Dana Klisanin, Ph.D.
Evolutionary Guidance Media R&D, Inc.
Millions of individuals are using the Internet to act on behalf of the needs of other people, animals, and the environment; however research in this area is limited. To encourage such research, this exploration involved a review of research in the area of altruism and the Internet, as well as an Internet-based search for websites that facilitate digital actions that result in benefit to other people, animals, or the environment. To differentiate this research from that of e-philanthropy, the websites selected did not require a monetary donation from the visitor. Gruber’s (1997) analysis of altruism, as a spectrum of activity, was utilized to evaluate the websites. The evaluation revealed three forms of digital altruism: “everyday digital altruism,” involving expedience, ease, moral engagement, and conformity; “creative digital altruism,” involving creativity, heightened moral engagement, and cooperation; and “co-creative digital altruism” involving creativity, moral engagement, and meta-cooperative efforts.
- Author Bio
IntroductionThe problems facing humanity are arguably of larger scope and significance than at any other time in history − nuclear armaments, ozone depletion, extinctions of species − to mention just a few. Finding ways and means to address these global problems, both individually and collectively, is perhaps the single greatest challenge of the 21st century. Addressing such challenges will, as eloquently stated by Gruber (1997), “require a new turn in world-consciousness, new ways of monitoring technological innovations, new social inventions, and new forms of creative altruism” (p. 468). This article speaks to the latter, exploring new forms of altruism, specifically forms mediated by the Internet and mobile technologies.
Numerous studies attest to the persuasive nature of interactive technology and its effects on nearly every aspect of our lives (Fogg, 2002, 2008). Research on the Internet’s current and potential role in shaping and/or changing social norms associated with altruism has, however, been limited. On one hand this deficit is not surprising − for as Gruber has pointed out, “relatively little time, energy, money or encouragement is given to the study of the ‘greater self’−creativity, giftedness, wisdom, altruism, and moral responsibility” (1997, p. 468). On the other hand, given that millions of people around the world are freely contributing their time and labor to the creation of open source software such as Linux (2011); adding educational and informational content to websites such as Project Gutenberg (2011) and Wikipedia (2011); choosing to support “causes” through websites such as Causes (2011); to create petitions and click-to-donate through websites such Care2.com (2011); the present moment can be seen to offer us an unprecedented opportunity to engage in, and promote, such research. It is particularly timely if we take into account the opinion of experts and stakeholders, who, in a survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, (Anderson and Rainie, 2008) suggest that although global access to the Internet is expected to increase dramatically as mobile devices replace the PC as the primary means of connecting to the Internet by 2020, increasing transparency of people and organizations, it is not expected to yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness. Such consensus leads us to ask how the foci of our research might influence and affect a different outcome?
Which brings us to the question at hand: Is the Internet giving rise to new forms of altruism?
Altruism, a term first coined by Auguste Comte from the Latin alter, “other” was used in a general sense to designate care for others (Oliner and Oliner, 1988). Long nestled within the domain of morality, and considered a hallmark of moral and/or spiritual development (Gilligan, 1982), over the years, researchers within various fields of inquiry, from psychology to sociology, ethology to evolutionary biology, have posited conflicting definitions, rationales, and theories, to understand, or explain it. Noted American psychologist, Howard E. Gruber, a pioneer in the psychological study of creativity, suggested that it is partially due to this conflict that many researchers abandon this course of inquiry entirely (Gruber, 1997). Those who persevere choose definitions that best suit the nature of their work, for example, an ethologist might chose a definition describing altruism in terms of “instincts”. To facilitate research efforts, Gruber (1997), analyzed altruism as a spectrum of activity, ranging from the conservative to the creative, or more specifically, from “everyday altruism” to “creative altruism.” This broad- spectrum approach is conducive to exploratory investigations and, as such, is foundational to the inquiry at hand.
