On the internet, keeping up with the times is paramount. The web is practically synonymous with the cutting edge and it wouldn’t do to be caught out lagging. But the problem for those trying to navigate its evolution is that novelty and potential brush shoulders with the shallowness of fashion. When Facebook first grew in popularity in the UK it seemed little more than a sleeve on which superficial teenagers could wear their popularity. But now the site reveals a surprisingly subversive depth, a place for championing causes little and large and organising events both political and playful.
Charities soon pricked their ears up to this, attempting to galvanise supporters in this online hiding place of “youth”. It is not hard to find groups for every major charity, and a few (notably Save the Children and the NSPCC) have even invested in developing their own web applications for activism and fundraising. The NSPCC’s application allows users to sign up to specific fundraising events and to group together to raise the money required. The active connection that these embody is much more inspiring than simply signing up as one member among hundreds in a generic facebook group.
Following its meteoric rise, Facebook overtook Myspace in the Alexa rankings this summer. This had much to do with the Myspace’s failure to sufficiently embrace the use of internal applications on its pages, to synthesise itself adequately with the rest of Web 2.0 technology.
But the embrace of the social network is not without reservations for the charitable sector. At Online, we already commented on Number 10’s fear of the network. Networks are simply antithetical to the privileged centre that dominates in any hierarchical organisation. This is not simply jealous directors clinging on tooth and nail to the control of their brand. What is at stake for the NGO sector is the responsibility a charity feels toward those who give their money and time. If an unofficial group organised by supporters of a charity raises funds by appealing to causes to which the official charity does not actually give, donors have every right to feel duped.
The internet is not simply one channel that charities must be cautious of. It can reach into the heart of how they do business. Kiva is a site where donors can lend capital to people in poor countries who would otherwise find it hard to get a reasonable loan. Many donors feel uneasy about giving to large charities because they use some fraction of donated money to support full time staff. While Kiva does sustain its own bureaucratic framework, it challenges the traditional charity model by producing the feeling of an unmediated social relationship with the recipient.
While social networks usurp central control, and Kiva usurps bureaucratic middle-men, ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) may prove far more successful for activist awareness-raising than traditional pamphleteering methods. Indeed, next to the rise of ARGs, social networking sites seem a little dated in their contemporary online potential.
While some charities are still scrambling to optimise their facebook presence, after months of waiting, Cancer Research UK has finally launched its very own ARG, Operation: Sleeper Cell. Several big names in the ARG business are involved but the main authorship was the outcome of a competition open to all. This follows the success of World Without Oil in proving the ARG a powerful medium for activism. The new Superstruct game looks to fill a similar function in coming months, part of an emerging genre of “ethical” ARGs.
The authors of Akoha, another new project, dub their brainchild “the world’s first social reality game”, seemingly a combination of chain letter logic, social networking and competitive altruism. Whether or not this is a cure to the modern malaise of isolated individualism, these creative collective web-based projects are revealing themselves as powerful means for opening people’s minds (not just their wallets).
It is a tenet of ARGs that it is not necessary to restrict oneself to computer-based media for playing. Phones, live events, television and music are often crucial. Growing portability of web technology, prompted by the iPhone and the scramble of its exasperated competitors, is producing a massively expanded field of possibilities for activism. Being confined to the desk is no longer necessary for using social networks, and the ARG medium is pioneering the furthering of this extension, exploring the consequences of if one had to leave the desk to play.
In ethical ARGs we see an appropriation of the social network for the use of a controlling centre. The puppetmasters who control an ARG are in a position of sophisticated dialogue with the most cutting edge of web technologies, and manipulate these new media toward engaging ends. There is always some degree of interactivity in an ARG, but the story is always held together by the organisers. Akoha is made up of people free to choose their missions, but ultimately all the missions are written by the company.
Here lies massive potential for charities looking to distribute a message, promote their brand, but all the while remaining in control of their own messages. Competing with the big players in social networking is hardly an option, but with the delineation of these new puppetry technologies, piggy-backing certainly is.