By Friday afternoon, it felt as if the whole country was watching.
What began with a cancer-stricken boy named Miles and his dream of fighting crime ended up captivating celebrities, firing up the president, and bringing regular office folks to tears at their desks. A little boy's wish to be Batman became a city's command, and a nation's shared moment.
Make-A-Wish grants thousands of requests a year to children with life-threatening illnesses, from trips to Disney World to meetings with sports heroes, yet this was a little different. Miles Scott, who recently finished treatment for leukemia, wanted to be Batman. On Friday, the charitable organization's San Francisco branch ran with it and turned an entire city by the bay into Gotham, setting up crimes for 5-year-old Miles to solve. There was a damsel in distress, a Riddler trying to rob a bank, and the kidnapping of Lou Seal, the San Francisco Giants mascot. Miles, dressed up as Batman, would be charged with saving the city.
He not only saved the city, he arrested the nation. And he did it in what was arguably a first-of-its-kind fashion.
BatKid's fans mostly watched the crime-fighting not on television (although there was some broadcast coverage) but on social media. Updates bounced around Twitter from the San Francisco Make-A-Wish account, from the press, and even from ne'er-do-wells like The Penguin. As Miles made his rounds, popular accounts normally devoted to other, newsier subjects began to cheer the boy on. "Holy adorable moment, Batman!" raved the Major League Baseball account. The Washington Post's account blared, "UPDATE: BatKid is hot on the Penguin's tail." People who weren't a part of the Make-A-Wish plan but heard about BatKid via social media began posting messages on Facebook about leaving work to check out San Francisco's new superhero.
— Mike Pelton (@KRON4MPelton) November 15, 2013
Soon, even the president was caught up in it, sending out his first-ever Vine.
It's rare that one subject dominates social media at a given moment. It happens in times of global events, like the Super Bowl, or in times of tragedy, like the Sandy Hook shootings, but in this case a fictional event became powerful news. The number of tweets relating to "BatKid" started at zero at 9 a.m. Eastern on Friday and spiked to as many as 400 tweets per minute after 4 p.m. By the end of the day, BatKid had inspired more than 114,000 tweets reaching more than 489 million people around the world, according to Topsy.
Something "going viral" usually indicates spreading like contagion. On Friday, a good deed went viral.
Most importantly, this wasn't just shared news; it was shared emotion. Photos of Miles striding toward his next challenge or hugging the damsel in distress did just as much or more to stoke happy feelings as video footage could. The photo of Miles' little brother dressed up as Robin was a touching revelation that had exponential impact. Part of that is because those online photos could be posted, retweeted, and captioned. Pro hockey player Dustin Penner tweeted that BatKid was "one of the greatest things I've ever seen." Knowing real-life heroes were caught up in the life of a child superhero is even more powerful than simply discussing BatKid with co-workers. Shared emotions can be more overwhelming, and comforting, than the emotions we get from watching the news at home. Twitter can be a cesspool of venom and jealousy, but for a little while on Friday, BatKid cleaned that up too. He temporarily rescued us from our lesser selves. He even brought the president and Ted Cruz together.
This isn't the first time social media has become an agent of philanthropy. In the hours after the Boston Marathon bombing, a simple spreadsheet offering places for the affected to stay turned into a social media gathering place for an entire city. BatKid, however, was a little different. It wasn't a response to evil but rather a reaction to good. It was a social media standing ovation for a charity and a little boy – as if his day was playing out on a giant movie screen and we were all wiping away tears in the theater.
BatKid was a reminder that although social media can be evil, it can also be a bat-signal. The Make-A-Wish site crashed on Friday afternoon from all the attention devoted to one little boy, and the hope is that what happened in San Francisco and online is a reflection of a childlike wish in all of us to do some rescuing.