Andy Hobsbawm: From social media to social good

Wednesday 24 June 2009 12:23

If we re-interpreted John Wanamaker’s regularly quoted remark (about knowing half his advertising dollars were wasted, just not knowing which half) for the whole economy, we might say we know that a big proportion of all economic activity is social or altruistic, we just don’t know how big.

It is clear that age-old social behaviours like giving directions in the street, parents organising school association events, or doing favours for our neighbours and friends are part of what makes us tick and our societies stick together. But because they happen between the lines of official statistics, we don’t see the critical role they play in our everyday lives.

Taking our grandmother’s old black and white telly to the council recycling point or picking up ours or someone else’s kids from school, for instance, doesn’t technically count as a bona fide economic activity even though a body like the US Census Bureau has clear classification codes for similar market-based activities: “NAICS 484210 [Trucking used household, office, or institutional furniture and equipment]” and “NAICS 624410624410 [Babysitting services, child day care]”.

The point is that historically the impact of these social behaviours has been, as Harvard law professor and author Yochai Benkler puts it, the “dark matter of our economic production universe” – we know it’s all around us but we can’t observe it directly. Now however, giving time and sharing expertise and other resources online leaves a trail of clicks, so we’re starting to see some direct proof for the first time.

In fact, the internet has always been a perfect fit for these kinds of collaborative volunteer labour donations. The ‘network of networks’ was built on free, openly shared code – from Perl, Linux and Apache software to send mail, and the web itself.

In other words, these communal impulses are older than our civilisations and an in-built part of how humans behave in groups. Digital tools and network technology hasn’t changed this, but it hasmade new kinds of collective interaction possible, given us many new channels of social and philanthropic expression, and made it much more potent and visible as an information-based economic activity.

And the range and richness of feedback mechanisms online motivate people to keep on giving, sharing and participating. Community discussion in forums or on blogs and e-mail lists for instance, or the kind of detailed statistical analyses and visualisations of contributions that a project like gives its participants: percentages achieved, views, comments, or referrals generated, etc.

Six of the best

There are six new and powerful ways the internet is letting individuals express their inborn generosity, contribute to something larger than themselves or, as Tennessee William’s Blanche DuBois would have put it, rely on the kindness of strangers all over the world.

1. Mass collaboration

Volunteers can now contribute spare time, specialised knowledge and skills or even surplus computing power to good causes online. Examples include the collaborative production of public information resources like The Katrina PeopleFinder Project and Wikipedia, or unused computing time donated to World Community Grid to research cures for AIDS and cancer.

Meanwhile, electronic advocacy groups like Avaaz are using the internet as the ultimate tool for people-powered political mobilisations. Their global online petitions (one of which collected 1.5 million signatures in just three weeks) demand multinational action on issues like democracy in Zimbabwe or the genocide in Darfur.

2. Mutual aid networks

The Web has spawned a new breed of community-based networks creating social markets for goods and services. For example, nonprofits like worldwide ‘gifting movement’ Freecycle reduces landfill by connecting people who want to throw things away with people who are happy to take it off their hands. Or Channel 4 Landshare which links people who want to grow their own food to land they can grow it on.

In the US, “Activism 2.0” businesses like One Block Off The Grid lets residents club together and get group buying discounts on solar panels, while Carrot Mob aggregates consumers in a kind of reverse boycott to only buy from businesses which make the biggest commitment to do good.

3. Micro-donations

It is well known that fundraising small amounts online for political campaigns is now big business. Barack Obama raised more than half a billion dollars from a total of 6.5 million online donations, 92 per cent of which were $100 or less (in fact the average was just $80).

Now there are sites like GlobalGiving and ChangingThePresent in the US or JustGiving in the UK where people can make micro-donations to causes close to their hearts. JustGiving, which lets people set-up their own charity fundraising pages, calculates that 30 per cent of the £460 million pounds they’ve collected so far would never have been donated without a Web platform to make nearly eight million individual micro-transactions possible. There are also emerging network-based models like the ‘Twestival’ event which recently mobilised Twitter communities around the world to host fundraising events in 200 cities where 10,000 people collected over $250,000 for charity, much of it donated on Twitter using the mico-payment service Tipjoy.

4. Micro-lending

Grameen Bank in Bangladesh pioneered the modern approach to microcredit in the developing world: loans are made to entrepreneurs who couldn’t borrow money any other way so they can trade their way out of poverty. A typical Grameen customer – 95 per cent are women – takes out a loan to buy a cow, uses the income from selling milk to pay back what she borrowed, and can then carry on making a living.

Based on this idea, Web-based platforms connecting micro-lenders to entrepreneurs to help fight poverty are flourishing., perhaps the best-known US micro-lending site, partners with local microfinance institutions to distribute the loans in the most effective ways. Other examples include: in India, in China, for Africa or in France.

