The heart-warming story of Miles the Batkid from San Francisco is a timely reminder that the World Wide Web can be a powerful humanitarian tool, writes Karthik Subramanian

It is one of the most heart-warming stories of the year. Five-year-old Miles Scott, a leukaemia survivor from San Francisco, last week got his wish to be Batman’s junior to fight crime in Gotham City.

A wish inspired by his love for the caped crusader came true at an unbelievable scale as an entire city transformed itself to become his playground, and a lot of important people across the country, took time to play in his fantasy.

Starting with over 10,000 people signing up to turn up at pre-disclosed locations to cheer young Miles in a bat costume battle comic book villains, and the Police Chief of San Francisco play acting and sending out “thank you” messages via video, it gravitated towards actor Ben Affleck, slated to be the next Batman on the silver screen, congratulating Miles for being the “Best Batman ever” and President Barack Obama sending out a congratulatory “Way to go, Miles” video message.

The sheer scale of the spectacle was possible, thanks to the World Wide Web. It was a timely reminder that the Internet is a powerful tool that can unite people and bring out that humanity in all of us. Much has been written and discussed about the at times de-humanising, at times alienating or even the more dangerous effects of technology. Miles’ story is the one that gives hope.

Going viral

Miles’ Batkid journey started with the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Bay Area, a part of the non-profit organisation that helps children fighting life-threatening conditions realise their wishes, putting out a message about his wish to play the caped crusader. The Web has become a powerful tool for such organisations not only to realise funds but also to rally volunteer support.

When the Foundation set up elaborate stunts across San Francisco on November 15, the day the city transformed to become Gotham City to pave way for Miles ‘the Batkid’ and Batman to do their rescuing act, over 10,000 people signed up to turn up at the venues and cheer.

To leverage the Web phenomenon further, the organisers also fixed up a Twitter account for the super villain the Batkid would be battling. The twitter account — @PenguinSF — of Penguin (Batman’s arch nemesis), run by the organisers, started to taunt the online audience of the grand scheme of things.

The organisers also used the hashtag #SFBatkid to rally support through the day of crime-fighting exploits of Miles. Instagrammers also got into the act, chronicling the day, and put out more than 15,000 images on the photo-sharing network with the same hashtag. Twitter just exploded with #SFBatkid and #Batkid messages. According to popular technology blog Mashable, on November 15 alone, there were over 4,00,000 tweets about Miles’ exploits.

Photos of Miles and an actor playing Batman saving a damsel in distress, rescuing San Francisco Giants’ official mascot Lou Seal, driving around the city in a Batmobile and trapping Penguin, all went viral.

Ben Affleck, tweeted from his verified account on November 17: “Batkid. Best Batman ever. #SFBatKid #MakeAWish @SFWish”

Even the official White House accounts on Twitter retweeted messages about Miles’ exploits. The crowning glory moment came when President Barack Obama, easily one of the most technology-savvy leaders in the world, put out a short video on Vine, saying “Way to go, Miles. Way to save Gotham.”

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Closer home

There are positive stories of the Web being used for such humanitarian purposes here too. In November 2011, Shonan Kothari, a Mumbai youngster, organised a flash mob at the CST Station, Mumbai, getting together a group of 200 people to groove to the popular Hindi song ‘Rang De Basanti’ as a tribute to the resilience of the city that had suffered terrorist attacks. The positivity it generated reverberated throughout the country with similar attempts for flash mobs, all of it riding on the power of the Web and social media.

There are a lot of projects — from documentaries on social topics to voluntary projects for social causes — that get crowd-funded on websites such as Indiegogo.com. The front-runner for this is Kickstarter, but that website is not available for Indian projects yet.

A notable website from Indian web space is www.rangde.org, an organisation that promotes peer-to-peer lending for social causes. Users of Rang De can identify small projects across the country, and lend amounts of money at lesser rate of interest, to lower the cost of microcredit. Instead of just reflecting on the poverty of rural India, one can participate in possible solutions.

One of the beneficiaries of Rang De is Milu Mallick, a tailor from rural Orissa. She is looking for a loan of Rs. 8,000 and is willing to pay an interest of 8.5 per cent an annum. Social investors at the site, most of them from middle-class backgrounds, have been supporting such Milus.