Ever since I first started learning about the role of the Internet in international volunteer culture, I’ve been waiting to find an organization that makes the most of online communities. The potential of the Internet for bringing people together is boundless, and yet, many organizations use it simplistically—to advertise their service and nothing else. There is nothing wrong with this—many organizations focus their energies elsewhere, on projects in-country—but I’ve been surprised by the lack of a full embrace. I guess what I’ve been looking for is focus: focus on Internet communications to bridge the gaps between people, to unite us all on a neutral playing field. Of course, the Internet isn’t neutral—it’s only accessible to people with a baseline of privilege—but it’s a start.
What if, somewhere on the Internet, there was a community of people who believed in the power of volunteering to enrich our lives and the world around us?
What if, somewhere on the Internet, millions of good people and good causes could come together to form relationships that serve us all?
What if, somewhere on the Internet, technology was being used to advance the values and partnerships that strengthen our civil society?
Social media is everywhere. It’s as ubiquitous today as, well… honestly, I can’t think of a single historical precedent for the massive, worldwide interconnectedness we enjoy on the Internet. It’s only natural to see the opportunity in such vast networks, but it’s also problematic. Social networks were designed for people to socialize, not for businesses to advertise. Yes, there have been many attempts at integrating advertising into social media platforms, but often they are met with scorn or aren’t terribly effective. But, voluntour companies are a different breed. For them, social media can be an incredibly powerful tool for outreach and education.
All of my research on voluntour organizations has illustrated one thing: we are all in the business of inspiring strangers. Many organizations are primarily focused on the work they do—the travel planning, liasing with local communities, establishing base-camps, and facilitating ongoing projects. Unfortunately, the business of voluntouring means publicizing your projects. It’s not enough to set up the infrastructure: you need to attract the volunteers. That’s where websites come in. We are all aware of the power of social media to help advertise a business, but many voluntour companies are also using their websites by incorporating fresh content and interactive elements to attract repeat visitors.