Dariusz Jemelniak’s book “Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia” explores the Wikipedia phenomenon from the inside. As a volunteer editor of Wikipedia content himself, Jemelniak has an in-depth understanding of how this unprecedented scale of volunteer collaborative effort is brought to fruition, focusing on issues of conflict, trust, leadership and motivation. We learn from Jemelniak about the details of the community’s day-to-day social interactions, finding out how those involved appear to one another, the forms of bureaucratic structure that have been put in place to deal with disagreement, and the status hierarchies that emerge. The book is based largely on virtual ethnography, exploring the online world of Wikipedia from the inside with Jemelniak as a full participant. Geiger and Ribes also developed an ethnographic understanding of Wikipedia, through participating and exploring the various kinds of documentary trace that the activities of Wikipedia editors leave behind. Geiger and Ribes argue that the “lived experience” of doing the kind of distributed collaborative work that Wikipedia editors do involves piecing together what is going on through incomplete fragments of evidence, often under time pressure. Wikipedia editors work in an environment rich in data but are often still faced with uncertainty about one another’s thoughts, actions and motivations. This kind of uncertainty about what is “really” going on, from the point of view of other participants, can in fact be characteristic of many other kinds of digital volunteering, such as moderating a discussion group. Each participant only knows a small amount about how others are thinking and feeling. The upshot can be a form of volunteering that is in some ways inclusive and deeply social, but in other ways potentially isolating and difficult to coordinate.
The Internet has facilitated new forms of volunteering that involve rapid response to crisis situations. In this “crisis crowdsourcing“, ad hoc teams of online volunteers have been able to organize themselves to share and filter information, mapping emerging situations, building fragments of data into an overall picture and enabling prioritisation of relief efforts on-the-ground. Some forms of crisis-oriented volunteer effort use social media to motivate and organize on-the-ground efforts of clean-up and aid while others may be digital only, including information collation and filtering efforts from people far-removed, geographically-speaking, from the crisis situation. We have become used to the ability of social media to bring together fragments of effort, and turn them into something larger . Such efforts are often represented as a triumph of self-organization, celebrating the ability of people to come together and make a difference when it counts. There is more to the story, however, than a simple story of a new medium and the human urge to help one another. Beneath the surface of crisis-oriented digital volunteering is a complex picture in which a few individuals step forward to organize, to seize the capacity of existing infrastructures and create new ones for the job in hand, and to rally their fellow volunteers to turn the chaotic micro-efforts into one macro-response to the crisis. Emerging studies of crisis-oriented volunteering point us towards the need to better understand the forms of collaboration and coordination that enable these responses and to explore the extent to which emergent self-organization benefits from some form or top-down management or standardized infrastructure.
A recent EU report explores the landscape of Internet-mediated volunteering across Europe, looking at the kind of tasks that can now be done by individuals gifting their labour online and the kind of people who do them. Internet-mediated volunteering encompasses both the small commitments of time needed to take part in crowd-sourced initiatives and citizen science projects and the more sustained efforts involved in moderating groups, mentoring and online management of projects. Expectations in terms of skill levels, time commitments and sustained engagement vary widely.
The authors of the report, Jayne Cravens and James Stewart, find that various forms of Internet-mediated volunteering are increasingly widespread and accepted as legitimate, useful ways of making a contribution to the work of NGOs, charities and community organizations. There are, however, a number of challenges to confront, including the best ways to train, manage and motivate online volunteers, particularly for the more sustained or skilled roles. It is also unclear whether the traditionally recognised benefits of volunteering as a route into skills development and a path to employability hold true for Internet-mediated efforts. There is some evidence that Internet-mediated volunteering may be accessible to groups excluded from other forms of volunteering and thus has potential to act as a route into social inclusion, but this outcome depends to some extent on whether Internet-mediated volunteering does indeed contribute to inclusion and employability in a broader sense.
According to a recent study of hospice volunteers [i], there has been surprisingly little research on what keeps volunteers committed to their work. Unlike paid workers, volunteers do not keep on turning up because of a formal contract, or the prospect of monetary reward or career advancement. The authors suggest that because volunteer efforts are so important in delivering the goals of volunteer organizations, and because of the apparent difference between volunteering and what we know of the motivations for paid work, we might expect volunteer researchers to have focused in on the factors affecting volunteer commitment, but this has not been the case. Schusterschitz, Flatscher‐Thöni, Leiter‐Scheiring and Geser conducted a questionnaire study with volunteer workers in hospices, focusing on factors that influenced the likelihood of sustained volunteering over time and the level of commitment volunteers showed to the organization. The study found some significant factors relating to how far personal motives were being met by the experience of volunteering work, and also how far volunteers developed a strong role identity as a volunteer. Volunteer role identity happens when being a volunteer, and being a part of a particular organization, becomes a strong part of how you see yourself and portray yourself to others. The authors argue that volunteer researchers, and volunteer organizations, could usefully pay more attention in future to the predictors of volunteer commitment, and could use these insights to develop practical ways of promoting commitment.
Given that social media offer prospects for greatly enhanced communication between volunteers and volunteer organizations, and for developing communities among volunteers on a peer-to-peer basis, it seems interesting to ask whether social media could play a role in strengthening volunteer commitment, at least for some groups of volunteers. Could an online community of volunteers help to strengthen volunteer role identity, and bring everyone involved closer to the organization? Could it provide a useful feedback mechanism, allowing volunteer organizations to tap into the mood of their volunteers, and to better adapt volunteering opportunities to their personal motives?
[i]Schusterschitz, C., Flatscher‐Thöni, M., Leiter‐Scheiring, A. M., & Geser, W. (2014). Building a Committed Hospice Volunteer Workforce—Do Variables at the Experience Stage Matter?. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology.