Commentary

Net Gain: Good Works In Cyberspace

Google's motto, "do no evil," has become a trite, sarcastic footnote to the digital age. It is twisted by skeptics who doubt that corporations can be consistent, genuine guardians of goodwill, and by the companies that prove them right.

But there also is little resistance and much hope to the notion that countless individuals, companies and financiers are actively utilizing the Internet's vast applications and resources to foster good.

Improving the human condition and lifting the human spirit is rarely a line item on corporate balance sheets or individual to-do lists. The waves of celebrated philanthropy notwithstanding, the Internet provides the means for the well-intended and the broke to still make a positive difference in the world. That takes many forms, from raising funds to raising awareness. Many of the efforts are bound by the same viral tenet: Empowering people to post their unedited stories and comments, or provide their services and funding, to effect some positive change. It is virtual cause and effect that runs deep and moves lightning fast.

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The result could be raising millions to electronically purchase the handmade clothing made by women in the Middle East or Africa, struggling to singlehandedly raise their children in ravaged lands. It could be educating us about green efforts to adopt on the home front. It can be improving our understanding of the religion, politics, culture and social issues the ignorance about which fuel destructive conflict.

It can be as enterprising as raising awareness of events, causes and perspectives that impact the world's inhabitants. That is what prompted Amra Tareen to launch Allvoices, a global online community of shared news reports, video, still images and opinions that calls itself "the first true people's media."

Launched with $4.5 million in funding from VantagePoint Venture Partners, Allvoices is a reflection of the former Sevin Rosen Funds partner and onetime Lucent Technologies executive. Her awakening came with volunteering with Relief International to establish micro-credits programs for women and child victims of the 2005 earthquake in her native Pakistan.

The stories and pictures that the Harvard MBA and mother of two brought back with her ended up on citizen journalism social network Masala. It was the precursor to San Francisco-based Allvoices, which joins Canadian NowPublic and blogger-based GlobalVoices in the participatory news space that weaves citizen and traditional media. The relevance of contributions from a variety of media devices and platforms pass through a filter of algorithms and technology--not humans. Eventually, it will be advertising-supported. "We are providing a global platform where everyone has the right to be heard. It's about democracy and giving power to the people," Tareen said.

The Net is rich with examples of enterprising good intensions that can eventually pay off for initial investors. Oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens has made his pickensplan.com site the centerpiece of a multimedia campaign he instigated and finances to rally support for the U.S. to eliminate some of its 70% dependence on foreign oil by producing its own wind and solar energy.

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has generated a reported $10 billion in returns to investors on its early Google, Amazon and other early Internet bets. It is shifting its sites to alternative energy and all things green globally. Although making money is clearly the impetus, it doesn't hurt that goodwill comes of it.

Indeed, many venture capital and other investor groups, public and private companies, and individuals are using the Internet to inspire and instigate in positive ways. Matt Harding's simple but fetching YouTube videos of him doing a happy dance with natives in more than 70 locations from Iceland and Korea to Timbuktu has likely done more to make a vastly diverse world smaller and more comfortable than all the politically correct Web sites combined.

In a clear extension of what academics like Henry Jenkins call "civil media," many public broadcasting stations are finding intriguing ways to link community resources, constituents and causes across interactive media platforms and devices--from KPBS in San Diego to Chicago Public Radio's experimental Vocalo Project.

The stark juxtaposition of the Olympic Games--inspired by a democratic ancient Greece and held in a China struggling with its political identity--will be fertile ground for a new, soulful brand of blogging, journaling and reporting. From that will come some good: fundamental acceptance, financial contributions, volunteer efforts--anything is possible.

Hours of online research turns up treatises on the gift economy, the economics of altruism, groups like GlobalGiving (that bring worthy projects and donors together), bloggers devoted to moving the morality compass, and Pew Research quantifying the Net's more virtuous social efforts on user attitudes and actions.

Maybe it's just the quixotic hopes of a journalist whose profession is imploding, and mother of four who has raised children with much hard work and hope, that goodwill comes from a digital interactive age. That it can be as much about doing good for humanity as making money without doing evil, as Google--a $175 billion business--preaches on its corporate site.

All it takes is someone smart enough to organize and analyze the Internet's altruistic crusaders, do-gooders and global communications to assign a valuation to their cause and community. Then doing digital good could become the next hot category. Here's hoping.

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