Can charities lead the way to a more humane web?

Written by Tom Greenwood - May 2, 2024

The early days for the web were somewhat idealistic. It was a scrappy and experimental new world where people could dare to dream and create. It was a world that democratised publishing, offered unprecedented access to information, and enabled creative minds to imagine new futures. It felt like the web could lead the way to a better future – one that would be more democratic and open for all.

Skip forward 30 years and the modern web that we now inhabit is a very different place. It’s a lot more refined and technically sophisticated, but what looked like it had potential to birth a utopia has become a very glossy dystopia. Ted Gioia summed this up by contrasting a search engine in 1994 as “a community run by tech enthusiasts” to a modern search engine as “A digital app run by huge global corporations, motivated by profits and growth to spy on users, and sell their personal data and maximising ads at the expense of useful information, in a manipulative manner, while making concessions to dictators and tyrants when necessary”.

The modern web, far from representing the best of humanity, has been shaped in Silicon Valley’s own image in which users are seen as units of value to be maximised by venture capitalists with little regard for human or environmental wellbeing. It’s a world where people are under constant surveillance, bombarded with ads, manipulated to consume more, encouraged to be addicted regardless of their mental health and have their private data sold without their permission. It’s also a world that consumes so much energy that its carbon footprint has now overtaken the aviation industry and is set to keep growing.

For charities and non-profits, this presents something of a dilemma. I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of charities and non-profit organisations exist because of a genuine passion to make the world a better place, whether by helping humans or protecting animals or the environment. Digital communications are now fundamental to the fundraising, operations and missions of most charities, and yet the “best practice” approaches of the digital sector mirror the values of Silicon Valley and often contradict the values of the charity itself.

How can charities then create effective digital communications that actually align with their own values? Or to be even more ambitious, how can charities stop mimicking Silicon Valley and instead lead the way to establish best practices for a web that serves humanity? I believe that charities have an opportunity and a responsibility to help reshape the web in their own image. A humane web for a better world. 

This is a big topic that can’t be covered in a single article and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every organisation should feel empowered to develop its own unique solutions rooted in their own values and deep expertise in their field. Hopefully by doing so, new ideas will spread and cross pollinate to help sprout a better digital world. My aim in this article is to throw a few initial seeds and provide some inspiration for positive change. So where should we begin?

It all starts with people

The Internet shouldn’t be about technology and corporations. It should be about people. If we shift our perspective to look at people not as the feedstock for the corporate web but as living, breathing, unique human beings, our perspective on digital design and communications will shift quite radically. 

To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, we should ask not what our users can do for us, but what we can do for our users. Now, I know that even the word “users” is problematic but if we reframe this as visitors or simply as human beings, we can see that our job as digital comms professionals is to create digital experiences that truly meet people’s needs, individually and collectively.

I believe that we can take some easy first steps in a better direction by looking at the following areas – privacy, mental health, privilege and the environment.

Respect privacy

It’s well known that lack of privacy has become a major issue on the modern web. The EU’s GDPR regulations and the UK “cookie law” were attempts to tackle this issue and I think it’s fair to say that most charities tried hard to comply. However, when we look at the web today, it’s clear that the spirit of these laws has been largely forgotten. Organisations, including charities, continue to harvest huge amounts of often unnecessary personal data about their web visitors and hide behind complicated, ugly and confusing cookie banners. The focus has been on keeping the organisation out of legal trouble, rather than protecting the privacy of their visitors.

If we flip this on its head and put the human beings visiting our websites at the centre of our thinking, we would question why we need so much of their personal data, and how we can ensure that they truly consent to share any data that we do need. Instead of the typical approach of tracking everything “just in case”, we can take a mindful approach of collecting the exact data we need. Furthermore, we can find ways to collect useful data without invading the privacy of the individual.

There are a number of analytics tools available today that are much more targeted than Google Analytics and that are designed with respect for privacy in mind. These tools include Plausible, Fathom, Matomo and GoSquared. Other services such as video hosting platforms often also include tracking scripts, especially YouTube, but alternatives such as Wistia and JetStream are available and are much more considerate of user privacy.

Prioritise mental health

User experience, or UX, has become one of the trendy buzz words of the web sector in recent years and at its core it is all about putting the user first. This is great news and UX best practices can teach us a lot, but we need to be careful. Many approaches that claim to put the user first are in fact aimed at controlling users rather than empowering them and this can have a negative impact on mental health.

Approaches such as creating “funnels” in user journeys to guide the user to a destination can put them on a digital conveyor belt toward a destination that they didn’t truly choose. Take it a step further, and the popular approach of making digital experiences “sticky” is really a euphemism for making them addictive. Combine these two “best practices” and we have a web that disempowers its users and degrades their mental health, even if the approaches were genuinely well intended.

The negative impact of digital technology on mental health is becoming increasingly apparent and so it’s important that we take extra care to ensure that we are designing our digital experiences to protect users and empower them to be in control. While alternative best practices are yet to be established, challenging conventional wisdom on concepts such as user funnels and stickiness can be a good starting point to imagine new possibilities.

