Lance Armstrong, panel discuss power and danger of social media at Aspen Ideas

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman, left, and panel moderator Jerry Murdock listen as Lance Armstrong discusses his utilization of social media during a plenary session on social media and it's benefits on Saturday morning at the Aspen Institute. The discussion was a part of the Aspen Ideas Festival. (Patrick Ghidossi/The Aspen Times)
Patrick Ghidossi |

ASPEN – The use of social media has helped build the Livestrong Foundation into a powerhouse, but, more important, it’s helped individual cancer victims realize they have an “army” standing by to help, founder Lance Armstrong said Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

“When I was diagnosed, I went down to the bookstore to figure out what cancer is all about,” Armstrong said, referring to the discovery in 1996 that he had testicular cancer at age 25. Now, people who are diagnosed have a wealth of information at their fingertips via the Internet. They also have multiple forums, like Livestrong’s Twitter account and Facebook page, where they can share their fears, seek support and solicit advice.

Armstrong said he knows from experience that it is invaluable to be able to express what you are feeling in your fight against cancer.

He said he is regularly asked what he says to people who contact him via the foundation when they tell him they have cancer. “I don’t say anything. I listen. That’s the beauty of social media,” he said.

Armstrong was on a panel discussing “Can Social Media Benefit the Greater Good?” Each of the participants is part of an organization that has successfully harnessed social media to further a cause. Armstrong was joined by his right-hand man, Livestrong president and CEO Doug Ulman. Other panel members were: Chris Hughes, Matt Flannery and Pete Cashmore.

Hughes was highly effective as director of online organizing for President Obama’s 2008 campaign. He was a co-founder of both Facebook and of Jumo, which uses the social web to build relationships between individuals and organizations.

Flannery is co-founder and CEO of Kiva, a nonprofit that specializes in online microfinancing.

Cashmore is founder and CEO of Mashable, a popular site that covers social media, digital and technology news.

Armstrong and Ulman said the building of their social media network really began with the yellow, rubber wrist bands iconic of Livestrong’s support. They were first sold in 2004, in partnership with Nike, when he was trying to win his sixth Tour de France. Armstrong said he thought they would be lucky to sell the modest number of bands in the first production. He was wrong.

“We sold more than 80 million wrist bands. We [initially] thought it was the dumbest idea we ever heard,” he said.

Eventually, Livestrong officials realized they needed to do more than sell the bracelets to their supporters. They needed to sign them onto their email list and, eventually, convert them into Twitter and Facebook followers to help with everything from volunteering for Livestrong events, lobbying elected officials on policy issues and providing support to cancer fighters.

Armstrong learned of Twitter from Ulman in fall 2008. “He’s pretty competitive, so he said ‘I’ve got to try this,'” Ulman recounted, getting a laugh from the audience at the Greenwald Pavilion.

Armstrong immediately discovered that someone already was using his name on a Twitter account, where one can send unlimited Tweets, or messages that are 140 characters or fewer. “He would Tweet everyday – ‘going for a bike ride.’ That’s all he did, and I was like, ‘Who is this person?'” Armstrong recounted, to the crowd’s delight.

Ulman said they were able to contact the person who had the account, via Twitter administrators, and convince him to give it back. “[We said] he really is going for a bike ride. Can he have his name back?” Ulman said.

Armstrong said he first used it simply to answer the question Twitter first posed, “What are you doing?” He says he likes to post photos to really connect with people and make it more real – like the photo of a “huge” bear track he found on a mountain bike trail in the upper Roaring Fork Valley recently.

Eventually, Armstrong said he started using the microblogging site more to spread news about Livestrong-related events and to give a “shout-out” to cancer fighters who need some moral support. He has roughly 3 million followers on Twitter.

Ulman said Livestrong’s Twitter account was used to recount the story of a cancer fighter whose insurance company wouldn’t approve a stem cell transplant. People who saw the Tweet bombarded the company with protests and overturned the decision, he said.

Contact via Twitter and Facebook also gives Livestrong immediate feedback on what type of services people need and helps them mold the organization’s programs. In the not-so-distant past, that information required extensive research.

Hughes noted the fast pace of change in the social media world. Twitter wasn’t used extensively in the 2008 presidential campaign. It seemed “almost like a joke” and narcissistic, he said. In the last three years it’s use has exploded.

While Obama used social media in groundbreaking ways in 2008, candidates will have to continue to seek innovations, he predicted.

The panel unanimously felt social media can be used for the good of humankind, and that organizations are just scratching the surface of its use.

Kiva uses online resources to enlist people willing to make small loans to individuals or groups around the world with a sound business idea. Flannery said about 98 percent of those loans get repaid. The “digital inclusion” of impoverished people helps ease the financial and social isolation that so many experience, he said.

“Social media is all about empowerment,” Cashmore said. When an individual sees there are 1,000 other people behind a cause, it makes them think they can make a difference.

Moderator Jerry Murdock asked if there is also a dark side to using social media, like inciting riots. Cashmore replied social media was an accessory in the revolutions in the Middle East this year, not the cause.

A future challenge, Cashmore said, will be getting attention amid so many messages. Any single message will be drowned out if it’s not clear and concise, he said.

Armstrong didn’t discuss his mastery of using Tweets to get his side of the story out in the ongoing doping allegations by former colleagues in bicycle racing. He did note social media is used to get information directly to people who want it, rather than going through filters like standard media. “Today it’s not a crooked line. It’s a straight line,” he said.

In a thinly veiled reference to disgraced U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., Armstrong noted that people need to realize that virtually all acts are open to scrutiny at all times. Events will be shared almost in real time.

“And with it getting faster, all of us need to be careful because there’s always going to be somebody there to capture that moment,” Armstrong said. “So if you’re a politician, you’re an athlete or you’re a public official, you better be careful because everybody’s got a device waiting.”

As the Tour de France got under way Saturday, racing legend Lance Armstrong said he was happy not to be taking part.

Armstrong, a panelist at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Saturday, introduced himself as a person “proud to be a part-time Aspen resident, proud to be a cancer survivor, proud to be a father of five. The Tour de France started today, which I’m also proud I’m not there as well.”

Armstrong won a record seven consecutive Tours before retiring in 2005. He returned to competitive road racing in 2009 and finished third in the Tour de France. Last year, he finished 23rd in the Tour and retired again. He is now embroiled in disputes over whether he illegally used performance-enhancing drugs. He is steadfastly fighting claims of doping.

Armstrong kept his references to cycling light at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “Somebody sent me a message this morning asking, ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, are you happy or sad you’re not there [in France]?’ I said it’s an 11 that I’m not there.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else other than right here sitting with you all,” he said.