I’ve been bobbing along in the introweb tubes for a long time. From BBS to forums to blogs, I’ve watched and to a lesser extent participated in all sorts of internet communities. I’m mostly a lurker, I like to read and get to know a community before I jump in. As such, I think I’m fairly well versed in how internet communities work from an armchair sociologist point of view.
Internet communities tend to be hierarchical, with a fairly universal class system. People with power within the communities and those who show the strongest internet social skills (contingent on the tone of the community) are at the top, obviously. Lesser groups include typical participants, lurkers and the dreaded and coveted newbie. Those higher in status are treated as authority figures, with a bell curve of reactions from the lesser groups ranging from being unconditionally adored to unconditionally challenged. With a few exceptions, internet communities have formed like this since the Dawn of Dial-Up.
Mostly, the fairly medieval class structure of internet communities is relatively harmless outside of the boundaries of the community. A political flame war on the Fans of Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman forum can turn ugly for the community itself (and great fun for a rubbernecking lurker like myself), but it’s not going to bleed into the real world. While a heated debate on whether or not Starbuck should be a woman may keep a handful of people up at night, the real world is going to chug along just as it always has. The Smurf Lovers Hideaway forum may be seriously taxed when Smurfette1995 fakes her own death and returns as Smurf3tt31995, but life will go on.
Sometimes, the things we do or say in our little internet communities can have a huge effect on the real world, and some of them even start with the best of intentions. There are a bajillion articles’ worth of stories of real world strife caused by malicious online shenanigans, and probably a bajillion blog/forum/message board/social networking posts spilling all the gruesome details, and we’ll leave them to it. Sometimes, however, attempting to be kind can backfire as much as attempting to be a tool.
I’ve never seen a successful attempt at online amateur charity. There are very good reasons for regulations and responsibilities in fund raising, to protect those who want to give from charlatans posing as charities and to protect good intentioned people who want to help from being labeled charlatans. Raising money on the internet isn’t passing around an envelope at the office to help someone in need, it’s making a large scale public appeal for cash, and the equivalent of taking out an ad in a newspaper or on TV.
As the holidays approach, you’re sure to see a lot of examples of online communities trying to do the right thing for a great cause. Take a minute to look into the details of how the money is being collected, managed and distributed. If the project is being run by someone who isn’t a legally recognized charity, think twice about participating. If you’re considering doing such a project yourself, consider partnering with an existing charity (many will have great resources for helping you do an online fundraising project) or even doing the legwork to create a legal charity or non-for-profit charitable organization.
I think we all have a responsibility to help those who are in need, but giving critically and responsibly is the most ethical way for all parties involved.