Altruism in the Digital Age

Increasingly digital platforms are encouraging us to bring out our selfless side online.

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When the Oxford Dictionary announced this month that “selfie” was its word of the year—noting that its use in the English language had increased by 17,000% in the past year—it confirmed in the minds of some that the open architecture of the web and social media has enabled us to “look like raging narcissists.” But as the number of digital platforms designed to encourage sharing, helping and giving—often with no tangible reward for users—proliferate, the web appears to be allowing our selfless, rather than selfish, side to thrive.

Altruism and philanthropy are hardly new to the web: many charities have successfully moved their fundraising operations online, taking advantage of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and JustGiving. But as Tom Serres, CEO and founder of, an online fundraising platform for individual causes, points out, the online social infrastructure that allows fundraisers to take advantage of these platforms has only come to prominence in the last four to five years. “From that perspective, it’s not necessarily a new behavior, but a behavior in a new medium that’s being done,” says Serres.

Dana Klisanin, a U.S.-based psychologist, suggests that the Internet is indeed giving rise to new avenues for altruism. She refers to this as “digital altruism”— simply meaning altruism that’s mediated by digital technology—and suggests that it is an understudied area because so much media attention is focused on negative behaviors online, like cyber-bullying or cyber-crime. Klisanin has suggested three categories for various degrees of online altruism. This includes “every day digital altruism” where individuals click to donate to a charity, to creative digital altruism where users design websites or platforms to help others, to co-creative projects where groups or corporations come together to produce something for the “greater good”—like the UN working with online humanitarian volunteers to help with relief efforts following typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

One project that embraces the idea of an altruistic social network is Impossible, an app created by British model Lily Cole. Impossible, which joined the Apple app store in September, is a platform based on the principles of gift exchange, where users can request wishes or grant them to others. The key is that it is free and there is no expectation of return. Wishes range from the very practical: “I wish for someone to design a website for my event” to the philosophical: “I wish for everyone to live in peace.”

Kwame Ferreira, 35-year-old founder of Kwamecorp, a global tech innovation company that has helped to develop Impossible, admits that he was “scared” and skeptical of Cole’s idea when she first approached him. But, says Ferreira, it is an idea whose time has come. “Most social networks have done a wonderful job of connecting people, but they consume each other. You go through experiences and you ‘like’ things, but what about a shift, where it’s not about consuming but it’s actually about giving? That’s why we have ‘thank yous’ instead of ‘likes.’ It’s a subtle nuance, but a very important one.” Ferreira rejects the idea that the concept of a free gift exchange is too idealistic: “It’s not a left-wing hippy culture. Everybody gives. It’s part of most cultures.”

Cole, who graduated from Cambridge University in 2011, presented her idea during a debate at her alma mater against the motion “This House Believes a Society of Giving is Impossible” earlier this year. She said her impetus behind the project came from the fact that the experiences she valued most in life were based on gift exchanges, rather than monetary transactions. “When you give, you release chemicals—oxytocin—that make you happy. The act of giving is self-involved, it has enriched my life. But the more generous I’ve been, the more generous people have been to me,” said Cole.

This interplay between doing things out of self-interest and doing things out of selflessness exists in Serres’s platform, Unlike crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, enables anyone to fundraise for projects like covering the cost of medical expenses to funding a legal defense bill.  Fundraisers do not need to offer an incentive for people to contribute; rather, it’s about people aligning themselves with causes they believe in and are passionate about. Ultimately, whether these motives are purely altruistic or partly selfish is irrelevant if the outcomes are beneficial to society, suggests Serres. “The idea that I want to follow my passion is purely self-interest, but does that mean it’s a bad thing? Not necessarily.”