I’m making a difference initiative: Help or hypocrisy?

From a fellow Sri Lankan blogger came the tip about Microsoft’s ascendant social consciousness – i’m™ initiative.

i’m is a new initiative from Windows Live™ Messenger. Every time you start a conversation using i’m, Microsoft shares a portion of the program’s advertising revenue with some of the world’s most effective organizations dedicated to social causes. We’ve set no cap on the amount we’ll donate to each organization. The sky’s the limit. There’s no charge, so join now and put our money where your mouth is.

i’m is about making a difference. Not in a huge expensive way, not in a time-consuming way. But in a simple, effective way.

You won’t have to change your conversation to change the conversation. With every instant message you help address the issues you feel most passionate about, including poverty, child protection, disease, and environmental degradation. It’s simple. All you have to do is join and start an instant messaging conversation. We’ll handle the donation.

Once you’ve signed up, every ad you see in your message window contributes to the grand total we send to the causes.

Nowhere on the site does it say just how much of money Microsoft will donate to the causes & organisations mentioned in the initiative, which leads one to assume that Microsoft intends to leverage the millions of users using its Live Messenger service to generate revenue that goes beyond tokenism.

I’m skeptical.

This is Microsoft Corporation, no the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation we are talking about, where money talks loudest. I recall my experience with the stillborn Microsoft Humanitarian Systems Group (MHS) initiative, for which I even wrote a paper on the future of technology in humanitarian aid. The i’m™ initiative is a different take to MHS on corporate social responsibility – the central difference being that it’s not a concerted, well articulated and planned process to develop a social consciousness within Microsoft or its huge user base (as was tried with the MHS process), but is instead social advocacy for the lazy and the average user who doesn’t really give a damn about any of the causes mentioned in the initiative, but joins up nevertheless because it’s cool, it’s new, it’s free, it’s unobtrusive, and it makes one feel good.

Like SETI@home users aren’t really encouraged to actively partake in social activism, but are merely encouraged to download, install and proclaim through their blogs and IM conversations the fact that they are more socially conscious than say, a user of Adium or Yahoo! Messenger.

The inherent hypocrisy (not for a moment discounting that Microsoft through this initiative will generate much needed funding for all the organisations that are part of it) of the i’m™ initiative is that Microsoft’s perennially bug ridden software that claims to unleash human potential, actually, in most cases, thwarts it by forcing users to deal with security nightmares and system crashes that severely vitiates the potential of computing in general, and connecting to the Internet and web in particular. No amount of branding their leading IM programme will absolve the larger corporation of the singularly horrendous experience that users have to face, but take for granted because of a perceived lack of choice, when using their operating systems or software (with the hardware required to run VISTA and the new office, way beyond the purchasing power of millions of users, Microsoft’s claims to have finally made an OS and office suite that is truly intuitive, useful and stable also run aground – since millions simply won’t have the computing power to run the new software, or will be forced to upgrade perfectly decent computers just for the sake of functionality that should have been there in the first place). Microsoft’s penchant for locking in consumers into development cycles that take years, and with no guarantee of a better product with each avatar of a programme, is frustrating and ultimately bedevils human progress and innovation.

Microsoft needs to do more, not less, to step up to its global role as a corporate entity capable of changing, for the better, the lives of millions of people – and not all users of its products. To do so requires genuine commitment and vision – on the lines of Foundation that its maker set up – and not just a passing cursory nod at social activism through branding. In asking us to put its money where our mouth is, Microsoft invites us to ask it to do more to support causes and organisations that through technology but also through education, livelihood creation, healthcare and other means, helps communities help themselves.

Clearly i’m™ initiative is a start, but to paraphrase Frost, Microsoft has miles to go before it can sleep.

4 thoughts on “I’m making a difference initiative: Help or hypocrisy?

  1. Sanjana,

    we’ll be talking about Microsoft and Corporate Social Responsibility soon enough I’m sure 🙂 and I’m looking forward to it… but looking in lots of places and can’t see what proportion Microsoft will contribute, or if there’s any way to add other organizations or how these orgs were chosen.

  2. Hey there,

    Indeed – looking forward to meeting you again soon. The issues I bring up don’t have any easy resolution, and are as complex as the nature and intent of CSR in conflict and post-conflict zones. My interest is to problematise simplistic assumptions about aid and empowerment that even today bedevil efforts to truly address the digital divide. Clearly, more needs to be done. In arguing against sofa activism and in favour of well planned initiatives that engage with the dynamics of peacebuilding and social transformation, I’m actually arguing for a greater emphasis on the social, political, economic and cultural emphasis in the nature of CSR – instead of seeing it as good irrespective of the manner in which it is constructed and enacted by a corporate entity.

  3. Rather simplistic analysis of MS’s contribution or lack of it to the PC industry, the user and the world at large. This initiative may not amount to much, early days yet to tell but why damn it before it has had a chance?

    Hope you aren’t tainted by your exp with their previous initiative? Btw that paper you wrote for them wasn’t impressive in the least, very naive expectations of technology and its applications.

  4. TS,

    Writing as you are from within Microsoft at Redmond, it’s a bit rich to accuse me of being simplistic about the contributions of Microsoft to the “PC industry” (sic).

    Firstly, my post wasn’t about its contributions to the PC industry, which I am sure you can are best in a position to write many tomes on. It was about its approach to social transformation – which is clearly a programmer’s approach as opposed to a social activist’s approach. Not that that has no merit, but in the hype and hoopla surrounding everything it does, Microsoft often forgets its own, stark and sometimes damning limitations.

    I am indeed tainted by experience with Microsoft at many levels, including the association of some of the best minds I know interested in ICT4Peace and humanitarian aid, some in fact who have joined Microsoft from high position in the UN. I’m working on a MS Unlimited Potential Grant at the moment, helping to write syllabi for the media sector in Sri Lanka (the grant is for vocational training of four industry sectors in Sri Lanka). I will be meeting a key executive in Geneva presently to initiate a global ICT4Peace process along the lines of WSIS. And I was, for better or for worse, someone who was regularly consulted by those spearheading MHS within Microsoft when Ray Ozzie joined the team after selling Groove Inc. to the company. So clearly, you are quite correct in stating that my association with them taints my appreciation of their actions – both positive and negatively.

    As for my paper, for a person who eschews simplistic statements, that last comment defined what it is to have a limited frame of reference, and a limited imagination to boot. You are of course entitled to your opinion and I look forward to an alternative set of ideas and proposals to address that which I write on in my paper. Then, let’s talk about the relative merits and demerits of our individual solutions towards a shared goal of making technology work better for the purposes it was intended to support.

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