This past summer, the world watched as the debt crisis in Greece made headlines. At this time, a man by the name of Thom Feeney decided to take the country’s economic woes into his own hands. With the help of the popular crowdsourcing website Indiegogo, Feeney set up an online campaign page to raise money for a bailout fund for Greece. On his homepage, Feeney posted a large picture of the Greek flag with the tagline “By the people, for the people”. He reasoned that if every European were to donate a little over 3 Euros, that the campaign would be able to reach its goal of raising 1.6 billion Euros and thus advert the imminent financial crisis. While many criticized Feeney’s attempt, which eventually fell short of its goal, there is unmistakable value in the way he mobilized a large community around a cause for the common good – and did so using the unique resources available to us in today’s digital world.
While the concept of crowdsourcing had been around for some time, the popularity of raising money through online platforms is a relatively new one. By definition, crowdsourcing is “the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people.” Several websites, including popular names like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, allow individuals to raise money and support for a variety of causes that range from mission’s trips to honeymoons. These campaigns often vary in the results they produce, but they have all tuned into what can only be described as a changing set of norms around social support. The Internet allows us to communicate quickly and succinctly with a vast number of people at the same time – which in many ways provides an optimal vehicle for crowdsourcing. When thinking about issues of public justice, crowdsourcing could serve as an extremely powerful tool as we seek to find solutions to many of the hardships that plague our world. However, as it is with any new trend, there are several critical questions that warrant our examination.
In an article for The Guardian, Feeney wrote, “I set up the crowdfunding campaign to support the Greek bailout because I was fed up with the dithering of our politicians.” Describing his frustration with the lack of influence he felt, he went on to say, “Every time a solution to bail out Greece is delayed, it’s a chance for politicians to posture and display their power, but during this time the real effect is on the people of Greece.” It’s no doubt that others around the world share the same feelings about their politicians and leaders in the face of oppression and hardship, but crowdsourcing provides a powerful way for individuals or teams to self-mobilize and make a difference. While Feeney’s campaign may have fallen short of its goal, over 38,000 individuals donated, and therefore joined together around a shared vision. This number alone should cause us to pause and imagine the potential impact we can make in spite of broken political or structural systems.
In wake of the refugee crisis in Syria, for example, several groups have creatively used crowdsourcing to provide different forms of relief aid. A simple Google search of “crowdsourcing Syria” turns up a number of relevant results that showcase the power in activating an online audience. The website Kickstarter alone has raised over one million dollars for Syrian refugees. At the same time, Refugees Welcome provides a space online where families and individuals have been able to connect with Syrians (and refugees from other countries) needing a place to stay temporarily. Over 11,000 Icelanders practiced a similar concept over Facebook where users were able to offer assistance, whether in the form of housing or other need-based aid, to Syrians. The same Facebook page also served to educate and pressure government officials in Iceland to take the concerns of its people seriously. These examples and countless others showcase the benefits crowdsourcing can hold as we seek to express our charity and citizenship.
In contrast to this success, however, a more troubling side to crowdsourcing has taken shape in our own backyard. In the face of mounting medical debt, and high costs for procedures and medications, many have turned to the internet in the hopes to finance their hospital bills. This has been done with such frequency that some crowdsourcing websites have their own medical sections. While it is undoubtedly important to have the support of a community behind you throughout any period of inclement health, there is a question that needs to be asked regarding the history of these pages. Namely, should we count crowdsourcing as an appropriate way to pay for healthcare? While crowdsourcing offers us a great tool for individual empowerment, it should not serve to replace the responsibilities of institutions as decisions makers. Understanding the health care system and the extremely high costs of patient care has been a divisive issue on the American political agenda for some time now. Despite this, the ethical and moral dilemma many are wading through should not provide an excuse to neglect the population at large. Just as we sympathize with Feeny’s woes about his political climate, it is ever important that we make sure that leaders live up to their responsibilities just as we seek to live up to ours as citizens. As crowdsourcing continues to gain momentum, it’s important that we continue ask why we are faced with particular challenges such as health care costs, and if policy ought not to have a role.
As we reflect on the power and influence crowdsourcing has had on our society in a short period of time, it only seems to validate the need to examine this new way of bringing communities together online. Just as we have seen with the work that has already been done to aid in the Syrian refugee crisis, crowdsourcing could hold major benefits at times when mobilization is crucial. If individuals continue to bring new and creative ideas to the table, we could see a better future in the wake of both natural and humanitarian disasters. There will continue to be ethical questions, as we have already seen in crowdsourcing for supplemental healthcare, but these may present us with needed spaces to ask hard questions about our culture. Either way, it’s time for us to fully appreciate the hidden power behind crowdsourcing.
-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.