In “Creative Altruism, Cooperation, and World Peace,” Gruber (1997) contrasted conservative and creative altruism. Conservative altruism, which he also referred to as the “altruism of everyday life,” refers to an action such as stooping to pick up a fallen object for another at the risk of throwing one’s back out of joint. Gruber identifies this type of altruism as ‘caring for the other’ without expending much effort, and suggested that it “can include an element of conformity” (p.471). Conversely, “creative altruism,” works against conformity,[It is] about how to be of some use in relation to difficult, deep, and seemingly intractable human problems…. [It] expresses the highest development of the individual and at the same time depends on cooperation and mutual understanding…. [It] probably depends above all on a sense of the self expanding−expanding in our era toward world-consciousness. (Gruber, 1997, pp. 469-478)
In addition, Gruber proposed three guiding principles for creative altruism: 1) fulfilling our highest moral obligations requires creative work, 2) correcting the inequalities that give rise to the need for altruism requires destroying the situation that makes altruism possible, 3) “creative altruism requires cooperation” (1997, pp. 469-470). Gruber’s “spectrum of altruism” model provides the necessary breadth for an exploration of altruism as mediated by the Internet.
Although the literature specific to the Internet and altruism is sparse, early on Wallace (2001) acknowledged the presence of altruism in cyberspace:
The net’s psychological spaces seem to support and encourage high levels of altruism, when at the same time they can release higher levels of aggression. For example, the net has a long history of volunteerism, and thousands of people give their free time to staff help desks, maintain servers, offer assistance to newbies, and moderate discussion forums. . . . People on the net are willing to help one another in small and sometimes very large ways. (Wallace, 2001, p. 190)
In experimental studies, researchers have identified altruism as a motive of some on-line behaviors. Ram (2002), for example, found evidence suggesting “reciprocal altruism” in users motivations for using click-to-donate websites. Price, Leong, and Ryan (2005) found altruism as a motivation for social Internet use, particularly among women. Two separate studies, examining the motivations of Wikipedia volunteers, found intrinsic motivation, including altruism, to be an important motive (Schroer and Hertel; Cho, Chen, & Chung, 2010). In addition, Utz (2009) found altruism among the motivations of users who contribute reviews to on-line consumer communities.
The web-based initiatives that support altruism, enabling individuals to act on behalf of the needs of other people, animals, and the environment, reviewed herein were identified through, 1) reviewing existing literature, 2) conducting a web search for click-to-donate sites, 3) investigating referrals from colleagues. In order to differentiate altruism from generosity (i.e., e-philanthropy) the initiatives reviewed were limited to those that did not require a monetary donation from the visitor. If, however, an individual was planning to spend money (i.e., on-line shopping) and selected a website that enabled charitable giving as a consequence of shopping, the site was included (i.e., contribution happens as a result of shopping not as a separate donation, as in e-philanthropy). The Internet-based search was conducted using Google.com (2011). A total of 54 websites were reviewed, for a complete list, see Table 1 in the Appendix.
To evaluate the findings, the definition of altruism utilized was Gruber’s (1997) analysis of altruism, previously discussed as a spectrum of activity, ranging from the conservative to the creative, or more specifically, from “everyday altruism” to “creative altruism”.
The 54 websites reviewed (see Table 1) fell into one of the following classifications:
1) Internet based initiatives that rely upon user-generated content and/or sharing of expertise created for the public good, e.g., Linux (2011), Project Gutenberg (2011), Wikipedia (2011).
2) Internet based initiatives designed to help other people, animals, or the environment, using a click-to-donate format, e.g., Care2.com (2011), or as an integral facet of social networking, searching, shopping, or gaming, e.g., Causes (2011), Goodsearch (2011), Goodshop (2011), CharityFocus (2011); The Rainforest Site (2011), Ripple (2011), TheBigTest.org (2011), FreePoverty (2011).
3) Meta-cooperative efforts to solve large-scale problems, linked by the Internet, or the grid, e.g., World Community Grid (2011); Google.org (2011).
