Emotional investment

I think this blog post may have to be spread out over a few days.  I’ve had some ideas percolating in my brain for a while as a result of the things we’re doing with Amplified and for other organisations in terms of curating new projects and mobilising new initiatives.  But while the ideas are all there, it’s harder to articulate my specific concern/passion/expertise in generating value from participation.  It’s again, another question mark over the value of social media, and it’s something that requires such a radical new approach to thinking and problem solving that it needs to be explored from a series of angles, but it is in essence, all about emotional investment.

I’ve just got back from an event associated with the Cancer Research UK Open Challenge – an initiative to drive £10 million in fundraising during 2009, and another £10 million in the years 2010 and 2011.  Inevitably, if it is successful or even partially successful, the venture will continue as an ongoing tool in the kit of fundraising initiatives available to Cancer Research UK. Only it isn’t a single tool in and of itself.  It is a microcosm of Amplified, if you like; an ideas bazaar for creatives and entrepreneurs so they can set up fundraising initiatives with Cancer Research UK as their preferred charity. People put forward their idea for raising money and then work out what resources they need to execute.

But what I find slightly concerning about the process thus far is the manner in which the community is being treated primarily as a large back pocket, and not as productive contributors to the efforts of Cancer Research UK.  Interestingly, the Open Challenge clearly values crowd sourcing for the initiatives themselves, but not the people in the community who will materially contribute to the fundraising.

The usual argument goes something like, “We know how to deal with the money once we have it; we just need to raise the funds.  The community already understand and respect what we do.  The community already have an investment in the outcomes,” (in this case, curing cancer). I don’t contest the fact that sophisticated organisations like Cancer Research UK do know how to spend money wisely on research once they have it.  I just wonder whether they have really explored all options in using community labour and input in assisting the research efforts themselves.

Let’s think of this as a business in a recession (pretty easy to do right now). If I run a business and something costs £10 milion to produce, my natural inclination is to reduce the operational costs, thus increasing potential profit.  But in something like research you can’t often reduce much in the way of overhead costs.  What you can do is see if you can get cheap labour.  Again when it comes to research, if you reduce the investment in labour, you often get poor researchers, and poor results.  But if you augment a high quality research team and series of methodologies with approaching-zero cost labour for tiny packets of work, you can potentially massively improve the productivity of your research team.

This has been demonstrated in a series of case studies, but I guess the most common examples are open source software programming and distributed computing projects such as SETI@Home.  Taking the SETI@Home example, the project involves individuals installing a small client program on their system so that when they are not using their computers, the processor turns itself on and crunches away at an obscure packet of data, looking for anomalies which might indicate the existence of extra-terrestrial life.  Now whether you believe in Little Green Men or not, the concept is fascinating.  Rather than paying for the computer processing time and cost of crunching the data necessary to make a good effort at finding anything extra-terrestrial, SETI@Home spread out the task of dealing with the problem of monitoring and checking the incoming data by spreading it out among interested participants.  The investment of these participants is low: the program only runs when the user has a PC on but is not actively using it, and the potential return on investment for all participants is the recognition for finding potential evidence of extra-terrestrial life.  In real terms, the investment is actually profound.  With over 5.2 million participants and nearly ten years of public engagement, the project has generated over two million years of aggregate computing time.  But the participants themselves provide nothing but the energy to run their PCs in contribution to the initiative.  It is an in-kind, yet a remarkable contribution to the research effort.

Now imagine if Cancer Research UK could mobilise such a resource of distributed activity.  It may not be number crunching in this case, but it might be about designing an application, survey, test, or something that assists in the greater research effort.  It’s simple and it improves the potential outcomes of the initial £10 million investment.

But it does more than that, too.  If community members can point to something – however small – that they have done to assist a charitable venture then they have a much more emotional investment in the initiative.  It’s not just a sign under their name saying Joanne Jacobs donated £50.  It’s active participation, not passive charity.  Of course, there will always be a place for passive charity among those who have time for nothing else, but I think charitable and public interest ventures generally are too focused on either passive charity or massive personal investment from active volunteers in charitable initiatives.  There’s no happy medium of active, but low personal cost investment.  And indeed, there’s no understanding of the material productivity gains (and reduced operational costs) from such active contributions.  And without that investment and the knowledge about that investment, there is no incentive to pursue it as a different way of assisting the charitable initiative, by reducing the overall costs of research.  And that’s a damned shame.

I think this is where the message about the value of social media isn’t getting through, too.  It’s not just about creating connections between people. It’s about facilitating and recognising individual contributions.  And it’s about achieving these outcomes without imposing too much on the available time and resources of the participants.  Interestingly, it seems that to generate and maximise happiness in the social media age, it helps to have many low-level connections, which can always lead to, or stimulate deeper emotional engagements.  But a basic level of personal satisfaction is generated from many short term connections.  And those low cost, short term investments can actually support a long term loyalty which may otherwise not have been achieved in every day interactions in your local community.

This idea needs exploring further.  Tomorrow I will blog on the notion of emotional investment in terms of connection loyalty and perceived recognition.  But I wanted to start with the idea today of emotional investment as a catalyst for rethinking the way we approach community contribution.

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