The start-up incubator sideshow

<p>When I was a tyke, I used to love staying up all night to watch the <a href="http://www.mda.org/telethon/">Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon</a>. Not only did the charitable cause legitimize behavior that was otherwise verboten for young me, but the show transformed TV itself into a participatory medium. People calling in their contributions; local stations breaking in with local entertainment; fundraisers and micro-celebrities getting to speak to the world--the Jerry Lewis telethon was charity 2.0 long before the arrival of the social web.<br /> <br /> Of course, the telethon is far from the first fusion of popular entertainment with doing good. Perhaps the most influential yet largely unheralded example is the funding of early neonatal care through <a href="http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1994/2/1994_2_24.shtml">amusement park sideshows</a>.<br /> <br /> Really. Check out <a href="http://www.shorpy.com/node/4339?size=_original">this 1903 photo</a> of <a href="http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/coney/filmmore/description.html">Coney Island</a>--way over the bottom left corner you'll find a sign that reads, "<a href="http://uncivilsociety.org/2008/08/coney-island-baby-incubators.html">Infant Incubators with Living Infants</a>." In an era when the medical establishment paid scant attention to neonatal care, displaying preemie babies provided away to generate enough revenue to fund the development of new technology to save the lives of children who would otherwise have been left for dead.<br /> <br /> Just like people have raised ethical questions about charity telethons, incubator sideshows generated complaints about the exploitation of sick kids. Still, this money-minting medu-tainment lasted for decades, accomplishing <a href="http://tinyurl.com/6c3cgd">a world of good</a>.<br /> <br /> Eventually <a href="http://www.coneyislandhistory.org/index.php?g=hall_of_fame&amp;s=couney">mainstream hospitals adopted</a> the technology and the sideshows were no longer needed. But the lesson for social enterprise remains: never underestimate the value of so-called junk media for promoting useful innovation.</p>