Design for the least privileged

It should come as no surprise that those of us who work in digital communications tend to be quite privileged when it comes to access to digital technology. We have fast mobile and fibre optic internet connections, powerful computers and modern smartphones. This all helps us to do our jobs better but there is one big downside, which is that it makes it hard for us to empathise with those less privileged than us. We subconsciously use ourselves as the benchmark for good user experience and lose sight of the bigger picture.

Gerry McGovern, author of the book World Wide Waste, says that “large pages are taxes on the poor”, and he’s right. Bloated, inefficient web pages and apps unfairly penalise disadvantaged groups who don’t have the latest devices, don’t have access to unlimited data and for whom data is expensive.

To give some context, the country with the world’s fastest average internet speed is currently Lichtenstein, whose 247Mbps is 144 times faster than in Afghanistan, the country with the world’s slowest internet. Afghanistan is not alone, with many developing countries and even rural areas within developed countries experiencing slow or unreliable internet. Similarly, according to the latest Performance Inequality Gap report, the average mobile device globally is equivalent to a Nokia G100, which looks modern but is actually very slow. Furthermore, he highlights that half the world’s internet users have a device that is slower than the average device, so we need to be mindful of this.

“When we construct the digital world to the limits of the best devices, we build a less usable one for 80+% of the world’s users.”

Not to mention the financial cost of data. In our modern world of cheap data we might think this is normal everywhere, but data in many countries can be very expensive relative to local incomes. What’s more, some of the most expensive average internet costs are in some of the world’s poorest places, with 1GB of data in South Sudan costing USD$23.70 and a staggering $43.75 in Zimbabwe.

Add into the mix other forms of data poverty, such as those people who live in rural areas or trying to access data on the move, and we find that a significant proportion of the population need to access information online in less than ideal circumstances. If we design and build the web for the least privileged, we can create a faster, more reliable, more affordable and more inclusive experience for everyone.

Care for the environment

Finally, we need to think about the health of the planet that we live on. We tend to talk about digital technology using terms like “virtual” and “the cloud”, implying that it doesn’t physically exist. It’s no wonder then that we tend not to talk about the environmental impact of the internet. It’s out of sight and out of mind, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. 

Estimates for the carbon footprint of the internet and digital technology range from 2.1-3.9% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. This might not sound like much but when you consider that the aviation industry is responsible for 2.1% of global emissions, it puts things in perspective. The difference between aviation and digital is that whereas aviation consists of a few big things with visible emissions that are easy to comprehend, the internet is a complex system consisting of trillions of tiny, almost invisible things that add up to a big impact. Data centres hidden away in industrial parks, telecom networks that span the entire globe (and into space), and billions of digital devices are using electricity 24/7 and producing carbon emissions. Moreover, a staggering amount of precious raw materials is extracted every year to manufacture new digital devices, replacing older ones that are discarded far too soon. This leads to 62 billion kilograms of electronic waste annually — equivalent to the weight of more than 6,100 Eiffel Towers.

The good news is that it’s much easier to solve the environmental impact of digital technology than it is to solve aviation. When we bring sustainability into the conversation in digital design, development and communications, we find a lot of opportunities to eliminate waste and reduce the environmental impact. Taking more minimalist approaches to design and content, stripping out unnecessary code and optimising assets to reduce file sizes are simple strategies that can make a huge difference. The even better news is that everything we’ve discussed to respect people’s privacy, improve mental health and cater for the least privileged audiences will also help reduce the environmental impact. Add on top of that the relatively simple task of choosing a web host with a commitment to using renewable energy in its data centres and you’ll be making good progress on your web sustainability.

I won’t cover fine details of how to create a sustainable website in this article as we’ve got a lot of other content on that topic here on our blog, and in my book, Sustainable Web Design, but the message here is that if your organisation cares about protecting the environment then embedding sustainability thinking into your digital communications is an essential step that will have social benefits too.

Lead with your values

One of the things that I find so inspiring about charities is that they truly lead with their values and are dedicated to making the world a better place. As the digital world becomes an ever larger part of our lives, I believe that it’s now time that charities and non-profits take the lead in setting best practices for digital design, technology and communications, shaped by their values instead of following the lead of Silicon Valley.

In this article I have primarily focused on websites because I think it’s a good place to start, but this principle should apply across the board of digital comms including email newsletters, social channels, apps, software, or our use of AI.

So I encourage you to be brave. Put your values at the centre of your digital comms and push boundaries in the places that you are able to. You can help lead the way to a better web that not only meets your organisation’s needs, but also helps create a better web and a better world.

This article follows a keynote talk that I gave at the CharityComms Strategic Marketing Conference 2024 and accompanies an article on the CharityComms website about Benchmarking Website Sustainability

Also, if you are involved in the digital communications for a charity in the UK, we’d be very happy to send you my book, Sustainable Web Design. If you’d like a copy, simply pop your details in our book request form.