A recent post on a colleague's blog got me thinking again about what it means to be a volunteer these days; and how we define the word "community," too. The world is changing, and we are perhaps failing to recognize the profound impact we have on our neighborhood, town, city, country, or even the globe from our desktop PC, laptop, tablet, or phone. Must we show up in person, or donate money, to be considered valued contributors to various causes? I believe the answer is no.
Consider in-person activities. You get the exhilaration of achieving, or at least working toward, a common goal when you volunteer with others at an event or location. Not everyone enjoys such gatherings, though, and in fact many people sympathetic to a cause may be far too shy or anxious to expose themselves to the excitement and pressure inherent in fund-raising and other events. Further, they may feel inept. You may not be playing to the personality strengths of many of the most fervent people involved in a cause. Lastly, interaction with others at group events tends to be very brief, and shallow.
The internet, and social media even more so, allows even greater participation in communities, however you define them, because even those who do not venture out into crowds can still be volunteers, and may be even better at recruiting others to a given cause or charitable organization. They might be better at researching an issue, and providing links to articles and experts that solidify arguments for an issue. These unseen, nearly anonymous volunteers may also be gifted, like my friend's late friend, at pairing certain talented individuals with organizations desperate for the skills those people offer.
Here is another point. Often the best kind of volunteering has nothing to do with a non-profit, political, or social organization at all. I, myself, volunteer at AllExperts.com as an authority in the entomology category. I address questions from the public without representing a company, industry, university, or any entity besides myself. This gives me freedom that would be impossible if I were bound by the rules and expectations of an organization. I am free to speak against the use of insecticides to treat pests. I am even free to espouse my own philosophy that there is no such thing as a "pest." I was successful enough to be honored as one of the top fifty (50) experts in all categories for the year 2009.
There may be no substitute for a one-on-one exchange between a volunteer and a recipient of services, and the relative anonymity of the online world helps immensely in allowing for those relationships. Sure, it is not without its pitfalls, but one quickly learns who they can trust, who they enjoy dealing with the most, and conversely who is unreliable or has poor "netiquette."
Another aspect of the online community is that it is global. There are no geopolitical boundaries, and we have the freedom to exchange ideas across borders without a passport, or other official permission. We can engage in unfettered dialogue, or seek out moderated forums, whichever we feel most comfortable with. We teach and, more importantly, learn, daily. The odd flame war, as discussions that degenerate into angry name-calling are known, is a small price that we can usually tolerate in exchange for helpful conversations.
One way in which the internet lags behind traditional volunteerism is in the art of recognizing volunteers. You don't get a t-shirt, coffee mug, or any other tangible reward for your online service, no matter how many hours you put in, or how many people you serve. Surely we can overcome that challenge, though rarely have I seen any online volunteer's enthusiasm diminish in spite of being unrecognized. People who love what they do, and love the way they do what they do, are not easily derailed from continuing their quest to make the world a better place in one way or another.