Once again I’ve been astonished and overwhelmed by the generosity of complete strangers. The world is a marvelous, sharing community, via the Internet.
No, I don’t mean that sarcastically, even though my close friends know what a grumpy cynic I am. I mean it sincerely.
Yes, there are individuals who are greedy—hoaxsters, thievers of data and identities, takers of what they don’t create, manipulators of the trusting, purveyors of dubious knowledge, and creators of questionable websites—
But there’s enough written about them so I don’t need to add to the complaints. And we don’t need to spend any time describing how governments are selfish and greedy.
Because I’ve discovered that individuals are not.
I want to praise the rest of the community: those who upload useful (and silly) videos to Youtube; those who explain difficult ideas in almost plain English on Wikipedia (and allow me to adjust the grammar of those explanations); those who write blogs that uplift, inform, that share successes and failures that the rest of us can use (occasionally in our own blogs).
It’s truly remarkable, this fantastic sharing of ideas, applications, programs—all for free. Never in the history of the world has so much richness been offered for nothing.
Don’t believe me? Tally in your head how many times you’ve benefitted from someone’s generosity. Honestly evaluate just how much you’ve taken from others via the Internet, and how much others have offered up freely.
Here’s my list from just the past few weeks:
- Downloaded two programs for recording and manipulating audio;
- watched hours of Youtube videos teaching how to record audiobooks;
- copied links from a dozen websites for understanding grammar (for my online composition course);
- gathered countless clever memes and quotes from additional websites to share with high school students to make the course more entertaining;
- pinned recipes for gluten free cooking;
- researched strategies for teaching autistic kids history;
- sought advice on specifics of writing novels;
- looked up dozens of details about things I don’t really know: from breeds of horses, to how sedation works, to how the ancients made black powder (writers have worrisome search histories);
- read five newspapers and online magazines a day.
I also joined two online communities where I post naïve newbie questions and am given remarkably kind and helpful responses back.
In the past I’ve asked cooks, parents, writers, carpenters, decorators, and techie types for advice, and these people—who I’ve never met and never will—graciously take a few minutes to offer their ideas and solutions. It’s absolutely remarkable how we can enter nearly any online community or respond to a blog post and are treated like colleagues worthy of attention.
Twenty years ago none of this existed. We have a hard time remembering that.
When I worked on my master’s thesis, I took up second residence in the library trying to track down obscure documents that some other grad student was hoarding.
Just today my daughter, herself in a graduate program, called to say she was doing background reading on Wikipedia to learn about an obscure concept, and found in the footnotes a link to a publication she’d been looking for for weeks.
It’s almost like cheating.
My teenage son, whose computer has developed some issues, chatted with more experienced programmers in various parts of the world, and is now fixing his computer. And none of these experts are charging for their expertise.
It’s almost like stealing.
But it isn’t. It’s offered in the pure spirit of cooperation.
Now, I’m not stupid. I know full well there are many out there not nearly so altruistic, but instead parasitic. But this post isn’t about them.
It’s about the 99% who don’t fit that profile. I also refuse to listen to the cynics who may roll their eyes and offer me a lecture about how we’ve become a “detached society” more interested in our online relationships than we are our face-to-face ones.
I admit there’s a bit of a distraction there, but likely because we now have entered into a fascinating global community and have discovered that we are not alone in our worries and problems, and that there’s enormous satisfaction in helping someone else along with the solutions we’ve discovered.
With a little discipline we can bring back our awe-struck attention to those physically in front of us, but I think we can also be forgiven for being just a little amazed by it all.
It’s that ease of connection that’s so staggering. I’m tickled when someone messages me on Facebook or via my website asking for suggestions on something I know a little bit about. Quite often I’ve never met these people, or knew them once only a long time ago, but here we are–communicating. I feel an extraordinary sense of satisfaction by being able to help someone else, even if I barely know them.
Such a fluidic society of ideas and sharing has never before existed, although Plato and Sir Thomas Moore wrote about or imagined smaller, idyllic utopian societies where everything was shared communally. The scholar Hugh Nibley researched and wrote extensively about the ancient City of Enoch, and has described how beautifully such a society could function, eliminating the vast majority of problems we experience now.
I’ve also researched attempts of communal sharing and living in more modern times (Brigham Young tried to get 19th century Mormons to establish Zion, and in some ways it was quite successful, until the good old vices of jealousy and pride undermined it). Yet I believe we’re heading in the direction that Gene Roddenberry tried to demonstrate in Star Trek—a community that’s more concerned with sharing knowledge than it is in acquiring money for that knowledge.
Some time ago I read how programming junkies realized they produced better work when they weren’t given a paycheck for their efforts, but instead were going to make that work available for free on the Internet. Working under their own names, instead of a corporation, and knowing the project rested solely on them propelled them to generate far better applications.
I find it interesting that the current trend of so many books and movies is to show a dystopian society, while this utopia of sorts has developed on the web. More interestingly, this sharing movement has been individual-run, not government-inspired.
Each person decides on his or her own to start a blog, become a mentor, contribute to a project, or make a video. In fact, it seems that all great social movements begin on a personal level, never a bureaucratic one.
Perhaps it’s fitting, though: this utopian nature on the web just may create a dystopia for government as we know it. (Hey, I can hope.)
The true beauty of this free-for-all attitude is that it’s infectious: I don’t see the trend reducing but growing. I don’t know if there’s any data on this, but I believe that creativity is exploding. More people develop, write, photograph, cook, renovate, recycle, and innovate than ever before. On the Internet we find a forum and a community that we can influence.
On second thought, it’s not infectious—it’s magic!
So much so freely shared encourages others to share as well. Because I’ve benefitted so much from others, I also offer what I have for free as well. While my books are for sale on Amazon, I will always have free downloads on my website, and hope to add free audiobooks via Podiobooks in the next few months as well.
This utopian-style of sharing is a marvelous notion, but certainly not without its drawbacks. Problems with these freebies exist. Directions aren’t always correct, products aren’t always the best, mistakes are made (see the various pinterest-fail sites for evidence) . . . But I think overwhelmingly people are sincerely just trying to help each other.
And they do, in far greater ways than any corporation, government, or agency could ever hope to accomplish.
So I’m disappointed when I hear people complain about changes on Pinterest, Facebook, and other social media sites, or when people whine (yes, whine!) that a program is occasionally glitchy or a download wasn’t quite what they expected. To hear them go on and on, you’d think they’d been bilked for thousands of dollars and then handed a flaming bag of excrement.
I want to shake them by the shoulders and ask, “And how much did you pay for that service? That product?”
That’s absolutely incredible.