TREND: VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES

Silver bolts latch the dark blue sign to the bridge tower.   The sign reads, ‘THERE IS HOPE/MAKE THE CALL.”  Next to it, taut suspension lines cling to steel supports.  The iconic red Golden Gate Bridge is suspended at 245 feet above the water, towering above the channel nestled in between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.  It is the type of architectural phenomenon that attracts tourists from across the globe.  In 1937, the San Francisco Chronicle labeled it “a steel harp.”  A symbol of California’s power and beauty.

On September 20, 2013, Kyle Gamboa ended his life jumping off the bridge.  The Fair Oaks, California student was 18 years old when he committed suicide, his body, a 75 mph bullet hurdling straight towards the water.  The Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most used suicide bridges in the world, is the site of 46 suicides in 2013 and over 1,600 since its opening in 1937, according to the Department of Transportation.

Distraught from her son’s death, Kymberlyrenee Gamboa researched the bridge’s suicide history and attended meetings at the Golden Gate Bridge District because she wanted to erect a suicide prevention barrier.

“When you have something like this happen to you, you don’t want anyone else to ever go through the pain you go through,” she said.  “Everybody knew about it.  It was Golden Gate’s dirty little secret.”

Kymberlyrenee turned to her family, friends, community and the Internet for support.  On change.org, she created a virtual petition asking the California Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors and the Highway and Transportation District to approve funding to build the barrier.  Within less than one year, the petition had accumulated 158,175 signatures from around the world.  In June 2014, the Board of Directors unanimously approved funding the $76 million 20-foot-wide steel net.  The Bridge District will fund $39 million, the Transportation District $27 million and the Mental Health Institute $7 million.

Virtual communities supporting others on topics ranging from politics and social change to funding products and events have found their way into the realm of Internet norms.  Internationally, people can access websites like change.org to start petitions, sign petitions and spread awareness.  

Similarly, crowdfunding is “raising money for a project with lots of relatively small donations from relatively large numbers of people online,” according to Professor Ethan Mollick, Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business.  Both crowdfunding and virtual petitions rely on a community of people who seek change, justice, or a product.

“The reason crowdfunding took off is because it serves a vital need,” Mollick said.  “More people have access to be able to do that and more communities online can do this themselves, but there has always been this gap which is that you need funds to make it work.  Crowdfunding helps complete the circle that democratizes the ability to innovate ideas and make them real.”

Los Angeles resident Phelim McAleer of Ann and Phelim Media used IndieGoGo, a crowdfunding website, to fund a documentary on abortionist Kermit Gosnell.  The campaign ran for 46 days and raised $2,241,043, breaking the IndieGoGo record at the time for money raised for a film.

“Crowdfunding is a perfect match for us,” McAleer said.  “We tell stories that Hollywood and the mainstream media won’t tell.  If that’s the case, they won’t fund these stories either.  Crowdfunding is a way around the gatekeepers.”

The Gosnell campaign quickly became known for the controversy surrounding it rather than the documentary.  Ann and Phelim Media had originally launched the campaign on Kickstarter, a rival crowdfunding website, but were told their use of the phrase “thousands of babies stabbed to death” was too graphic.

“The whole idea of crowdfunding is depending on a popular idea is ask the public to fund it,” Phelim said.  “Why should Kickstarter decide that we’re breaking community standards.  What standards? Who decides what those standards are? It’s an open ticket to censorship.”

Another rival crowdfunding site, GoFundMe prides themselves on being used for “personal causes, whereas Kickstarter only allows creative campaigns” like education, volunteering and emergencies, according to storyteller Kelsea Little.

“GoFundMe is 'the crowdfunding site for the rest of us',” Little said.  “The beauty of GoFundMe is that it allows campaign organizers to invite others to take part in their story.  Just as we share parts of our lives on social media, we also want to share our dreams, pursuits, celebrations and challenges online with crowdfunding. People will always be eager to support their loved ones in times of need.”

This surge of virtual campaigns stems from “added transparency to the financial markets, a sense of participation in projects and media, and a general move online for financial services,” according to Zack Miller, Head of Investor Community/Partnerships at OurCrowd.  Between 2008 and 2012, crowdfunding has grown 22 percent, according to crowdsourcing.org.  Crowdfunding websites like IndieGoGo (created in 2008,) Kickstarter (2009) and GoFundMe (2010) sought to relieve financial burden.  According to statistica.com, “The effects of the global financial crisis of 2008 are still being felt and some sectors of real economic growth are not receiving the support that they need.  Crowdfunding has been presented by many as an opportunity to seek alternative forms of investment capital and to move away from the traditional cycle of bank lending.”  

