In The Lead: The power of social media in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh uses social media to bolster grass-roots philanthropies

When Cynthia Closkey started Pittsburgh Bloggers in 2004, she had a list of 100 blogs. Ten years later, that number exceeds 1,000.

The rise of social media — both for personal networking and branding — has exploded over the past decade. Pittsburgh, in particular, has gained a little more social media cred lately with the installation of new Mayor Bill Peduto. He has been on Twitter since 2009, and he tweets and retweets all manner of city-related information.

It's hard to measure social media reach by region, since there aren't metrics that combine all the possible social media platforms and extrapolate their regional impact (sounds like an app in the making).

A 2014 Time magazine analysis of data from the photo-sharing platform Instagram ranked Pittsburgh as the 18th "selfiest" city in the U.S. "Selfies" — according to the Oxford English Dictionary, where the word is a new addition — are photographs that one takes of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam, that then are shared on social media websites.

But that doesn't necessarily speak to Twitter or Facebook reach. And while views and shares for individual blogs are easily obtained through programs like Google Analytics, getting down into the nitty gritty of social media in a given area is a massive undertaking.

Yet there are ways to explore the personality and impact of Pittsburgh's social media community.

Ms. Closkey, president of Downtown Web design firm BigBig Design, noted that over the past five to seven years, Pittsburgh's tweeters and bloggers have tapped into a deeply philanthropic vein and produced some remarkable charitable efforts as a result.

"It's interesting because people talk about Twitter being like a water cooler or a cocktail party," Ms. Closkey said. "I think social media offers technological tools to allow people do to more of what they do in real life. We see tweetups that happen around a charity or a group of people who have a cause."

She pointed to various examples: Haitian Families First, which grew from an effort to help get orphaned children out of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake; the Stuff-a-Bus Christmas toy drive by radio hosts Michael Dougherty and Bob Mason; and Make Room for Kids, which began as a social media fundraising effort to bring gaming to sick children at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Virginia Montanez spearheaded the Make Room for Kids initiative, now in its fifth year, using the following she had garnered from her popular blog "That's Church" and her Twitter following, along with an assist from the Mario Lemieux Foundation.

"At the time, not everyone understood the power any one person could have, that everyone could have a voice," Ms. Montanez said.

Pittsburgh is a charitable city anyway, she added, and its social media is an extension of that. "It's uplifting. As a general rule, Pittsburghers are cheerleaders for each other."

Make Room for Kids has raised more than $125,000 since its inception, according to Nancy Angus, executive director of the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Ms Montanez believes, however, that if she tried to start a similar initiative now via social media, it would be exponentially more difficult.

"Back then, getting a message out on social media was like standing in a room and shouting," she said. "Now, it's a lot of people whispering. It's not just about how good the message is, it's that it's hard to be heard over selfies and customers angry with brands. It's much more crowded."

Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, said Pittsburgh's older population and what he views as a reluctance to experiment may hold back some companies from being as successful on social media as grass-roots charitable efforts.

"I've never seen a company that does social really well externally that doesn't do it internally," Mr. Lightman said. "It involves culture and mindset. Those that hold information close to the vest, that value privacy over transparency, are not really good at social."

He said Pittsburgh companies have a lot of chief information officers who are very interested in appealing to the next demographic of workers.

"They value an open, collaborative environment," Mr. Lightman said of the younger workers, "and if you don't have that, it's not going to pass the sniff test."

— Kim Lyons:, 412-263-1241 or on Twitter @SocialKimly.

First Published May 13, 2014 11:26 AM

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