In each of the preceding classifications, the underlying goal of the exemplars is to be of some benefit to sentient beings in the phenomenal world, and in each, the Internet is crucial to success. I have adopted the term digital altruism, a neologism used on-line by Chris Grant (2010) and other bloggers, to reference this state of mutual dependence. In its most basic form digital altruism can be described as altruism mediated by digital technology, however, when evaluating the websites in terms of Gruber’s spectrum definition, three distinct forms emerged, which I am coining everyday digital altruism creative digital altruism, and co-creative digital altruism. The distinguishing features are described sequentially, in the following sections.
Everyday Digital Altruism
Care2.com (2011) is an on-line community and social networking site that enables everyday digital altruism. It is designed with four major categories: Causes & News, Healthy & Green Living, Take Action, and Community. In the category “Take Action,” a person can “click-to-donate,” contributing to the sponsorship of a child, the protection of primates, or the saving of rainforest acres. By intentionally visiting this website and clicking a chosen link, a person has cared for another without expending much effort and no money (i.e., of their own). The action can be repeated easily and often, even everyday.
Although we may initially perceive the act of “clicking to donate” as too easy, and perhaps unworthy to be considered altruism, we can also recognize it as a new form of “stooping to pick up an object for another,” albeit in a global context. While there is no risk of throwing one’s back out, in today’s fast paced, media-saturated world, taking the time to visit the site and click, has significance, foremost, in that it demonstrates not only the desire to care for others (and increasingly, animals and the environment) but an act of caring. (Ram’s research, 2002, cited previously, supports this claim, finding that users’ motivations for using click-to-donate websites was primarily that of “reciprocal altruism”). Of the 54 websites evaluated, 41 involve a click-to-donate feature (see No.1-41 in Table 1). The initiatives are global in scope, with nine nations represented, several more than once. The most recent click-to-donate development is the new iPhone application (i.e., “App”), “Touch to Give” (2011), launched by the Greater Good Foundation. The application enables mobile phone users to touch their screens up to three times each day to support a charity− essentially a mobile click-to-donate application.
Additional examples of everyday digital altruism include conducting web searches through sites such as Goodsearch (2011) and Ripple (2011); forwarding content, posting links, watching videos, and/or responding to surveys in order to support a “cause” (Causes, 2011); shopping through websites such as Goodshop (2011) and Product Red (2011),2 and playing games such as TheBigTest (2011) , and Free Poverty (2011). In the first example, i.e., conducting web searches, the search engines are designed such that a search results in a donation to a charity of the user’s choice; in the second example, links are being posted to support a cause, and videos and surveys are being watched and/or responded to because the viewing itself results in a donation to charity; in the third example, shopping, the websites are designed such that a portion of the purchase price is donated to charity; and, finally, in the fourth example, gaming sites are designed such that correct answers result in the donation of medicine and water, respectively.
Causes (2011) is designed as a social networking site and supports altruistic action in a variety of forms, e.g., members can easily start a “cause,” and/or support a “cause” through sharing information with friends, members can also watch short videos and advertisements that result in the donation of money to various charities, and finally, members can complete surveys or questionnaires that result in a donation to charity (Causes, 2011).
Although many individuals conduct one or more Internet searches daily, and some members of Care2.com (2011) and Causes (2011) check in daily, most individuals do not shop on-line or play charitable games everyday. These are examples of everyday digital altruism because the process of ‘caring for others’ requires little effort on the part of the individual. While most of these examples involve the transfer of funds from one source to another, and some have previously been identified as examples of e-philanthropy (Austin, 2001; Jillbert, 2003), because individuals are not donating their own money, but rather engaging in an action that results in the transfer of funds supplied by someone else, (i.e., funds are supplied by the advertiser) the underlying motive of altruism is more appropriate than that of generosity.
Finally, everyday digital altruism can also be said to include the act of contributing content with the goal of improving open-source software, and/or sharing valuable knowledge and information with others via educational and informational websites such as Wikipedia (2011). (Research supports referring to such actions as altruistic, see Schroer and Hertel; Cho, Chen, & Chung, 2010.)
To summarize, everyday digital altruism is expedient and requires little effort. Most forms, such as visiting websites and clicking links, or watching advertisement that result in a donation to charity, require little more than a few moments of the individual’s time. Other forms, such as contributing to the improvement of open-source software and loading content to websites designed to educate or enlighten, require more time, however the individual is under no pressure to continue working (either coding for Linux or completing an article for Wikipedia), but rather is contributing at his or her leisure, voluntarily. Furthermore, the contributor is already knowledgeable in the area of contribution and thus is sharing what he or she already knows. In this respect, the contribution is easy (though it is certainly more time-consuming that clicking-to-donate or conducing a web search).
Importantly, although anyone “on-line” can participate in many of the initiatives mentioned thus far, not everyone does. Everyday digital altruism can be considered to digitally mimic Gruber’s conservative altruism, or the “altruism of everyday life,” previously described as a type of altruism that involves caring for others without expending much effort and that can include an element of conformity (Gruber, 1997, p. 471).
Creative Digital Altruism
In contrast to everyday digital altruism, the individuals and teams of people who have created and maintain such websites and services are engaging in something beyond the norm, i.e., creative digital altruism. Creative altruism was earlier described as having three guiding features, and being “about how to be of some use in relation to difficult, deep, and seemingly intractable human problems” (Gruber, 1997, p. 269). As organizations, Care2.com (2011) and CharityFocus.org (2011) exemplify these characteristics. These projects grew out of the desire to use digital technologies for the greater good: Care2.com was conceived by an individual, Randy Paynter, and CharityFocus, was conceived by Nipun Mehta and a small group of friends. Through engaging their creativity, the founders of these organizations saw an opportunity to use digital technologies in a manner that would allow a great number of people to join their efforts. In order to manifest their visions they joined forces with others: Care2.com (2011) using advertising funds to redistribute resources to those in need through partnering with non-profit organizations for efficiency; and CharityFocus through establishing an all-volunteer network.
Care2.com (2011), enables individuals to engage in a variety of digital actions for the purpose of improving the lives of others, in addition to the click-to-donate feature mentioned earlier, Care2.com is the home of an active petition site which has logged over 67,649,232 petition signatures (The Petition Site, 2011). The organization currently has over 17.5 million community members.
CharityFocus has grown from a group of tech experts donating their time to the creation of websites and software for non-profits, to a “charity ecosystem” that includes numerous charitable initiatives, many of which involve a synergy of on-line and off-line volunteer participation. One example is “Experiments in Anonymous Kindness” (see HelpOthers.org, 2011), a portal dedicated to promoting random acts of kindness, such as providing free “smile cards,” described below:
Starting in September of 2003, smile cards began appearing all around the world. They are markers of a newfangled game of tag, where “you’re it” because someone has done something nice for you. Then it’s your turn to do something nice for someone else and, in the process, pass the card along. This is a game of pay-it-forward: anonymously make someone smile, leave behind a card asking them to keep the ripple going. It’s easy and fun. Is kindness truly contagious? There’s only one way to find out … (CharityFocus Cards, 2011)
Mehta explains that “some of our projects are designed to be catalysts for offline ripples, like Smile Cards which you can get online but use offline.” Because of the combination of on-line/off-line volunteerism, it is difficult to calculate the acts of digital altruism from those of altruism proper. However, Mehta estimates that the CharityFocus ecosystem has donated over a million hours of volunteerism (Mehta, Personal Correspondence, May 26, 2011).
The foregoing examples are distinct, however they are not alone; many such initiatives have been inspired by one or two individuals working together to address the problems facing our world. Indeed, the vast majority of organizations mentioned earlier, i.e., those supporting acts of “everyday digital altruism,” qualify as exemplars. Although there is little chance that any one of these organizations will single-handedly end all of the inequalities and injustices they set out to address, there is no doubt that the Founders have 1) engaged in creative work towards fulfilling moral obligations, 2) would gladly accept their obsolescence (i.e., as altruists) if such a need should arise,3 3) have cooperated to achieve their aims. Through fulfilling these conditions, i.e, creativity, cooperation, and heightened moral engagement, these individuals have satisfying Gruber’s criteria for creative altruism, albeit in a new, digital form.
