Sharing: does online leave you hollow?

For strapped for cash charities, spreading information online can seem like a golden option. Think of the print and posting cost of your annual report and the idea of a pdf emailed out (or whatever version you use) beckons seductively.  But there is still a widespread wariness of engaging with web technologies for this. Sometimes such a view takes the form of top-level reluctance to, for example, engage with twitter; or manifests itself when an organisation plans and designs for publications to be produced in hard copy, with an online version coming a poor second.

So, producing publications online only; or video conferencing as opposed to arranging meetings is much lower cost. In this day of cuts and uncertainty, we are all be being forced to consider the online options much more. But how much is the reluctance justified? Should civil society organisations engage with this method of producing and disseminating information, of reaching users and communicating?

Here the digital divide rears its head. Are the cuts in cost worth potentially alienating some of your audience? There is also the upfront cost of investing in hardware, of skilling your staff so that they can engage with the new technology.

Such issues aside, there are however some other points to consider. Russell Davies makes a compelling argument for tangibility, which I hadn’t come across before. A typically online day could be bouncing from email, to twitter to follow an event, followed by slideshare to download some presentations, putting your own thoughts of it out there on the blog, to engage other ‘virtual attendees’ who comment on it. But is this satisfying?

Russell uses the example of a mixtape (old school technology) versus a spotfiy playlist (new tech). They both do the same thing – give you a list of music someone else has put together that they think you’d like. But he argues that the embedded value of the mixtape is far greater than the playlist. This may be argued against by the younger generation, who, at the very least, wouldn’t be able to play the mixtape and therefore not be able to appreciate it’s value. Anyway, enough flogging of this metaphor!

Russells bases his reasoning on a Clay Shirky model of sharing:

Sharing Goods - the hardest to do, because if you give a physical good you no longer have it, you're deprived of it.

Sharing Services - like giving helping someone across the road - you don't lose out on physical stuff but it's an inconvenience.

Sharing Information - like giving someone directions - you don't lose stuff, it doesn't take much time, no inconvenience.

If sharing a physical good is to deprive yourself of it, then it is a harder thing to do.

So, to apply this to charities’ use of technology:

If there is greater satisfaction and social currency gained from the tangible, does this add weight to the case for always producing a hard copy report? For bringing people together in a room to experience the personal interaction as well as what they learn from the speakers presentations? Particularly for smaller civil society organisations, there may be unlimited value for such contact and tangibility. Will putting your services or outputs online start to devalue them? This is very much a vogue these days, but will it play out in the positive over time?

This also links into the free vs paid for online content debate. If online content does leave people with a small hollow feeling, are they going to be even less likely to pay for that?

On another tangent, I wonder if there’s anything to be learnt here in relation to incentivising charitable giving? Giving of time arguably fits into sharing services: the giver gets still gets to experience the time, albeit in a slightly different way. Financial donations however seem to fit more into the first category of sharing goods. Is there some way of making it seem more like it fits into category 2?

Food for thought!

If you’d like to see more of Davies’ thoughts on this, then watch this video of his presentation.

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If you're interested in this, you might want to have a look at some of the other posts on our website about it:

Is the information society a community catalyst or a community liability?

Is social networking right for your organisation?

The death of the report?

Have a look at the bookleteer website which is pioneering new ways of epublishing.

Last updated at 11:26 Thu 13/Jan/11.
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Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

See this blog which also talks about this, by one of our members, Giles.

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