The frontier between what is and isn’t volunteering covered by the term ‘informal volunteering’ belies a deeper question about the structure of social relationships. This is certainly not a new issue. But the development of the online web as a means of communication, now brings this problem into sharper focus. It may even be offering new insights into how social networks impact on how we give.
The other day I came across Kevin Harris’s blog on neighbourhoods. I read a post he made about the ‘micro-formalisation of neighbourhood relations‘:
Here’s a neighbour at the door, come in my dear, asking me to fill in name and telephone number as someone to contact in case of need. The form is for local Age Concern drop-in sessions, which sound brilliant – all the sensitive flexibility we expect from local AC activities, and she’s raring to go.
Presumably someone will now take my contact details and key them into a database, digitally fixing that relationship of ‘neighbour-who-can-be-contacted-in-case-of-need’ into a format that can be referred to, passed-on, printed out. I don’t have a problem with that. But I wonder if we can expect more of this sort of micro-formalising of essentially informal relations, as the need is recognised to establish a stable platform for informal local support?
This trend that Kevin Harris calls micro-formalisation, seems to me to have implications for how we understand the kind of volunteering we often label as ‘informal’. Informal volunteering is defined in the Citizenship Survey in the UK as: “Giving unpaid help as an individual to people who are not relatives”.
It’s problematic to distinguish between informal volunteering and neighbourliness, as pointed out by NFPSynergy amongst others. It’s also difficult to draw the line between informal and formal volunteering, as it can over-simplify what defines a ‘formal’ group, club or organisation- witness the UK Government’s problems in drawing the line (PDF) as to who should be registered with the new Independent Safeguarding Authority (see R.Singleton’s report, P.11).
The growth of the social web is really forcing us to rethink how we conceive of formalised social relations (that also receive the lion’s share of research and attention). ‘Micro-formalisation’ is a good way of describing what is happening at the moment as we seek to apply the power of the web to the level of neighbours. The inevitable result is that more and more of our social relationships with those around us, become mediated (formalised and structured) by the web. One of the latest examples is NeighborGoods that started in California late 2009.
Right, hold that thought.
A guy called Jaron Lanier was in the UK recently. He’s someone who’s closely associated with the notion of ‘virtual reality’ (he basically coined the term) and he’s been involved in thinking about open culture associated with the web since it’s earliest days. He’s been on a epic journey. Compare, for example, his way of talking about technology on Charlie Rose in 1993, and then at the RSA in Feb 2010.
In his book just out, ‘You Are Not a Gadget’, he argues that the current social web (web 2.0) undervalues academic and artistic achievement and that free content is a setback. Moreover, his contention is that at it’s heart, ideas like web 2.0 and singularity are wrong because they equate humans with machines. Lanier’s point is that we must keep humans at the centre of our thinking and not worship technology as we might a mythical being.
If the only way of supporting culture is through third party advertising, Lanier, a talented musician, is concerned that this accommodation of advertising degrades the worth of the culture and intellectual produce that we seek to share. He also worries that if giving is collectivised, as it is on Wikipedia for example, that this lowers the cultural and intellectual value of what each individual can share of themselves.
These ideas of micro-formalisation and the humanist critique of the social web, provide the background to two emergent world views of the web and how it may be influencing the way we give.
Two world views of a web for giving
One of these views is revolutionary, the other revelatory. They’re not mutually exclusive, but on different ends of one long continuum.
Vision One: The Revolution
This world view believes in the power of technology to fundamentally change social relations. Just as we are witnessing something radically new and unprecedented in the technology of the web, so the social web represents a fundamental change in the way we relate together socially. Our technology is a means to an end: the meaning of technology is in its practical application.
This idea is as ubiquitous as the web itself. For example, take how the BBC, with user input, could uncontroversially name its series on the web: ‘The Virtual Revolution: How 20 Years of The Web Has Reshaped Our Lives’.
It’s close to the Google way of seeing the web, i.e. that information, whether offline or otherwise off the web, is there to be organised and made available on the web. It is simply a technological challenge, as opening access to information always trumps closed access or no access. In Google’s corporate philosophy it states:
There’s always more information out there…
Our researchers continue looking into ways to bring all the world’s information to people seeking answers
Indexing the world through the web is like structuring the world in the image of the web. It’s structure in the name of openness and efficiency. Part of this process is to chop big things into smaller things to make the reconfiguration process quicker and more efficient. For example, crowdsourcing, is a process that breaks tasks down into their component bits and then shares them so that the power of the ‘network effect‘ can be brought to bear on the challenge in hand.
This world view of the web argues that this effectively amounts to something so new that it is revolutionary, ushering in a new order of social relationships, including how we give to each other.
But what are the problems with this view? Well, it tends to be a technocentric way of approaching problems that are essentially social. In John Brockman’s book back in 1996, ‘Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite‘, Lanier questions the merits of such an approach to information:
Do we think of computers as things that exist in their own right, or do we think of them as conduits between us? We should treat computers as fancy telephones, whose purpose is to connect people. Information is alienated experience. Information is not something that exists. Indeed, computers don’t really exist, exactly; they’re only subject to human interpretation. This is a strong primary humanism I am promoting. As long as we remember that we ourselves are the source of our value, our creativity, our sense of reality, then all of our work with computers will be worthwhile and beautiful.
An example of this putting the needs of technology before the source of the value of technology is the debate about the role of public and private spheres of life in a webbed world. When technology dissolves obstacles to opening up access to information from institutions and individuals, social obstacles to openness, such as secrecy and privacy, come under pressure. Depending on your point of view, this may well be a price worth paying. But as AC Grayling argues, “We have surrendered our right to privacy to technology”:
Privacy is indeed a right. It is more: it is an essential. Private life, a margin of inviolability for our thoughts, feelings, intimacies, reflections, anxieties, our hopes and nascent plans, and our recoveries from the abrasions of life, are fundamentals of personal and psychological health.
In fact, it’s not so much privacy that’s at stake, it’s the right to live life in unstructured, informal, unmediated settings. More specifically for this post, the argument for privacy also effectively questions the assumption that structured giving, means more giving.
Vision Two: The Revelation
The alternative world view sees a brave new world through revelation, rather than revolution. The web is revealing structures of social relationships that previously existed, albeit at a deeper level. With the existence of the web, these structures or networks are more readily visible and more easily empirically knowable. Our technology is an end in itself: technological development is an expression of what it means to be human.
As Kevin Kelly writes in his upcoming book The Technium that we need to broaden the way we think about technology, past just gadgets and hardware, to anything useful that a mind makes: like the law, writing and many other things developed by human civilisations.
The greatest technology that humans have ever invented is humanity itself. We domesticated ourselves. We turned ourselves into part of the technium. We cannot live as a species, we cannot live with out technology.
Take our example from the beginning of this post about understanding how the development of social networks from social media is formalising previously informal neighbourly activities.
By tracking and recording activity increasingly publicly and openly, the web is making these activities more visible and providing empirical evidence. As Kevin Harris puts it: “digitally fixing relationships”. This is increasingly prevalent as barriers to entry to the web decrease, and use of the social web becomes more and more common. Through online social networks, we’re increasingly aware of our friends’ networks, and our friends’ friends’ networks and so on.
This revelation is like an awakening consciousness. As Daniel Dennett put it back in 1999:
The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
Dennett was looking at the issue of climate change and how the development of science was changing the way we understood ourselves and our relationship to our surroundings and each other.
James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis in their new book ‘Connected‘ look at the way our social networks influence our lives, from health, emotional wellbeing through to how altruistic we are. They argue that “connection and contagion are so fundamentally rooted in our evolutionary psychology that they carry over even to very modern aspects of human life – including email, blogs, and social networking sites”.
