“So when I said ‘the world is flat, we’re all connected’, Facebook didn’t exist, Twitter was a sound, The Cloud was in the sky, 4G was a parking space, LinkedIn was a prison, applications were what you sent to college, and for most people, Skype was a typo.” Tom Friedman, Foreign Affairs Columnist, The New York Times, and Author (IBM, 2011).
Remember the UNICEF boxes at Halloween when you were in elementary school? Maybe I was an over-achiever as a little girl, but it was one of my favourite parts of the trick or treating tradition. Your teacher would come into class with those coveted orange boxes and tell you all about UNICEF and how you could make a big difference in the life of another. All you had to do was place a small cardboard box around your neck before you went out on Halloween night to collect your chocolates and candy. The sense of pride I would feel when a friendly stranger would put a shiny quarter, loonie, or on really generous doorsteps, a five dollar bill, into my UNICEF box was indescribable. Even better, was the feeling I got when I went to school the next day and saw the proud look on my teacher’s face. Looking back, I didn’t fully understand the impact of what I was doing, but my teacher’s expression always made me believe I had truly done something spectacular.
There is no question that new media continues to change the way in which we communicate. At one point in time the only way to communicate was in person in a public square. Then we saw that grow to include print, radio and TV. Today, the increasing number of social networking sites has created online public spaces where people can discuss matters of common interest and are given the opportunity to form a common position (Jackson, Nielsen, & Hsu, 2011). Public spaces make possible interaction that is not based on intimacy, but instead connects strangers (Bennett, Grossberg, & Morris, 2005). The creation of these online public spaces, and the increased ease of connecting strangers, has had a profound impact on philanthropy and has forever changed the way in which we look at iconic fundraising tools like the little orange UNICEF box.
Although face-to-face conversation will always play an integral role in fundraising, there is no doubt that the introduction of new online fundraising sites, or spaces, have attracted a new type of fundraiser. If you had the choice between standing outside of a Sobeys location in the freezing cold and creating a personal online fundraising page to engage your personal network, what would you choose? Gitelman says “convenience by itself explains nothing” (Gitelman, 2006). I would tend to agree. The world of online fundraising certainly wasn’t born overnight – the digital revolution may have had something to do with it as well. But there is no question, that in this digital age, convenience always explains something.
As Jackson et al explain, social networking sites come close to constructing public spaces but can fall short. Criteria include whether or not it is dialogic and active, free from marketplace, free from hierarchy or where difference is recognized (Jackson, Nielsen, & Hsu, 2011). Fundraising websites that enable users to create personal fundraising pages are not always free from marketplace as users can be treated as commodities depending on the situation. For example, although many of these sites would rarely limit free discussion, event sponsors could be solicited based on the number of impressions their logo may receive daily on the website, etc. I would argue, however, that the majority of these fundraising websites should still be considered strong public spaces as they actively promote participation and the majority of people visiting these sites would be classified as active participants (fundraisers and donors) in the given philanthropic project. If a strong connection to the cause didn’t already exist, they wouldn’t be engaged and actively participating.
New information and communications technologies are not necessarily producing ‘new’ citizens but they do provide for new citizen practices (Hermes, 2006). In the fundraising world, I would argue that these ICT’s are doing both. Supporters who have always supported UNICEF using tools like the little orange boxes are most likely now taking advantage of the new online fundraising tools as well. On the other hand, there are many people who may have never been connected to the charity in the past who have only ever been exposed to the online fundraising option. And just maybe, this is the only reason they decided to support the cause. It is really exciting that new citizens can now become engaged with a charity as a result of an effective social networking community.
As Gitelman points out, media and their publics coevolve (Gitelman, 2006). And as the online fundraising space continues to evolve, it will only make our beloved charities stronger. And what is the most exciting part of these new online public spaces? Their ability to connect strangers with common interests, regardless of background or geographic location, for good.
Bennett, T., Grossberg, L., & Morris, M. (2005). New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Gitelman, L. (2006). New Media Users. In Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (pp. 59-86). Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Hermes, J. (2006). Citizenship in the Age of the Internet. European Journal of Communication , 295-309.
IBM. (2011, October 7). THINK: A Forum on the Future of Leadership. Armonk, NY.
Jackson, J. D., Nielsen, G. M., & Hsu, Y. (2011). Mediated Society: A Critical Sociology of Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.