Digital altruism

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Joshua Porter’s presentation on The Psychology of Social Design, specifically about Porter’s belief that “Personal Value Precedes Network (Social) Value” and that most people aren’t “selfish” but self-interested. Though it may seem obvious, this maxim is incredibly important and is one of the first things we forget when building a new social networking site or even feature.

A simple test

I like to apply this simple test: if only one user uses this feature, will it still offer value? If I upload my pictures of my vacation to Flickr and then send the link to family and friends, if I get zero traffic from Flickr itself or any of its networking features, it is still an excellent way to get my pictures on the web and easier than building even the simplest of personal photo galleries. Obviously once I start tagging my pictures, writing appropriate titles, joining groups, etc. the experience becomes even richer and my pictures are seen by even more people. But the core value of an online photo management tool remains the same. Flickr is aware of this, in fact it’s the first point of their mission statement.

Ok, everything is pretty straightforward up to this point. People like to look out for number one. Got it. Porter goes onto to talk about how to make the jump to social features once individual value has been met, and he summarizes Kollock’s Motivations for Contributing, which are also tied up with individual needs like reciprocity and the need to be a part of a group.

We’re not always selfish

Again, sounds good but here’s the thing: if you, dear reader, followed the link above you’ll have seen a nice little site called Wikipedia. Nice right? Joking aside, try as I might I can’t seem take all of the self-interest inherent to the above theories and make it jive with a site like Wikipedia. My first thought that it was simply a question of volume, volume, volume: just as Porter says, most people are self-interested but “most” means that there are some people that aren’t self-interested. So then maybe it’s just a question of volume, volume, volume. I mean get a few million visitors per day and you’re bound to find a few kind souls who will add contribute without the promise of reciprocity. This also jives with research pointed out by Jakob Nielsen and Eduardo ManchonPDF Document which talks about a ratio of 1 content creator for every 100 content browsers.

The thing is that unless you buy great amounts of traffic or artificially motivate (prizes, money, etc.) the 1:100 ratio will only work once you have lots of users and lots of traffic. Yet at some point Wikipedia like all sites was small and as far as I know (if anyone else has more info please, please leave a comment to this post) they’ve always worked as an non-profit and have never paid to create content. That means that just like with the big bang there had to be some special initial spark to set off all of this exponential growth. And in the case of Wikipedia where anonymous sources are the norm, the spark couldn’t have been just ego or reciprocity. It had to be something altruistic, some need beyond our basic self-interest. Something noble and necessary that may not touch everyone, but touches enough people to get the ball rolling.

I call it digital altruism

I define as this deep need as digital altruism. Altruism because it’s all about the self-interest defying need to move outside of the market space that dominates more and more of our lives, to do something that feels big and important and doesn’t just serve ourselves, our employers and the system. Digital because thanks to the combination of new technologies that facilitate easy, delocalized communication and new sites which make contributing easy, fun and rewarding (I see what I’ve contributed) I can be altruistic from anywhere, at anytime, thus allowing me to balance my altruistic needs with my self-interest (work, family, leisure).

Digital altruism is a real need and it is at a heart of any successful social learning web site. Once you are aware of it’s existence, it’s easy to come up with a number of specific ways to use it in social web sites:

Focus first on digital altruism, no matter how much money you can invest in bribing users
Ask yourself “How does this site allow users to contribute to the greater good?” There are many ways to contribute, it could be by entertaining people, teaching them, advising or even just sharing beauty.

Find ways to combine other needs like reciprocity and recognition/reputation with digital altruism
Digital altruism can exist in an anonymous setting, but it doesn’t have to. Combining noble aspirations with the “ego needs” of your users is just fine. Just make sure never to let the self eclipse the good. You could end up with a whole lot of primadona users, each more self-centered than the next.

Altruism has to be more than just a slogan, it must be a part of your mission
We can’t all start foundations and we want to make money as companies and as professionals. But if we incorporate altruism into our own companies mission and it’s a core value for our team, it will show up on the web site itself. No one wants to feel like they are working for free for some company, but if they detect shared altruism then, even if it’s unconscious, they will feel more comfortable.But be careful, users are not stupid and eventually the blogosphere reveals all. Don’t try and fake altruism, users will be able to smell it and you will eventually pay a price.

As you’ve no doubt seen in the title of this blog, dear reader, digital altruism is a concept that I’ll be discussing even more in detail. This has been a basic introduction using some well-known web examples. Stay tuned!

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