“There’s a newer generation which is really motivated by the idea of helping other people,” said Ralphie Lega, Vice President of Brand Management at Mirza Minds.  “It’s the idea that there are so many hardships and we are so much more aware of it now in the digital age.  Everyone wants to help even though they don’t have a lot.”

The Mirza Mind IndieGoGo campaign, 1:Face watch, needed money to manufacture, distribute and market their watches.  Different color watches represent different charities to which some of the proceeds of the watch will go - pink: breast cancer, red: aids, blue: environment and seven others.  Within 50 days, the campaign accumulated $357,103 of their $25,000 goal.

“In order to change the world you need the support of all the people around the world, not just one or two people with millions of dollars,” Lega said.  “You need to be a movement and the only way to start a movement is to have the support of the people.”

59 percent of the worldwide capital raised via crowdfunding came from North America in 2012, according to crowdmapped.com.  The average successful campaign raised around $7,000.  But, like Lega, Miller values crowdfunding not simply at a numeric level.

“You get a sense of participation in a project that serves to further your excitement about a technology or movement,” Miller said in an email.  “You participate alongside your peers. You feel a true sense of ownership and contribution to a project or company.”

 Since their creations, IndieGoGo, Kickstarter and GoFundMe have all seen varying levels of success.  IndieGoGo has over 7,000 campaigns active at all times, a 1,000 percent increase in funds raised the past two years and 9 million visitors around the world per month, according to its website.  Kickstarter has $1,216,402,335 total pledged, 65,505 successfully funded projects and 6,587,490 total backers, according to their website.  GoFundMe gained $360 million from 6 million donors, with $1 raised by users everyday, according to their website.

Despite the often highlighted success stories, many campaigns fail to meet their goals.  The 2013 @home campaign started by the Kindling Group intended to share the lives and experiences of homeless people through a film.  Over 37 days, the campaign raised only $36,149 of the $100,000 goal.

“We set our goal a lot higher than we realized we could achieve,” said Laura Wilson, Associate Director at the Kindling Group.  “But it was nice to have a source of income that was more flexible.”

Though there are numerous potential benefits from online campaigns, experts warn against being too trusting.  In an incident involving 3-year-old Victoria Wilcher allegedly being asked to leave a Mississippi KFC because of her mauled face, funds were raised under the campaign title “Victoria’s Victories” on GoFundMe.  KFC claimed there was no evidence to support the claim and the fund page was taken down.  GoFundMe urges potential donors to give only to people they know and trust.

“It's hard to tell if a project or technology is legit sometimes,” Mollick said.  “Fraud will be a bigger concern going forward.”

Like crowdfunding sites in the need for far-reaching support, the White House’s We the People website, launched in 2011, allows Americans to start and support petitions about topics ranging from foreign affairs to law reforms.  If the petition gains 100,000 signatures within the first 30 days of its release, the Administration reviews it and issues an official response.

One of the most popular petitions to the Obama Administration is titled, “Legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group,” claiming, “their actions have been directed at homosexuals, military, Jewish people and even other Christians. They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation.”  The petition gained 367,180 signatures in 73 days.  The White House declined to respond, citing their terms of service.

As the popularity and prevalence of crowdfunding and virtual petitions continues to grow, experts are optimistic to see how it will advance in the future.  Mollick foresees “more and better tools” while Little recognizes the social significance and positive climate

“Because of its ease-of-use and overall effectiveness, GoFundMe is quickly replacing traditional fundraising methods,” Little said in an email.  “People will always be eager to support those they love, so we expect to see this trend continue to grow.”

Miller also sees the trend’s growing potential and its stake in the marketplace.  Between 2009 and 2012, worldwide crowdfunding volume skyrocketed from $530 million to $2.8 million, according to a survey by Massolution, a crowd powered business.

“Rewards based crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending (crowdfunding that aggregates small amounts of money in the form of consumer loans) are growing like weeds,” Miller said. Also, equity crowdfunding (taking smaller investments from a group of people) is emerging as a viable method for investors to invest in the next Google, and Facebook.”

308 internationally crowdfunding platforms raised $2.7 billion in 2012, an 81 percent increase from 2011, according to Massolution.

“Don’t underestimate it,” McAleer said.  “It’s a marathon not a sprint.  Have a plan.  You have to push it and you have to be proactive.”

On the virtual petition aspect of virtual communities, Kymberlyrenee urges people to persevere.  Once the barrier is built in three years, she is not afraid that it will serve as a reminder of her son’s death, but rather as an accomplishment.

“If something moves you to change something, you can do it,” she said.  A lot of people don’t or they think they can’t.  You really don’t know unless you try.  Once you start something, resources come and they come and help you.  Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t.”