5. Public innovation challenges

The idea of competitions with large cash prizes to solve problems has been around for a long time – The Longitude Prize famously offered by Parliament in 1714, for instance – but today the internet makes it much easier to engage a global audience in such challenges.

Commercial firms have been quick to see the value of stimulating innovation to help improve their services. For example, online DVD rental firm Netflix offers a $1 million prize for whoever comes up with a significantly better recommendation engine to help their customers find films they might like.

But encouragingly we’re also seeing an increasing number of large cash incentives to solve large-scale social and environmental problems. The Dutch Postcode Lottery’s €500,000 Green Challenge prize, for one, or NESTA’s £1 million Big Green Challenge fund, which both reward sustainable innovation. Virgin’s Earth Challenge is the biggest, with a $25 million pot for anyone who works out a way to take CO2 out of the atmosphere.

6. Social business resources

Some say that this growing volume of activity based on non-market incentives and values will form a significant part of our knowledgebased economy. There’s no doubt that given the recent crisis in capitalism (or at least the financial system that underpins it) and the realisation that our current models of production and consumption are environmentally unsustainable, an alternative way of doing business needs to be found.

There have always been a number of our most successful capitalists, like Rockefeller or Carnegie, who become our biggest philanthropists. Today it’s the likes of Soros, Buffett and Gates who have made as much money as they can out of the existing system and then devoted an enormous amount of it to positive social ends.

But there is a new kind of business emerging which aims to do well by doing good from the start and generate a social as well as an economic return for investors. As a result, new kinds of co-operative resources can be found online that help support this growing sector., which is building a database of emerging social capital markets and communities around social, ethical and environmental investment funds, is one., which provides an online marketplace for social businesses to access professional services and finance plus a community where they can share information and experiences, is another.

Means but no meaning

So are all of these examples ways to address the problem identified by Nobel Laureate economist Robert Fogel, whose words keep coming back to haunt us? “People have enough to live, but nothing to live for; they have the means, but no meaning.”

It’s clear that the internet amplifies the kind of social and altruistic behaviour that forms the “dark matter of our economic production universe”. Its existence is not in doubt. Whether we’re measuring volunteered time and skills or hard cash, the world has probably not seen anything like the current level of global generosity before.

This is part of a broader trend that explains this new age of giving and sharing: the combination of new collaboration technologies with a renewed search for meaning in our lives.

For instance, volunteering in Britain nearly doubled between 1994 and 2004. In the order of 23 million adults contribute around 90 million hours of voluntary work each week. In those seven days: 18,000 Samaritan counsellors give over 51,000 hours of emotional support, nearly 175,000 Meals on Wheels are delivered by the 95,000 members of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and 43,000 St John Ambulance volunteers provide first aid training for the best part of ten thousand people.

The reason more people are trying to find meaning in social contribution can be explained by the work of economist Richard Layard. Despite 50 years of GDP growth, he notes, surveys in Britain and American consistently report back that we haven’t got any happier. Quite the opposite, mounting evidence of unhappiness is all around us, like rising crime (one in three young British males are convicted of a crime before their thirtieth birthday), alcoholism (since 1950, more and more people are dying from liver cirrhosis), clinical depression (on the up since World War II), youth suicide or days off work.

Now we have a vastly expanded range of ways to make these meaningful contributions online. And not only are there many new, global channels to find meaning by giving or sharing, but people can see the cumulative effects of their participation as it happens. This is an entirely new and extremely powerful combination: the collective power of connected individuals; ‘network effects’ making the whole ever greater than the sum of the individual contributions; and people perceiving the growing force of their individual contributions massed together, which stimulates more of the same behaviour.

A care in the world

Einstein believed that: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

There’s no doubt that the internet symbolises a potential global connectedness the like of which we’ve never seen. And this comes at a time when a challenge like climate change represents a global crisis the like of which we’ve never faced. The only way to tackle something that affects all of us is together, so some level of global consciousness is going to need to take place if mankind can defeat a problem of this scale.

If that’s going to happen, it can’t be done without the networked intelligence and collectivity represented by the internet and its related technologies. Global solutions for global problems will not be found without the unification of the planet this makes possible. And whatever else we might think about it, a network linking together human brains which aims for a higher level of global understanding is a more unambiguously positive version of progress than, say, hacking genetic code to re-engineer the human body.

In the final analysis, some have argued that in all this new digital technology we risk losing an essential part of ourselves. I believe, on the contrary, that it may help us to find it.

Andy Hobsbawm is co-founder of Green Thing and

This essay is one of a collection of viewpoints which will be published to launch NESTA’s ‘Reboot Britain’ programme. Reboot Britain will explore the role new technologies and online networks can play in driving economic growth and radically changing our public services. The programme will begin with a one day event on 6th July which will look at the challenges we face as a country and how the combination of a new digital technologies and networked 'Digital Britons' can produce innovative solutions to tackle them. For more information please visit

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