Pitch In

Participation is a central part of the digital lifestyle. It's never been so easy to get involved and engaged.

More and more people are pitching in. The internet lets them engage, apply their knowledge, create their own content, and volunteer their time. In the social sector too people will increasingly engage online. Organisations will open up and will profit from the potential of this new participation. Social media have taken up position at the centre of society and internet users are generating an ever more online content.


Human beings have a fundamental need to share, to be acknowledged, and to socialise. These needs can be easily fulfilled on the internet. And as for those for whom volunteering was once too much effort, they can now pitch in quickly and easily online, just in spare moments. People can also easily connect with people who share specific interests. With the expansion of the world wide web, and in particular the user-generated Web 2.0, participative processes have become ubiquitous, and are now important drivers of change. Using digital media, information – be it text, video or sound recording – can be widely distributed or searched for quickly and extremely cheaply. And the remarkable thing is that for the most part this vast quantity of information is put there by the internet users themselves: every minute one hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, for example.

US-Americans watch 200 billion hours of TV per year – building Wikipedia took just 0.05% as long

In his book “Cognitive Surplus”, Clay Shirky describes how people who previously spent their free time passively in front of their TVs are now suddenly active and creative thanks to Web 2.0, and they can make what they create public. This means they satisfy their intrinsic need for autonomy (“I did that”), competence (“I learnt something”), social connectedness (“We created that together”) and generosity (“I’ll share with you”). The latent potential of passive people is huge: Americans spend 200 billion hours every year watching TV – in contrast, it only took 100 million hours’ work (i.e. 0.05 percent of that) to get Wikipedia to its current state. The internet is also allowing new voices to be heard in the social sector. Whereas the agenda in the philanthropic sector used to be set by a handful of large NGOs, state institutions and foundations, today we get a dense and variegated lanscape of opinions. Bloggers, for instance, contribute to the professionalisation of the sector by providing organisations with tools and expert knowledge free of charge.

There’s no such thing as too many cooks

Collaboration is a form of participation. The internet enables collaboration in two ways. Firstly, it lets people communicate cheaply. Secondly, it makes it easy to form groups, to exchange and coordinate. Anybody with a particular interest will be able to find like-minded people on the internet (see trend The Long Tail). There are more than 18,000 Yahoo Groups concerned with HIV/AIDS and around 350,000 on the topic of education. The (largely) free platform Ning allows over 300,000 active groups to build their own networks, uniting millions of people around topics such as “water policy in the middle east” or “legal pluralism in Ghana”.

Often we find content being collaboratively compiled within such groups. The most productive examples of collaboration are open source software such as Linux and Wordpress, as well as Wikipedia. In these communities, trained experts and are treated no differently than anybody else. Since anybody can have their say on the internet, what matters is not who says something, but whether the community understands their argument and finds it convincing. A discussion ensues which, in the case of Wikipedia, leads to very high quality articles. The online encyclopaedia shows that the greater the degree of participation – i.e. the more people work on an article – the more accurate it ends up being. On questions of healthcare, it can be precisely the non-experts whose knowledge is most valuable. Ill people become authorities when they write about their symptoms and experiences in forums and blogs. Often this information is more useful to other sufferers than the cryptic diagnoses of doctors. And old people are the ones who best understand the needs of elderly patients. Meanwhile, more and more companies are also incorporating their customers into the development process. Hence, those who were once mere consumers or recipients of services become co-developers. On the subject of media consumption, journalism professor Jay Rosen refers to “the people formerly known as the audience”. Whereas in the old days of print media, radio and TV, you had a few producers on one side and a vast mass of consumers – readers, listeners and viewers – on the other, now this division is disintegrating. A largely passive mass of consumers is becoming increasingly active, and creating its own content (YouTube etc). News, knowledge and entertainment are increasingly created in a dialogue between the former producers and consumers.

Simple calculations: low cost, high uptake

In the social sector too, donors, or simply those with an interest, can easily participate. Anybody who knows how to treat tuberculosis, or how to build a well, or a microcredit system, can go online and share their knowledge and opinions. Organisations which are open to outside participation can exploit this rich source of knowledge. Hence many donors are engaging in discussion and helping set the direction. Social organisations will have to engage in ever more dialogue and develop ever more collaborative strategies. Any organisation which refuses to communicate with supporters and donors will lose them. The costs involved in outward awareness and participation are small relative to the huge potential benefits they bring. Market researchers at Forrester distinguish five different types of participant: creators, critics, joiners, spectators and inactives. In 2010 they added a sixth group: conversationalists, users who maintain a conversation on Twitter or Facebook. These chatterboxes have been added because communication is the internet’s central axis. The creators, i.e. the ones who generate content, are the numerically smallest group, but they also the opinion formers and multipliers for the other groups. Organisations shouldn’t shut out creators, because they’re the ones who attract other interested parties.

Participation = Revolution?

These new modes of participation provided by the internet represent a serious challenge for many established players, for NGOs and aid agencies, but also for doctors and pharmaceutical companies. The role of these institutions and authorities is changing as the boundary between experts and other socially engaged figures is breaking down. The monopoly of experts is crumbling. Organisations who run poor-quality projects have to expect somebody somewhere along the line to speak with a disillusioned participant in the project and report on it online. Organising willing participants can also be done cheaply online (see trendNetwork Organisations). Local initiatives can raise money for their work directly online, and can acquire know-how via knowledge platforms. Insofar as NGOs and others lose their role as coordinators and mediators, we face a restructuring of the philanthropic system and, as a consequence, an increase in the power of individuals and groups beyond the established institutions


Both donors and social organisations should take advantage of the potential offered by participation. This means establishing participation as a central tenet in their organisation’s mentality. Fearing the openness which comes with participative structures does not spell advancement. Stimulus and impetus from thousands of internet users, on the other hand, certainly does. They will ask themselves, though, “What’s in it for me” so there must also be incentive structures in place.