us: “So, you work for Random House. Might know your PR person.”
Her: “Oh, cool. Which one? There are, like, twelve.”
Us: “Oh, wait. Maybe it was Coach House instead?”
Her: “Oh… So, you write for Torontoist?”
Us: “Yeah, do you read it?”
Her: “Um, no. Not really. Only if there’s something about us on it.”
When we did bump into someone from our Twitterverse, we kinda got goosebumps at the intersection between the virtual and the real. Unfortunately, we were on our way out, so we ended up only chatting for about two minutes. After, we dashed home to write this up. In a way, however, we never left the party since we kept receiving update tweets about the party. Soon enough, we were Twittering with folks still there.
Twitter wasn’t hot only at the Mod Club. Like the crowds that used to gather outside of Electric Circus, the action started to attract curious bystanding Twitter users in cyberspace, who started to ask what HoHoTO was about. That’s the crazy thing about Twitter: the conversation keeps going.
The organizers are still revelling in the success of HoHoTO. “We thought bringing in one or two thousand dollars would have been great, and we went through that in the first couple of hours,” notes Hyndman. Taylor had aimed higher, hoping for ten thousand dollars, and that target was also “blown out of the water.” Their next step will be spreading the model to other cities. “From a process standpoint, this could be very useful for grassroots organization.”
It’ll be interesting to see where HoHoTO goes for 2009. Can it sustain more people, or will it become too impersonal? Or should it become multiple events, to allow the Twitterati to escape the glare of their computer screens more often? For now, the focus stays on the laudable charitable contribution, which exemplifies Toronto the Good. To adapt a popular phrase: “Yes we canned foods.”
Photo of Ryan Taylor by Monica Rooney.