Friday, May 3, 2013

Social network site for volunteers

  Since volunteering up in New York, for post Sandy recovery, I have felt as if there has been a void within the volunteer community that desperately needs to be filled. The void I am referring to is the need for a social networking site for volunteers. A social networking site for volunteers would give a platform where volunteers, volunteer groups, and NGO's could in real time share their successes, stories, tips, needs, etc. to a network of volunteers around the world. Imagine being able to see volunteer efforts on a global scale, with the same ease as being able to update your Facebook status. If society can make taking a picture of your lunch simultaneously, relevant and accessible to millions of people, why aren't we doing the same for volunteer efforts that could change the world?

   Social networking has become a part of the global culture of how we share our lives. This relatively new way of instantly communicating has become a form of self-expression, but also self-promotion. Society has allowed sites such as Facebook (and at one point, Myspace) to encourage a culture that makes a person's perceived self-worth directly proportional to how much their self-promotion is supported by others. Due to the fact that I am currently in my early twenties and was a teenager when Myspace became popular, I recognize the fact that a part of me is a product of this emphasis on instant gratification.

  Although, this aspect of social networking can be seen as a negative, it is my belief that this need for 'self-promotion' can be used to implement progress on long-standing global issues. By understanding social networking's influence and place within people's daily lives, there can be an honest discussion as to how what is normally seen as selfish, can be used to create meaningful communication. Despite the fact that some may think it impossible, I believe that it is within society's potential to evolve into a culture where volunteer work is not seen as a fringe hobby or something to do on the side. Instead, within this evolved culture, volunteer work is an integrated part of someone's entire life and expected from those who have the ability to participate.  

   Social networking has become a vital tool in communicating within current society but is entirely under-utilized by the volunteer community, in general. Facebook allows for organization 'pages', but exposure for a small scale volunteer group is limited, at best. Twitter allows for 'hashtags' to organize tweets and 'direct tweets' which can be addressed to influential people. However, the sheer volume of information posted on a daily basis makes it almost impossible for volunteers to be heard/seen. 

  While both of these social networking sites/apps reach a global audience, one's visibility relies on who you know or how many people know of you. Specifically in regards to Facebook, the major issue with the 'pages' portion is that people have to search for your exact 'page' name or event in order to find it. Or if you're lucky, friends will post/share your page's information to their friends, who in turn, might share that information with their friends (and so on, and so on). This inefficient system renders small, grass-root organizations and independent volunteers voiceless. 

  However, I have noticed (and relied heavily) on certain region/event specific groups (Sandy recovery, Adairsville, GA tornado recovery, etc). These groups can be highly effective for relaying information to locals, highlighting issues within a community, and providing a direct link for volunteers to become involved.However, the people managing these groups can become overwhelmed by the volume of information to sift through, on top of all the varying duties required for running a relief/recovery volunteer effort. For certain natural disasters or issues, these efforts are proportional and appropriate to complete the tasks they sought to fix. Some issues are not so easily fixed, however, and require a more sustainable network through which progress can be made. 

  Although traditional websites seem like the logical solution to provide a more sustainable platform of communication, they lack the instant magic that social network sites create. The layout of a traditional website is generally predictable and not engaging. The main strengths, on various social networking sites, lie mostly in their ability to instantly update/inform others. This is something that traditional websites can incorporate bits and pieces of to their sites, but will never be able to fully attain. 

  I can personally testify as to how frustrating it is to type, share, post, blog, 'like', tweet, direct tweet, follow, friend, etc. on/about a particular volunteer effort and have it be ignored because a new, funny cat video went viral (although, I have to admit, I do enjoy funny cat videos). I remember one particular instance in which I was trying to get pricing information about shipping items to the Rockaways in time for Christmas. I was tweeting, posting, hashtagging, sharing, direct tweeting, and direct messaging anyone and everyone who seemed like they could have answers for me. No one responded to me. It was excruciating to have minutes, hours, days go by so slowly and feel trapped by a lack of information.  Eventually, I got a response from someone but for the days in which there was no response, I remember thinking to myself "If a volunteer tweets to the internet, does anyone hear/see it?" 

  I have begged, pleaded, prayed, and even thought about the occasional sacrificial animal to please the Internet Gods. All of this, in order to have people get involved with volunteer work easily accessible to them. Sometimes the persistent nagging would work, and other times it seemed very much in vain. It is my belief that a social networking site for volunteers (with the correct specifications) could greatly decrease this frustrating 'drowning-out' of important information, while also providing a supportive community, so as to prevent other novice volunteers from feeling the discouraging feeling that comes from a lack of information. 

 The need for information-sharing among the volunteer community is very real, and is often a topic that I hear discussed. Since coming back from Haiti I have been spending night after night thinking about this very real need and how it could bring about a cultural evolution towards volunteer work. 

 A part of my brain-storming sessions included (and continues to include) research into already existing volunteer websites and apps. In my research I have found that there are very few public access volunteer databases, in which you can search for volunteer opportunities. The few that are available mainly focus on city, state, or regional volunteer opportunities and are presented in a traditional, linear interface. Although some do provide the option of creating a 'profile', the profile options are limited and non-engaging. Here is a link to a list of apps I have researched, downloaded, and played around with:

  It has become clear to me, through my research, that the type of social networking site for volunteers that I envision does not exist. The product I envision would combine social networking and an interactive global map (think Google Maps but linked to profiles/projects), which would serve as a type of volunteer work database. The social network would consists of two main components, both of which are engaging, interactive, and provide information sharing. Details about the layout/construction of the site can be found in the Prezi I have created. Contact me if you would like to see the presentation. 

   What I believe sets this idea apart from what is currently available is the interface's interactive/engaging nature, the emphasis on integrating pre-existing popular social networking sites, and the unique combination of a volunteer network and database, with information sharing about volunteer work and essential travel tips, reviews, rankings, etc. of local businesses (including: housing, food, transportation, etc.)

  I am currently still tweaking certain aspects of the idea, but as a whole, I believe I have a concrete idea of what I see for this product and how it would function. I have no computer programming experience and know next to nothing about developing technology. I am aware, however, that this idea would require a large amount of programming and is an ambitious undertaking. As of right now, it's an idea based on a need, that I not only see, but feel on a daily basis. 

  The whole point is to make volunteer work and volunteer information more accessible, easier, and safer. I have a strong belief that if a platform made volunteer work more engaging (photos, videos, notes, etc.) for the younger generations, while also removing the mysticism of 'where to start', that more people would be willing to see volunteer work as an opportunity to help, travel, and explore the world they live in. 

  My world has been forever changed by volunteering and I just want to give others the same opportunities that I've been fortunate enough to experience. I see this as another opportunity to give back what volunteering has given me. I have faith in my generation, and generations to come, that if given the tools to enact positive change, that we will step up to the plate. I see this idea/product as a way to incorporate the key terms I often hear when discussing volunteer work/global issues: Sustainability (engaging the younger generations) and Information sharing (public global database with fun, easy interface) 

 Please let me know your thoughts and opinions about this idea. Thank you for taking the time to read this!