Six ways to spend your free time making the internet a better place
Put down Candy Crush and make yourself useful.
When you go online to kill a couple hours, you might find yourself scanning the news, idly shopping, or scrolling through your social feeds. Why not use that spare time for something more productive? Here are six good deeds you can do with only your computer, an internet connection, and free time. From writing reviews to volunteering virtually, you can always help out the online community.
1. Edit Wikipedia
Let’s face it—you’ve definitely tapped into the collective knowledge of Wikipedia at some point, whether you were reading up on quantum mechanics or Stranger Things. In addition to drawing from that well, you can add to it: Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and you don’t even need to register your details to do so.
At the top of every web page, click the Edit link to start making changes. If you use the app on your phone, you access the same function by tapping the pen icon. You might scroll through others’ work to fix grammar and spelling errors, trying not to trample too extensively over the work of others. Or you could share your knowledge of whatever topics you enjoy sharing, although you should link to verifiable sources where possible.
Once you start editing, you join the Wikipedia community, with other editors reviewing your changes. They may change them back if they think you’ve made a mistake, but you can check on that by signing up for an account. This makes it easier to communicate with other users and track your changes. When you register, you also get your own profile page and the ability to customize the layout of Wikipedia.
2. Beta test software
Before companies release their software to the general public, they give it to beta testers. These early adopters keep an eye out for bugs and other problems, which they report so the developers can fix the issues. You don’t need any coding talents or technical know-how to beta test software, and your efforts can lead to faster, more stable programs for everyone else.
To up your do-goodery even more, volunteer to beta test free and open-source programs like Mozilla Firefox or LibreOffice. The web browser Mozilla Firefox has an online reporting tool for leaving feedback. Like Firefox, the open-source office suite LibreOffice uses the bug-reporting platform Bugzilla. This makes it easy for you to file any problems you encounter.
When you help out these programs, you’re signing up to be part of a community effort. For example, in the case of LibreOffice, volunteers code, develop, and document everything for free. On a less altruistic note, beta testers often receive rewards, such as early access to new features.
3. Review your past purchases
Leaving reviews is one of the most overlooked ways to help people online. Many people write about a product they’ve purchased or a location they’ve visited in only two circumstances: when they’ve had either a superlative experience or a miserable one. But a measured middle-of-the-road description can really help all the people who are deciding whether or not to spend their money. This aids the seller too—reviews build bigger audiences for everything from bars to podcasts.
Of course, this only works if you write an honest, detailed account. Talk about how well a gadget is put together, assess whether you feel a restaurant’s prices are fair and why, and describe details that an official product blurb might not cover. For example, writing about a smart speaker, you could explain how well the sound travels and whether it works well with your other devices. Photos can also help, if the review site you’re using allows them.
If you can’t think of a recent item you might review, then revisit your purchase history on a site like Amazon. Sign into your account, click the Account & Lists link on the toolbar at the top of the page, and select Your Orders to see items you’ve bought recently. Next to each one, you’ll see a Write a product review button. For more tips on writing reviews, check out our discussion with Amazon’s top “Hall of Fame” reviewer.
4. Promote good causes
The practice of promoting beneficial organizations on social media has earned a bad reputation as slacktivism, when do-gooders talk a big game but don’t actually give time or money to their chosen causes. However, even viral stunts can make a difference—the Ice Bucket Challenge, for example, did lead to new scientific findings about the nerve disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
If you believe in charities or other good causes, then follow them on social media to find out about upcoming events, fundraisers, and challenges. When you hear something compelling, share this information on your own account, adding a line of commentary to make the cause feel less impersonal. Perhaps explain why an issue is close to your heart or what drove you to support it.
While you shouldn’t go overboard—if you get too pushy, your friends and family might start ignoring what you have to say—the occasional carefully-chosen post can make a difference. And the social-media giants know it. Facebook, for example, has built tools for fundraising and donations right into its platform.
5. Volunteer virtually
If you dislike the idea of slacktivism, you can spend your time contributing more directly to an organization—still without leaving your house. Many charities now seek out virtual volunteers to work from their home computers.
Start by heading to your favorite charity’s website to see if they offer any home-based volunteer positions. With an internet connection, you can enter data, manage databases, or create content like blog posts and YouTube videos.
If that doesn’t pan out, try a site like VolunteerMatch and UN Volunteers. They will find you a position based on your location, skills, and interests, setting you up with unpaid online work—teaching, writing, doing research, organizing events, and more. For example, Missing Maps volunteers use satellite imagery to add details to online maps, which help humanitarian organizations respond to disasters and track risks more effectively. Through 7 Cups, you can aid people going through a difficult time by listening to and supporting them.
6. Contribute to Google Maps
When travelers are touring a new city or need emergency help in a strange place, they need input from those who are familiar with the area. Google Maps makes it easy to lend a hand by actively encouraging you to submit photos and reviews of places you visit. It also lets users answer frequent questions about a given location.
To get started, click a place in Google Maps (via the website, Android, or iOS) and a card of information will appear. From here, you can select a few different actions. Click questions to answer them; select Suggest an edit to point out an address change or a new opening time; opt for Rate and review to share your opinion about the place; and tap the camera icon to submit a photo.
To go a step further, sign up to be a Local Guide for Google. This lets you earn points for your contributions. The more credit you get, the more perks—such as trying out new features early—you access.