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“A pervasive issue in crowdfunding continues to be that of trust”

Alexandra Stiver (UK) is a social scientist interested in the intersection of business, digital technologies, and community, both online and offline. She tweets @cansti.

Shane Saunderson: You’ve previously written about crowdfunding and crowdsourcing not being new models (Briarpatch, 2015), however, what about these movements is unique?

Alexandra Stiver: Although the mechanisms of activity driving crowd work are not new, the use of digital technologies enables the potential for an expanded range of community reach, scale and action. The online space allows for dispersed communities – for example: niche interests, specific health conditions, diaspora groups – to identify themselves, to interact, and to coordinate activity. Digital communities can also make use of a variety of channels for communication and collaboration, tailored to different needs and contexts. Furthermore, technology enables a degree of immediacy, even at a distance, for crowdfunding, through the online transfer of funds.

Shane: What choices do crowdfunding / crowdsourcing platforms enable within digital communities?

AS: Crowdfunding platforms facilitate several categories of choices for digital communities. First, through the use of platforms, community members have the ability to engage with a broader range of projects and to engage based on degree of interest, unconstrained by geographic proximity. Second, platforms enable coordinated activity – both financial and non-financial – across a dispersed community (or several communities). Finally, platforms provide various options for online communication – public, private, and semi-private – offering community members choices for participation and presentation.

Shane: Why do you feel these choices are significant in how communities interact?

AS: Common to communities is a degree of attachment, or ‘connectedness’, as well as shared goals leading to collective, not purely individual, action. The choices facilitated by the platforms are significant to developing and sustaining community due to their ability to bring together individuals predisposed to both an emotional and a behavioural commitment. Platforms help identify networks, topics, and projects of interest, and then also create a designated space for engagement. Platform design tends to foster community-generated bottom-up content, rather than top-down, or moderated, communications. This organic and discursive communication style is both a key indicator of presence of community, and an element helping to sustain it.

Shane: What choices have crowdfunding / crowdsourcing taken away, or do analogue communities have access to that may not be available to digital communities?

AS: A pervasive issue in crowdfunding continues to be that of trust. This trust refers not only to the issue of online payment, but also to the broader project and to the individual project creator. Trust issues are less common within analogue communities due to, in many cases, in-person accountability and longer-standing relationships preceding crowdfunding. Platforms, in response, have an opportunity to address this gap for digital communities through cues and signals of ‘verifiability’ such as developed profiles, pictures, and project affiliations with reputable organisations.

Shane: How might future technological developments and the evolution of digital communities change the aforementioned choices and restrictions?

AS: Increasingly crowdfunding platforms are incorporating features to promote online-offline (and vice versa) community transitions, having recognised that these can be reinforcing rather than necessarily distinct. This represents a major shift. As a result, many platforms now offer the ability to filter by both interests and location, a choice that simultaneously capitalises on a strength of the digital space while addressing one of its limitations. These developments articulate themselves in online-offline transitions, such as communities coordinating online through a platform for project-related activity in a physical location offline. Developments also support offline-online transitions, in the case of existing offline communities establishing an online presence to tap into larger sources of community support online.

Shane/ Do you believe that crowdfunding / crowdsourcing encourage the development of a pluralistic society? Why?

AS: Crowdfunding has the potential to encourage pluralism, but it can easily also run the risk of creating fairly homogeneous silos of interest. Crowdfunded projects, or crowdsourced problems, often either attract or create highly specialised communities. Furthermore, in the space of civic crowdfunding, a valid concern is that the process benefits wired populations, and therefore might support projects that exclude important populations. This concern is being addressed, however, as illustrated in the case of community development and fundraising initiatives that carefully solicit stakeholder input and use crowdfunding platforms as one piece of a larger strategy.

Shane: In your opinion, will there always be a place in people’s lives for purely analogue communities and how will the interplay between digital and analogue communities impact their choices in life?

AS: When communities are linked through a shared geography, research shows that activity often begins offline and then transitions online. By contrast, connections forged in digital communities can often flow – through formal or informal channels – towards in-person interactions and activity. Social scientific research on communities increasingly acknowledges the bi-directionality of online and offline, and the fluidity between digital and analogue. Across examples of crowdfunding, digital and analogue community activity has generally proven to be positive, and reinforcing. There will always be communities that develop offline and are predominantly analogue, but I think it will be increasingly rare to encounter ones classifiable as “purely analogue”. This raises practical, as well as definitional, questions yet unanswered: how will we to identify, to understand, and to support these ‘hybrid’ communities?