Co-creative Digital Altruism
The third type of digital altruism, “co-creative digital altruism,” is distinguished by increasing levels of global coordination and cooperation in confronting issues that benefit humanity and the planet as a whole. Rather than beginning with one or two individuals, the initiative begins at the corporate level or similar: World Community Grid (2011) and Google.org (2011) are exemplars. World Community Grid (WCG-Partners, 2011) has a network of 443 global partners (businesses, associations, foundations, government agencies, and universities) and 578,939 members (WCG-Stat, 2011). Members donate their unused (idle) computer time in the service of solving complex problems (i.e., members are engaging in “everyday digital altruism”). Grid computing works by “joining together many individual computers, creating a large system with massive computational power that far surpasses the power of a handful of supercomputers” (2011). Projects and challenges being addressed by the World Community Grid and its members include: “[email protected],” “Discovering Dengue Drugs,” and “Help Conquer Cancer.”
The open-source grid-management platform used by World Community Grid is Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), originally created at the University of California, Berkeley, to “cure diseases, study global warming, discover pulsars, and do many other types of scientific research” (2011). Currently, over thirty projects use the BOINC platform and most, though not all, have important and beneficial goals.
Although varying in scope, Google.org (2011) has launched numerous philanthropic initiatives, some of which reach outside their corporate structure in cooperation with others, exemplifying co-creative digital altruism. For example, an initiative between Google, the Rwandan Government, and Kenyan universities, to provide free communications applications to those in need (Lancet, 2008); and Google Crisis Response (2011), the mapping of territories struck by natural disasters. The latter initiative involves cooperation between governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), and individuals, for the purpose of expediting rescue and relief operations.
Co-creative digital altruism can be seen to share the following characteristics: 1) initiation at the corporate level (or similar); 2) involves transdisciplinary creativity; 3) entails sustained moral engagement, 4) requires cooperation that is transnational, transcorporate, transNGO, and transpersonal−meta-cooperation. This convergence of factors may well embody humanity’s greatest attempt to collectively to address the major challenges facing our world today.
The Internet offers many opportunities for individuals to act altruistically (Wallace, 2001), while a comprehensive review was undertaken, there is little doubt that forms of altruism exist on-line that have been overlooked. A more expansive investigation is warranted. Furthermore, in order to bring attention to an understudied area, this exploration has intentionally privileged the positive aspects of the Internet and digital technologies. Future studies will need to approach the topic with a more balanced perspective, giving equal attention to the positive and negative aspects of altruism mediated by digital technologies, i.e., digital altruism.
If the histories of philosophy, science, and psychology have taught us anything, it is that the questions we ask, and the tools we use, determine the reality we experience −our worldview. While the dominant discourse continues to privilege investigations of the detrimental impacts of digital technology, this exploratory investigation privileged the positive aspects, specifically asking if the Internet is giving rise to new forms of altruism. The results revealed numerous examples of altruistic action dependent upon digital technology for actualization. The term digital altruism was adopted as an appropriate reference, and three specific forms were delineated.
Everyday digital altruism is necessary if creative digital altruism and co-creative digital altruism are to exist: without members willing to click-to-donate or to donate unused computer time to the grid, Care2.com and the World Community Grid would be unable to work towards alleviating the problems they set out to address. Individuals participating in such initiatives are catalysts in what might be called an “altruistic domino effect” i.e., when individuals engage in everyday digital altruism they contribute to the conditions upon which other altruists are able to act (e.g., in the purchasing, delivering, and distributing of food, medicine, etc., to persons in the phenomenal world).
Digital altruism may have important psychological, social, and environmental consequences. The ease and expedience of everyday digital altruism may result in more individuals acting on behalf of others, particularly as enabling initiatives become more well-known, and mobile applications, such as Touch to Give (2011) become more widespread. As more people participate, this platform may become more attractive to industry, resulting in the allocation of more funding, and through it more aid to those in need. Empowered to effect change, individuals may demand more from business, causing a rise in corporate social responsibility. Corporate social responsibility includes conducting business with an eye towards environmental protection and stewardship. Thus, everyday digital altruism may facilitate the emergence of an “ecological economy” (Hawken, 1993, Brown, 2001) and a “caring economy” (Eisler, 2007).
