Online Volunteering for development: time for one step beyond

This morning I ended Pekka Himanen’s book The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. The book is sort of an “update” of Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic…” explaining that hackers behave quite different than capitalists (this is a weird abstract to the book, I know it). To explain their behavior he uses the example of the Linux community, in particular, and the F/OSS community in general. This communities are essentially virtual, so it is a very good example on how they work online and who plays the role of the promoter and the facilitator, etc.

In Himanen’s book there are plenty of other bibliographic references about how other on-line collaborative projects were made such as the World Wide Web (TCP/IP protocol). These references include, for example: Berners-Lee, Tim (1999), Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor or Raymond, Eric (1997), The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary.

But I’m not selling you the book, though there’s a zillion reasons for you to read it ;) but to think aloud about what el oso also pointed to yesterday in his post Social Entrepreneurship and Project Management.

Himanen explains how the Linux community created – creates – the F/OSS operating system and the way they work: volunteering, no salary, recognition as a pay, networking, collaborative work, Internet based community, public plus personal interest, etc, etc, etc. It is a very good example – maybe the best one – of online volunteering for non-profit causes.

While I wonder why online volunteers for development (provided that the Linux community does not work for development in the general meaning of the concept – I know they do) have not a collaborative structure such as Linux’s, I read el oso’s post where he asks himself why don’t e-volunteers work the way the SourceForge community does.

Besides F/OSS community/ies, virtual volunteers (for development) are quite young: NetAid was created in 1999, Online Volunteering, the UN online volunteers service, was launched in 2000, though it did not move to the actual site until past February; goes back to 1996, year of its foundation, almost in the birth of the World Wide Web, but is not actually an online volunteering program but an information and resources site (one of the best ones). Linus Torvalds called out for help (and implicitly created the Linux community) in 1991.

In my opinion, during these last five years online volunteering has been promoted in an individual point of view: “you’re an NGO working here and there, you have some cooperation for development projects, I want to volunteer, I cannot go here and there, but I have a computer, what can I do?” This is a must, but it is also just phase I.

Thus, I agree with el oso that it is time to go one step beyond. Phase II should mean that some projects for development only take place in the Net, as some advocacy campaigns do. And, surely, re engineering online volunteers management this way is the big challenge we must face in the short short run. Selfmanaged, network designed, Internet located online volunteering teams, I think, will be the only way for a sustainable (exponential) growth of virtual volunteering projects to take place.

Please, I’d really love feedback on this issue! :)


If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2004) “Online Volunteering for development: time for one step beyond” In ICTlogy, #15, December 2004. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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  1. Pingback: ICTlogy » Volunteer 2 Volunteer Technology (Volunet report Pt. 3)

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