NYU new media professor and Here Comes Everybody author Clay Shirky likes to tell the story about a recent day when two of his friends were sitting with their 4-year-old daughter, watching a DVD. “In the middle of the movie, apropos nothing,” Shirky says, the girl jumps up off the couch and runs behind the screen. Her dad thought she was going to see if Dora (the explorer, from the kid’s cartoon show) was hiding there. But no, the girl was rooting around in the cables. “What are you doing?” her father asked. Sticking her head out from behind the screen, the girl said, “Looking for the mouse.”

For Shirky, it’s a tale of the times. “Four-year-olds know a screen that ships without a mouse ships broken,” he says. “Four-year-olds know that media that is targeted at you—but that doesn’t include you—may not be worth sitting still for.”

No question: All social media innovators today are “looking for the mouse”—working to find new ways to let those who use, hear, read, and watch media participate more fully. The most innovative enlist the use of mobile phones for a cause: The nonprofit National Democratic Institute uses text messaging to spot vote fraud in elections around the globe; Witness.org asks its supporters to photograph human rights abuses with their cellphones; the Zumbido project in Mexico created a mobile social network for people living with HIV/AIDS.

But nobody has cracked the challenge of “on demand” volunteering—until now. Social media entrepreneur and activist Ben Rigby, author of Mobilizing Generation 2.0, thinks he’s “found the mouse” for it with Volunteer NOW, his on-the-spot, GPS-aided mobile application that directs people who suddenly find themselves with some free time on their hands to a list of short-term volunteering opportunities near to their present location—be it an airport, an office building, a local Starbucks, or a city park. Rigby’s goal: to transform volunteering into an “impulse activity” that, for the cause-wired not otherwise looking to tune out or cat-nap, could be done on the fly. (Got 20 minutes? Review a contract for a nonprofit. Translate a document for a non-English speaker. Or, text for the nearest beach or park clean-up drive and spend your lunch hour in the sun.)

“Projects like [email protected] showed that massive computational problems can be solved when a distributed group of people donate their computers’ spare CPUs to crunch data,” Rigby says. “(Volunteer NOW!) explores the possibility that this same theory can be applied to spare human ‘CPUs.’ We believe it will reveal a massive, untapped capacity to do good.”

Rigby is not the only social media innovator intrigued by the idea of spare-time, mobile volunteering. Leaders of Do Something, a New York-based nonprofit, started using mobile phones in March to recruit volunteers. The Beta version of its Do Something NOW! mobile program, funded in part by the Sprint Foundation, invites young people to sign up for volunteering through a form on its Web site; Do Something then sends them one or two text alerts each month with volunteer opportunities that fit their locations and preferences. So far, more than 1,000 people have signed up for the text alerts: Do Something hopes to have 10,000 signed up by year’s end. Opt-out rates, says Chief Marketing Officer Aria Finger, are running less than 5 percent.

Look for more examples of mobile volunteering in the months ahead. Katrin Verclas, founder of MobileActive.org, will be showcasing some at her global summit on cause-mobile technology in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 13-15. Google’s recent entry into the mobile phone market will add fuel to the mobile advocacy movement in coming months.

For more on how cell phones and other social media are dramatically changing society’s notions of free time, check out the Blip.tv video of Clay Shirky’s wildly popular talk at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco this past spring. It’s about 10 minutes long but well worth the cognitive surplus—Shirky’s term for free time—that you carve out to watch it.

Reprinted with permission from Cause Global

imageMarcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.