Thin-slice volunteering

extraordinaries-lgDriven by concern that 73% of Americans do not volunteer, the developers of Extraordinaries have decided to try to enable smart-phones to be used with thin-slice volunteering.

It’s part of the ever-shrinking notion of volunteering.  Volunteering used to mean some regular commitment to a cause (mentoring a kid, working every Saturday in a soup kitchen, visiting an elderly shut-in weekly, etc.).  In the 1990s, the Cares organizations (NY Cares, Hands on Atlanta, etc.) realized that yuppie go-go Americans either wouldn’t make a long-term commitment like this or didn’t have control over their schedule.  This gave rise to monthly schedules of interesting one-off volunteer opportunities that members could sign up for.  The 1980s and 1990s also gave rise to corporate volunteering days and “Days of Service” like the one on MLK’s birthday before Obama’s inauguration organized by USAService.org.

Now the Extraordinaries ‘ founders focus on the fact that there may be millions of smartphone American users who can’t (or won’t) even make a day-long commitment to volunteering, but they collectively have billions of free hours in micro-slices (while waiting for or riding the bus, while waiting for a meeting to begin, sitting in an airport, etc.).

They are trying to invent lots of collectively useful tasks that Americans could be doing during those times (other than playing video games), and make the interaction fun and exciting, and change the culture of waiting into producing a collective good.

Applications use smartphone features  like  Internet, graphics, camera, GPS, video, audio and break tasks up into ones that can be done in a few minutes.  Possible tasks include:

If this cannibalizes existing volunteering, I’m not sure that this will be a win-win for society, but if it augments the amount of volunteer labor in the US, it could have clearly beneficial results.

Note: some of the health benefits of volunteering undoubtedly stem from a sense of engagement in society that volunteers have and some from the inter-personal ties (social capital) developed through volunteering.  Virtually all of the existing applications that Extraordinaries plan to tap into are devoid of social capital (see above list).  We encourage Extraordinaries to be creative about thin-slice volunteering opportunities that could augment social ties and social trust.  For example, they mention the idea of using smart phones in thin slices to help immigrants improve their English (Phone ESL).  Depending on how this was set up, it could have interesting bridging social capital implications.  We hope that more such social capital-friendly thin-slice volunteer opportunities will emerge.

For an interesting post by Extraordinaries co-founder Ben Rigby on TechPresident, read here.

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