Opportunities to volunteer were originally limited to church groups and community committees, but advances in technology, especially computers and the internet, have changed all that.
New self-governing virtual online communities of dedicated volunteers are now responsible for many of the internet’s largest and most useful websites.
Inspired by the Usenet message boards that were developed almost three decades ago, these internet projects share the knowledge of hundreds, thousands or even millions of members and editors.
Perhaps the greatest example is the Open Directory Project, originally named GnuHoo. This online directory of web sites was started by computer programmer Rick Skrenta as an alternative to Yahoo in 1998 and is used by Netscape, Google, Lycos, HotBot and Dogpile search engines.
The project has inspired restaurant review site ChefMoz, musical artist information project MusicMoz, the MusicBrainz ‘metadatabase,’ the Skaffe web directory, and an encyclopaedia spin-off, Open Site.
“It is an exciting, dynamic environment where classification, ontologies, knowledge concepts and expert understandings dive and soar across the whole gamut of human knowledge,” says Devans, an editor at the Open Site Encyclopedia Project. “Young and old, visionary and conservative, do battle for how they want this resource to develop.
“It is a powerful thing that has been unleashed, powered by the human spirit to preserve our greatest legacy - human knowledge.”
Open Site is one of many online encyclopedias created by volunteers. The international Webby website awards have recognised writing database E2 and the popular Wikipedia Project as among the world’s best web sites, yet both are reliant on donations of content and money.
Volunteering at online web directories and encyclopaedia projects teaches many of the skills required in everyday careers. Many of these websites require potential volunteers to apply and editors with higher administrative positions may accept or decline these applications. Dedicated editors are then rewarded with promotion to more powerful editing and administrative positions.
In the future, the information super highway of the internet and technology is set to become even more reliant on unpaid volunteers as commercial projects like Yahoo face strong competition from non-commercial competitors.