Jenifer Joy Madden Vienna
Mall rallies in a meet-up age: Getting the numbers right
I was at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Oct. 30 rally on The Mall, one jumbotron from the stage. The crowd was blissful, but we were packed together like sardines. Meanwhile, thousands more milled around the periphery, roamed nearby streets or were stuck fuming on jammed Metro platforms, buses and trains.
It was obvious that the city was caught off guard by the size of the throng. Except for the unfortunate souls on a faulty escalator, we were remarkably lucky. Had something spooked the crowd, things might have been gravely different.
The experience offers crucial lessons about the powerful influence of social media - so D.C. planners are not one day blindsided by a human hurricane.
When Comedy Central filed for a permit, the attendance estimate was only 25,000. "It had to do with actual space they [the National Park Service] were prepared to allot to the event," network spokesman Tony Fox told me. "We had no idea how many people were going to show up."
After seven weeks of negotiations, including the network's decision not to pay for extra Metro service, the estimate was 60,000 in the final permit approved just three days before the event. That the number was way off the mark should have surprised no one.
Weeks before the network's 11th-hour decision to hold the event, a digital drumbeat began. "Reddit did a donation push to encourage us to do the rally," Stephen Colbert acknowledged at the post-event news conference.
By Sept. 20, 100,000 people had RSVP'd on Facebook. A month later, Andres Glusman of Meetup.com told the Christian Science Monitor, "This is growing faster than any online meet-up we've seen." Yahoo News noted that self-organized satellite gatherings were being planned in 801 cities in 67 countries.
All the while, the coolest guys on TV were inviting viewers across the flat world to a free party in America's capital.
Comedy Central kept an eye on the online numbers and made some adjustments. On Oct. 25, the Wall Street Journal reported that the network had ordered extra port-a-potties, "suggesting organizers expect a crowd of 150,000 people." Metro put some extra trains and personnel on standby, but D.C. authorities were reluctant to go much further. "We did see that there was a large number of people RSVP'ing on Facebook," said Park Service spokesman Bill Line. "But we have also found that for prior events, that's not always an accurate gauge, either. People will say they are coming and then don't."
In the end, aerial images paid for by CBS News showed that about 215,000 people attended the rally. That's not counting those who tried but failed to get downtown. "It's kind of fascinating to us," said Comedy Central's Fox. "Facebook on the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Web sites came out to be 300,000."
The rally should be a wake-up call to D.C. event planners to rethink the way they do business. Besides reacting more quickly to online input, they need to better leverage the permit process to compel event sponsors to help pay for support services of all kinds - from extra Metro trains to bike valets.
For their part, sponsors should be required to get a better handle on attendance, perhaps by asking rally-goers to register in advance and charging a nominal entry fee to cover externalities.
And to be able to do its job properly, the National Park Service must be fully informed.
Congress banned the agency from making crowd estimates following a political dustup after the Million Man March in 1995. But in the new millennium, computer-analyzed imaging eliminates the shades of gray that might have prompted politically motivated lawsuits. Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander suggests that a media consortium should share the cost of using such technology to make estimates, but Congress itself can take the lead: Because crowd data is important to informed security planning, it should allow the Park Service to again be the crowd-estimating agency of record.
With enough time and publicity, an event called by a charismatic media entity could end up larger than a presidential inauguration. Like it or not, the headaches of managing virtual communities that come together in real-life spaces are here to stay.
Jenifer Joy Madden blogs about how people interact with technology at www.durablehuman.com and is vice chair of the Fairfax County Transportation Advisory Commission.