What do Wikipedia, non-commercial blogs and online product reviews by consumers have in common? In each case, the contributor is creating or editing content and sharing the result without being paid for it. On Wikipedia, volunteers generate or modify entries on a wide range of subjects; on non-commercial blogs, individuals can share their experiences, projects, views and all manner of creative content; and product reviews (including dining and travel reviews) by customers are posted online so others can benefit from the experiences of the reviewers.
Naturally, the usefulness and quality of such material can vary greatly. Some of it is just plain inaccurate and some of it just represents a form of venting that is not helpful to the rest of us. That said, what is striking is that a fair amount of such material does have some value, and the provider of the content spent time and effort on it without being paid. In many cases, the contributor to Wikipedia, the non-commercial blogger and the product reviewer are giving their time and effort freely in the hopes of benefiting people they’ll never meet.
These types of activities are, of course, made possible by the Internet and related technologies. Using reviews as an example, in the past you might have simply mentioned to a friend if you had purchased a new item that you were happy with or you might have told a relative about a restaurant you were dissatisfied with. Now, in addition to that type of communication, we are able to share our experiences with numerous other people who might find such information to be useful. If we have found the reviews on a particular site to be helpful to us, we might feel motivated to contribute our own reviews as a way of “giving back.”
Interestingly, a lot of these activities are related to telling stories, making meaning from our experiences and sharing lessons learned. This can bring to mind how people in the past would share stories while gathered around a fire or share tips with neighbors while sitting around a kitchen table. Advances in technology have allowed us to let more people know about the experiences or insights we’ve had.
Volunteering and cooperation
This type of activity seems different from some other sorts of modern communication. A fair amount of electronic communication involves interacting with friends, relatives and co-workers and another sizable amount of communication is related to selling something. But the type of activity that’s “given freely” is more analogous to volunteer work, in which you are putting time and effort into a productive activity that benefits persons who are outside of your immediate household, without being paid for it. Unlike traditional volunteer work, you can contribute content online on your own schedule; and it’s something you can do at home or elsewhere.
It seems like these kinds of activities tend to have a cooperative element to them, just like traditional volunteer work. Going back to the product review example, there’s enough “room” online for everyone who wants to do so to submit a review of a particular product. The reviewers don’t need to compete to see whose product evaluation will appear. In a sense, all of the reviewers of a specific product, such as a book, are cooperating as they share their specific experiences with the item.
“In the zone”
When you’re participating in an activity in which you’re “giving freely” (whether or not it involves electronic communication), it appears as though you can often find yourself “in the flow” or “in the zone”—in those situations, you’re totally absorbed in what you’re doing. The sheer satisfaction that you derive from the activity is enough. Some people do have such experiences doing jobs that they’re paid for; they tend to say things such as “I’d do this even if I wasn’t paid” or “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.”
Meaning and retirement
As lifespans keep increasing, “giving freely” can be a way to continue to have meaning in one’s life after retiring from full-time paid employment. There are many ways to do this. Some involve electronic communications, including but not limited to the kinds that we have been looking at here. Traditional volunteer work is certainly another way to “give freely” —even that is being impacted by modern communications, and some volunteer work for non-profit organizations can be done at home electronically nowadays. Yet another way that some individuals give freely in retirement is by helping out with the care of grandchildren and great-grandchildren (and in some situations, helping out elderly relatives).
In the book, The Third Chapter, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot writes about the kinds of contributions to the world that people can make when they’re over 50. Instead of talking about “giving back,” she looks at the notion of “giving forward.” She says, “We must ‘give forward’ in order to meet the needs of the changing environment around us and to continue to grow and learn ourselves.” This seems related to the idea of giving freely. When we put our time and energy into such activities, we may be sharing knowledge we’ve acquired and telling stories of our experiences to benefit others; but we can also learn and grow by relating those things to what is currently happening in the world.
Two final thoughts
As a side note, it’s interesting to think about how the kinds of activities we’ve been considering might be connected to slower economic growth. It could be that, proportionately, more time is being spent these days on productive, meaningful unpaid activities than 10 or 20 years ago. Economic growth is supposed to be a measure of society’s well-being, but it might be that there is more and more productive activity that is unpaid and that is not being measured.
As a final note, it may have occurred to you while reading this article that the Blue River Monthly website is an example of something that is given freely. There is no charge for it and there is no advertising on the site. If you would like to freely give feedback about this site, you can complete the Two-Minute Survey between now and June 30, 2014. And your comments and questions are welcome at anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- By Mary Jablonski