Fowler and Christakis’s data that has been built up over many years seems to suggest that ‘real world’ social networks effect us in different ways:
- Induction – the domino effect what one person does influences what someone else does who is close to them
- Homophily – we get close to people who do similar things to us, preferentially forming ties with others based on habits
- Confounding – both people connected share an exposure to some other factor that causes both things to happen at the same time
Using different statistical techniques they’ve unpicked the impact of each. In the study below looking at happiness in face-to-face networks blue indicates the least happy and yellow indicates the happiest people (green are in between):
This diagram (below) shows an ingenious experiment using data from Facebook that measured happiness by looking at whether individuals were smiling in their profile picture. Both diagrams suggest that there is clustering between those who are happy (smilers) and those who are sad.
Fowler and Christakis’s work identified three different kinds of friendships which helped identify which relationships had most influence. Mutual friendship (both regard each other as a friend), ego friendship (you regard them as a friend, but they don’t see you as a friend), and alter friendships (they regard you as a friend, but you don’t see them as a friend).
They’ve demonstrated that mutual friendships affect you most, next ego friendships affect you a bit and then alter friendships don’t affect you at all. Incidentally, this fits the model used by Twitter of mutual followers, followers and following.
What is really surprising is how people at three degrees of separation can still affect your health, emotional wellbeing or taste in films. That’s to say, as a rule of thumb (there are exceptions), your happiness is related to your friend’s, friend’s, friends. Online social networks are simply revealing a social network effect that has always been present, even though it’s been harder to detect in the past. Nicholas Christakis explains it in the following way:
“We form social networks because the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs. If I was always violent towards you, or gave you bad germs, or made you sad, or gave you misinformation, you would cut the ties with me and the network would disintegrate. So the flow of good and desirable things is required to sustain and nurture the network. And in turn, the network is required for the flow of good and desirable things like happiness, or altruism, or love, or ideas. In fact, I think there is a phenomenally deep connection between networks and goodness. The reason we create networks is to create and sustain all kinds of good and desirable properties.”
Christakis even suggests that social networks are like a super organism. They have a certain coherence, identity, they can reproduce and survive, they are fairly resistant to injury, they have their own memory and sense of purpose. It’s interesting to ponder the parallel’s with Dennett’s idea of humans as the planet’s nervous system and Kelly’s idea of humans inventing humanity.
Social networks influence giving
Fowler and Christakis’s most recent piece of research (PDF) has looked at how networks affect giving: ‘Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks’. They analysed results of experiments based on the Public goods game. It’s a game where if everybody gives their tokens to the collective good of the group, they’re each rewarded and make a profit. However, if fellow gamers don’t give, and you do give to the group, you can end up making a loss.
Fowler and Christakis’s work demonstrates that each individual’s tendency to give is affected by what the people in their own personal social network do- even those separated by up to three degrees of separation.
[These] results show experimentally that such cascades (connection between people at degrees of separation) can occur in a controlled environment where people are making decisions about giving to others. Other researchers have shown that giving behavior can spread from person to person in natural settings, whether in workplace donations (PDF) to charity or the decision to donate organs.
This growing awareness of how we are influenced by social networks is an example of how technology is revelatory, rather than revolutionary. It is revealing how technology is making us more conscious of our social relations and how we are influenced by them. This increasing formalisation of our social relations by the web, such as giving activities like volunteering, is not so much a brave new world, as it is a new opportunity to raise our consciousness of who we are and how we give.
“Nicholas Christakis turns the notion of the self-directed individual on its head, and shows us the extraordinary power of social networks”. – at RSA in London, Feb 25th 2010.
“Digital guru Jaron Lanier delivers a call to arms against digital collectivism and proposes more productive ways technology might interact with our culture”. – at the RSA, London – 1st Feb, 2010
“What does technology mean in our lives? That’s the question Kevin Kelly explored in his new talk. Kelly presented a new definition of technology: ˜anything useful invented by a mind’ – whether it be a hammer or the rule of law. So technology is more than gadgets; it’s part of a great story that started long ago, an extension of life and it is moving through us.”