A spate of startups are working on digital tools that can help us donate for a good cause, without any trouble.
The online space is making us all selfish. Or, at least, that’s what you’d believe if you absorb much of the commentary that exists on the subject. There are even scientific studies linking social media with rising levels of self-obsession. This year, a team at the University of Michigan found that students who score higher on certain measures of narcissism also post more frequently on social media sites such as Twitter.
And admit it: from your personal experience, it adds up, right? We’ve all got friends who post rarely on social media and even more rarely about themselves. Then we’ve got those friends who’ll post 15 times before breakfast, and always about themselves (and their new haircut, their hilarious pet, their holiday). And it’s the latter group that tends to have the largest and most devoted clique of Facebook friends or Twitter followers. Case proven: social media rewards vanity and self-obsession.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The digital utopians who helped lay the foundations of online culture dreamt of a world in which the network would radically push back the boundaries of our sense of community and shared purpose.
Instant, always-on connection to other people, anywhere in the world, would demolish the barriers that prevent us from empathising with others in faraway places. The global village could be a place where everyone understood and cared about everyone else.
Is there still time for that dream to become a reality? Well, perhaps. Now, a spate of start-ups are working on digital tools that can help us give to others. Take Shout, an app launched in July that allows users to make micro-donations – the cost of a cup of coffee, or a newspaper – to various social causes. Shout’s founders hope that by making giving an easy part of everyday life, they can aggregate the micro-donations of millions of people and end up making a big difference.
Thinking along similar lines are the founders of Feedie, an app that allows New York residents to indulge their love of food photography (I know you’ve got a friend who photographs every meal; we all do) and donate to charity at the same time. Every time a user of the app takes a snap of their meal, participating restaurants will donate the equivalent of one meal to the Feedie non-profit, which provides food to children in South Africa.
A sure sign that digital giving is a trend to watch? Even the tech giant Google is getting involved: in April it trialed an app called One Today, which allows users to donate a dollar a day to a curated list of good causes.
All these digital tools embody a neat idea: that we can take the way that smartphones and the online space have woven themselves around our lives and use that to transform charitable giving. For the first time ever, we have instant connection to others – and to our bank accounts – right in our pocket. And that means giving can become as easy and habitual as stopping off for a morning coffee.
It’s a step forward. And it could transform the fortunes of some deserving causes. Of course, an even greater change will come when truly global access to the net transforms the life chances of those currently disenfranchised from the global economy.
But until then, why not Shout someone a coffee today?
David Mattin is the lead strategist at trendwatching.com
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