Originally printed in The Guardian on 10th March, 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/10/campaign-jimmy-thoronka-internet-power-good
Last Friday afternoon I was writing my PhD first year report. I was on a deadline and still had a chapter to write. I’m researching how social networks and crowdsourcing can help people in poverty and crisis.
I took a break to read the news and saw Diane Taylor’s article about Jimmy Thoronka. I immediately felt terrible for him. Jimmy made it to the Commonwealth Games and then found out while in the UK that his family had died as a result of Ebola. It must have been the worst news of his life. He lost his uncle, adopted mother, sisters and brother. He had already lost his parents in the Sierra Leone civil war when he just a child. The dreadful news knocked him for six and he ended up homeless and living rough in London.
My immediate thought was that I wanted to help Jimmy with a bit of cash. Shout him a tenner and then leave the page up in case anyone else might want to help too. It only took 25 minutes to create the page on gofundme. I pasted the link in the comments section under the Guardian article and couple of times and went back to my PhD report.
Just over an hour later a trickle of donations starting coming in, reaching about £200. I thought I’d let the journalist know people were donating and to tell Jimmy he’s got a couple of hundred quid if he needs it. Jimmy found out and sent his thanks but moments later was arrested. He was held for two days. When he was released two days later the total had reached £20,000. Hundreds of donations and messages from the UK and around the world were flooding in. The media ran with the story and more people are donating. The average donation is around £18. The kind messages of support and the generosity has been heartwarming.
A few people asked the question “why support Jimmy and not others who need help?” Creating the page for Jimmy was a personal decision. I was moved to act. But the issue of supporting people with crowdfunding and through social networks is something I am passionate about.
I’ve designed my PhD to be as open as possible. Last year I asked Cambridge if I could write my entire thesis in a public wiki. Eight months of deliberations and they agreed and now anyone can learn from my research as I go along. The website is here at www.openaccessphd.com. I don’t want the public and policymakers to wait until I finish my PhD in 2017 to learn about the potential of social networking for social good. We’ve seen what it has done for Jimmy. Now let’s use the technology to help others, like the millions living in poverty in the UK. There is great potential for good here.
However many barriers remain. Eight and a half million people in the UK still don’t use the internet. Many more are not motivated to engage and less than 20% use social networking for any civic engagement. We need to get people online and up to speed with the digital skills to engage with social networks. It is not easy for some people – trusting strangers online can be hard and caution is sensible. But opportunities to reach out exist. Check Streetlife.com to engage with your local community. Streetbank.com can help you share your items with those nearby. Impossible.com is a great social network for giving and asking for gifts. The number of websites like this grows all the time. A list of the best can be found at my site here.
I hope Jimmy’s case shows us that even during a national debate about immigration, Britons haven’t forgotten how to be humanitarians. The Queen spoke about the “precious flame” that is the Commonwealth. Jimmy has become a flame of inspiration for many people around the world, including me. He’s a survivor. I want to see him run again at the next Commonwealth Games. I also hope that more people in need can be reached like Jimmy has been. Social networking for social good can help us connect with those in need. Let’s get online and start helping, sharing, funding and supporting.