Josh Groban is a pop star. The type of pop star with teenage girls screaming and fainting at every concert and young women waiting in his hotel lobby wherever he travels. These worshipping fans even have a name: Grobanites.

In 2002 the Grobanites decided that they wanted to buy him a birthday present. Here is a man who before turning 21 already had the unending adulation of thousands of women around the planet. What more could he possibly want? So they decided to donate to charity in his name. They ended up raising more than $75,000.

His lawyers absolutely freaked out about the legal implications. Raising $75,000 in someone’s name means being responsible for how that money is used. So the lawyers built the Josh Groban Foundation, a U.S.-registered 501(c)3 which still exists today. But the Grobanites soon discovered that the Josh Groban Foundation was not particularly good at raising money. Essentially they were just there to give a legal identity to what was already taking place.

So the Grobanites registered their own charity, appropriately called “Grobanites for Charity.” In the words of Shirky, their website looks like “1996 throwing up. Like, ‘hey, we have fonts and colors here!‘” It looks like it was built by a bunch of amateurs. Because it was. But unlike most charities, 100% of the donations to the Grobanites for Charity go directly to the recipients.

Why would the Grobanites For Charity separate themselves from the Josh Groban Foundation? One of the reasons is motivation. A researcher once brought in two groups of students and asked them to figure out a complex puzzle. One group of students was paid $15 for their participation while the other group wasn’t. The participants in the study were told that they were being observed to see how quickly and using what strategies they figured out the puzzle. But in fact, the true purpose of the study was to observe them once the researcher left the room and asked them to just hang out for a few minutes while he finished up some details.

The students who were compensated pulled out magazines, zoned out, and started talking. The students who weren’t paid anything kept playing with the puzzle. In other words, there are different types of motivation. Shirky distinguishes them as extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. We all know about our extrinsic motivations: to be rich, famous, fashionable, beautiful, and stylish. Our intrinsic motivations, however, get much less attention and are often disparaged as hippie gibberish. These include the desire to be competent, our ethical alignment with our environment, and the desire to be loved and appreciated. All of these forces are behind the success of the labor behind products like Wikipedia and Global Voices.

It is easy to design for generosity when you know the people you are designing for. It is much more difficult to design for generosity when you have no idea just who is – or will be – feeling generous. That’s because it’s such a recent concept that was never possible before the internet.

As an example of designing for generosity Shirky points us to Howard Forums. In 2001 Howard Chui purchased a cell phone and started blogging about it. He became an expert on this one cell phone model, which attracted readers with other phones who had questions. Howard wasn’t able to answer all their questions so instead he created a forum and told them to ask and answer their questions there. Howard Forums has since become such a valuable resource that customer service representatives of cell phone companies actually point their callers there for answers.

The only people who can discuss a product effectively are those have used it on a daily basis. The customers. If you have part of the answer and I have part of the answer, then together we have a better answer than anyone working for the company could possibly come up with.

On Howard Forums you will see a separate discussion thread for just about every single mobile phone existing on the planet. But one of the most popular threads on the site has nothing to do with phones. It’s called the lounge. You could go there right now and most likely over 100 people will be discussing exercise, their pets, sports, and politics.

In other words, HowardForums succeeded because it built intrinsic motivations into the design. By sharing our knowledge it fulfills our desire to be competent, to share our values with others, and, in messages of positive reinforcement, to be appreciated.

Shirky says that there is no sure-fire way to design for generosity, but he offers these four tips:

1.) Design for intrinsic motivation – where people feel good and feel appreciated.
2.) Love and fame are different. It’s easy to think that being famous is just being loved by lots of people. But being loved by a small group of people is different than being recognized by lots of people.
3.) Autonomy is essential. The reason the Grobanites for Charity started their own 501(c)3 even after Josh Groban’s lawyers created their own is because they wanted it to be their own.
4.) Find the sweet spot between completely open and closed systems. Close a system and it will die; keep it too open and the trolls will decimate it.

My Thoughts

clay shirky

Clay Shirky always has a fascinating internet anecdote up his sleeves that most people don’t know about (until Shirky puts it into a presentation). This is mostly thanks to his hip students at ITP who feed him the freshest news from Brooklyn.

I am particularly interested in designing for generosity because it is exactly what I will be doing over the next six months. Over the past year and a half Rising Voices has grown from a very small initiative to a very large community of activists around the world who want to use participatory media to help empower communities that have largely been ignored by traditional media. There is so much potential in the community that, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, isn’t being capitalized.

On Tuesday at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society I will be discussing some of my initial thoughts about how Rising Voices can be re-invented and redesigned to capitalize on all that potential and multiply it across communities and institutions that today aren’t even thinking about outreach and training as part of their communications strategy.

Unfortunately Clay Shirky’s presentation also tells us two unmentioned secrets about designing for generosity: 1.) you need to be popular and 2.) you need to be first. The Grobanites for Charity have been successful largely thanks to the celebrity status of Josh Groban. Howard Forums is probably not the best designed system to discuss mobile phones, but it has been so successful because it was the first place where the information was made available. Hopefully on Tuesday we will be able to think of some other strategies other than hiring celebrities and claiming early real estate.