Creative digital altruism and co-creative digital altruism are the powerful facilitators of everyday digital altruism. CharityFocus (2011), an example of former, began with the altruistic aims of a small group and evolved into a charity ecosystem demonstrating the viability of a gift economy. As younger generations mature with powerful Internet and mobile technologies at their fingertips, engaging in this form of creativity may one day become a classroom activity. World Community Grid, an example of the latter, began with altruistic aims of individuals working at the corporate level and evolved into a meta-cooperative effort spanning the continents. Outside of natural disasters, we rarely find corporations, institutions, governments, and individuals working together at the global level to achieve humanitarian aims. By recognizing co-creative digital altruism as a new mode of collaborative social action, we create a language capable of referencing ideal forms of global cooperation.
Although we lack an aggregate of the total acts of digital altruism, based on the membership statistics of three organizations alone, we can comfortably say that the number of people engaging in such acts exceeds 187 million.4 Klisanin (2010a, 2010b, 2011) has suggested that these individuals represent a new form of the hero archetype, the “cyberhero”. Mass interpersonal persuasion (MIP), a form of persuasion that utilizes the Internet (Fogg, 2008), is a feature of many of websites that support digital altruism (e.g., Care2.com; Causes; TheRainforestSite.com). Fogg (2008) assures us that “mass interpersonal persuasion matters because this new phenomenon gives ordinary individuals the ability to reach and influence millions of people” (p. 12). Causes.com (2011), launched via Facebook (2011), a MIP phenomenon with over 600 million active users, may well serve as a tipping point, propelling digital altruism into mainstream awareness.
As it stands, digital altruism is a frontier, in need of both qualitative and quantitative research. Some questions we might ask:
- What are the characteristics of individuals engaging in digital altruism?
- Does engaging in digital altruism encourage or discourage altruistic action in the phenomenal world?
- Can engaging in digital altruism combat feelings of helplessness? Promote self-efficacy? Will it enhance or harm the moral development of a child? Teenager? Adult?
- How might digital altruism affect, change, or inform the spheres of education, economics, politics, and entertainment?
This exploration began with Gruber’s (1997) suggestion that in order to solve global problems humanity requires “a new turn in world-consciousness, new ways of monitoring technological innovations, new social inventions, and new forms of creative altruism”. The investigation indicates that humanity, by meshing moral concerns with digital technologies, has birthed a new form of altruism: digital altruism. This judicious combination is being used in large-scale cooperative efforts to solve some of humanities most difficult challenges.
1. Gruber (1997) used case studies in his investigation of creative altruism. While the studies emphasized actions taken by individuals during times of war (e.g., Oskar Schindler) and in each case the individuals were risking loss of life (pp. 474-478), such a risk is not mandated in Gruber’s description of creative altruism.
2. Websites that support shopping are included as a form though which individuals can engage in everyday digital altruism because, in order to help others, the visitor (i.e., shopper) is not being asked to donate additional money to that which he is planning to spend otherwise. The website, or on-line store, may however have less than altruistic aims.
3. This statement is inferred based upon the mission statements of the Founders.
4. Membership statistics as of November 25, 2011:
- Causes: 170,000,000.
- Care2.com: 17,551,212.
- CharityFocus: 341,235.
- TT: 187,892,447.
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Utz, S. (2009). Egoboo vs. altruism: the role of consumer reputation in online consumer communities. New Media & Society 11(3), 357-374.
Wallace, P. (2001). The psychology of the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wikipedia (2011). Retrieved May 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About
World Community Grid (2011). Retrieved May 2011, from http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org
WCG-Partners (2011). Retrieved November 2011, from http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org/about_us/viewOurPartners.do
WCG-Stat (2011). Retrieved November 2011, from http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org/stat/viewGlobal.do
Table 1: Internet initiatives enabling altruistic action