What technologies have the most potential to make a difference in your community? Do you have a story about using communication technology to form meaningful relationships or bridge a geographical divide? Maybe you are part of a group using technology to mobilize for change.
20 years ago, in December 1996, I began my new job as director of the Virtual Volunteering Project, an initiative by what was then called Impact Online (later VolunteerMatch), and which moved after a year to the University of Texas. My job was to research and promote the best practices for involving online volunteers. I had involved a few online volunteers myself at the previous nonprofit where I worked, and even done a workshop for San Francisco-area nonprofits on how to recruit and involve online volunteers before I landed this new job. Before I began my research, I thought most online volunteers would be 20 something men living in Silicon Valley. I was stunned to learn that most online volunteers were women, and they lived all over the USA - and beyond. Later, I directed the United Nations' Online Volunteering service, formerly a part of NetAid, from 2001 to 2005. I thought it would be mostly online volunteers from developed countries or "the West" - North America, Europe, etc. - helping NGOs in developing countries or "the South" - countries with high-Internet permeation, like India and South Africa and Nigeria. Again, I was wrong: most of the online volunteers game from "the South" themselves.
I've been researching virtual volunteering for more than 20 years now, and the biggest shock for most people that aren't familiar with the practice and hear me talk about it at length is just how close I feel to so many of the volunteers and volunteer-involving agencies all over the world. They are my friends and colleagues, just as real as people I work with onsite, face-to-face. These are all real people with hopes and fears and challenging ideas and humor and talents. So many of these online relationships, established through email and Twitter and online communities, are so very, very personal to me.
I've hosted an online event for TechSoup with a woman in South Africa. I have a friend in Uganda I've never met, but because of our online collaborations, I arranged for her to be an invited speaker, onsite, for a UN-affiliated conference where she lived. At a conference in Geneva, two different people came up to me and said, "You don't know me, but I'm one of your online volunteers." When I learned that an online volunteer I was working with had died, I cried and cried and cried - we'd just been talking, via IM, about her post-graduate study plans. I have stayed in touch with an Afghan colleague I worked with onsite in Kabul in 2007, via our own private YahooGroup: she shares university assignments and job challenges, and I do my best to mentor her. Those are but a few examples of how Internet technologies have helped me form meaningful relationships in my work, and helped us bridge a geographical divide. In fact, I don't think in terms of offline and online relationships anymore.
My biggest concern these days in terms of technology use is how so many women are held back from exploiting online tools to their fullest advantage because of fears regarding their reputation; as I say in this blog:
In some countries, a woman’s reputation regarding her virtue is every bit as important as food and health care, in terms of prosperity, let alone survival. When you are a girl or a woman in Afghanistan, or many other countries, you can’t just shrug at insults regarding your morals or honor. You do not have that privilege. You have to care deeply about what neighbors and co-workers and, really, what anyone might say about your virtue. Damage to your reputation regarding your virginity, your marriage, your care for your children, your sexuality, how you dress, how you behave in social settings, and everything else that makes up one’s moral character can cost a woman a job, her family, her marriage – even her life.
I've often said that the biggest obstacle for people to take full advantage of the Internet, including social media, is people's own literacy skills, rather than Internet access, but for many women, the biggest obstacle is fear regarding their reputation. “Respectable reputations are demolished with a few keystrokes," as one news article put it. Many have given up on having a virtual identity at all – I personally know of two such women, both in Afghanistan. This should serve as a caution to humanitarian and development workers wanting NGOs and government agencies to engage more on social media; you need to provide guidance for the women who would be expected to manage online activities on how to stay safe and protect their personal reputations.
Virtual volunteering is an amazing experience - it's what WorldPulse is all about, really, even if you don't call it that. You've got women, all over the world, helping women, all over the world. I'm thrilled to be a part of it.
This post was submitted in response to The Possibilities of Technology.