by Hans Schoenberg
The most emailed NY Times article right now is titled “But Will It Make You Happy?” Questioning our consumer culture, the author interviews a number of wealthy yet unhappy people who found relief in giving away their many possessions. One of the interviewee’s has the last line: “Give away some of your stuff,’ she advises. See how it feels.”
Here in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, there are hundreds of people living within one mile of the coffee shop where we wrote this essay who lack access to some of the most fundamental human needs. At the same time, hundreds more are frustrated with the way consumption has taken over their lives and cluttered their homes. The abundance of stuff that is the result of our consumption driven culture could potentially be used to not only help friends share with friends, but to change entire communities.
Each year, Yale Recycling’s Spring Salvage program gathers the goods students would have otherwise thrown away as they move out of their dorms. The “waste,” worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, is then distributed to local nonprofits. This event demonstrates that the New Haven community already has the resources it needs in the form of excess stuff, but for most of the year those resources sit unused in our houses and dorms. A system only exists to reuse this “waste” once a year and only because Yale can afford to finance it. We saw an opportunity to reimagine how communities can share and work together.
We started GiftFlow to give communities a new set of tools. Here’s how it works: individuals log onto GiftFlow and create a profile where they list everything they have to give away (ranging from a spare jacket to an hour of volunteer time) and everything they need. You give what you can to get what you need. Each transaction is recorded so that individuals can gain a reputation for contributing to their community.
The driving force behind the system is an ethic of indirect reciprocity or circular giving. Lewis Hyde described it best in his book The Gift:
“Circular giving differs from reciprocal giving in several ways. First, when the gift moves in a circle, no one ever receives it from the same person she gives it to...When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.”
Hans first came across accounts of gift economies while studying economic anthropology. Giving without expectation of immediate return, many people in Mali participate in an informal gift economy that includes everything from child care to food from the garden. They see the gift as a string, connecting families, friends and neighbors in a web of mutual support. As a political organizer, Hans believed the idea of a gift economy carried far more potential to create change than mainstream campaigns around distant and often negative political issues.
The ethic of indirect reciprocity can support entire organizations, however, these social structures aren’t always robust. Cris learned this first hand when he helped to create the New Haven Bike Collective. Based around a gift economy of unwanted bicycles and the free time of volunteers, the main drag on the group came from a constant sense of being “free-ridden.” People would take a free bike and give little back to the organization. Cris immediately got involved in Giftflow because he saw how it could provide a platform to account for who supports and who benefits from the Collective.
In the past, gift economies only worked in small social circles because of problems with coordination and reputation. Brandon had been studying how the Internet can change social interactions, and realized that an online social network could support a gift economy. A website could strengthen and formalize what is already happening in communities around the world, making it work well across greater distances, in larger social circles, between individuals as well as institutions.
Our team continues to grow. We are a non-profit and welcome the gifts and contributions of anyone who might be interested. We hope that the online community of GiftFlow creates an offline community of mutual interdependence and support.