*Part 3 on the notion of “free” and the scalability of gift economies
Lily Cole’s Impossible.com has launched in beta at Cambridge University. It seems the purpose of this limited roll out is to get a better measure of how people use and interact with the site, before launching it globally.
I’ll be watching its progress with some interest. So far the requests on the homepage seem to be light-hearted and fun. One person asked to be taught “how to do a somersault”; another requested “simple and easy vegetarian recipes”.
Whether or not this will scale remains to be seen. But as one of Impossible’s advisers, Jimmy Wales, can attest, gift economies scale remarkably well on the internet.
In fact, Wikipedia’s phenomenal growth challenged a great deal of conventional wisdom on the scalability of gift economies
Until the advent of the world wide web, it was commonly understood that so-called gift economies are unable to scale. It has been observed many times before that once communities of this kind reach a certain size, the bonds of social obligation become weaker and weaker until they are eventually unable to sustain themselves. At that point we begin to speak of having “interests” rather than “friends” and exchanges become more transactional.
However, in the internet age this perception has been radically altered with sites like Wikipedia, which is free to use, maintained (for the most part) by a global network of volunteers, and funded almost entirely by donations.
An incredibly successful experiment in crowd sourcing, it has become the cheat sheet of choice for anyone seeking even the most obscure of knowledge on even the most arcane of topics.
A wonderful, free online resource.
But is it really free? And how was it able to scale so significantly without monetarily compensating its vast array of, mostly anonymous, contributors? There are perhaps a number of reasons for this. The two most important, however, are:
b) Participating in an online community like Wikipedia does not carry onerous social obligations.
Although it is “free” at the point of access, in reality, Wikipedia is not “free” at all.
Rather, those that have regular access to sites like this exist in conditions of “post-scarcity”, in which the technology needed to access Wikipedia or to host the site is cheaper and more readily available than it has ever been before.
It is relatively inexpensive in much of the developed world, and some developing economies, to buy a computer, purchase a broadband package, or host a website. These costs are not significant and can be borne quite easily by an individual on an average income. Amassing huge numbers of people has never been easier
And as the volunteers who edit and maintain the site are hobbyists of sorts, people who have security of income, the task of editing Wikipedia is not particularly taxing.
It is, in fact, somewhat of a leisure activity, more of an exercise in reputation management than anything else.
However, when it comes to convincing people to exert a great deal of energy over a sustained period, at considerable risk or cost to themselves (this may not always take the form of money but could also be things such as time etc.), it takes a little more than reputation management to convince them. Then we really begin to speak of “mutual interests”. For these reasons I do not think gift economies can ever replace traditional “transactional” economies, which relates closely to (b) “ … Wikipedia does not carry onerous social obligations”.
It is a forum where people are allowed to associate and disassociate at will. There are no heavy obligations associated with being part of the Wikipedia community, which is perhaps the perfect context for gift economies to flourish.
Attempts, in the past, by the communes of North America in the 1960s and the kibbutzim of Israel, to form these types of alternative societies failed when their members felt their own individual interests were being stifled or usurped by the oppressive nature of the group (H/T @CausticPop for the link on Twitter), on both a personal and professional level.
People didn’t want to outsource the raising of children to the group, they wanted to form nuclear families; they wanted to study philosophy and literature, not “practical”, vocational degrees that better served the community. In Israel, in the early 1980s, many of the kibbutzim simply became economically unsustainable. The youth left in their droves, in search of prosperity and professional fulfilment.
They nearly died entirely. But some managed to reform.
And nowadays, these sorts of organisations resemble Wikipedia a lot more: a collection of individual interests that come together to achieve a common goal with no restrictions other than what would be considered reasonable.
When one observes the group dynamics of these micro societies, it is plain to see that their members derive a great deal of pleasure from the feelings of oneness that singing and dancing and being in close, cooperative quarters with others can provide. The philosopher Avishai Margalit, who was raised in a kibbutz, describes the sense of euphoria that the dissolution of the ego engenders.
Many others will have experienced this at raves or festivals. I certainly have.
As social creatures, we human beings want to be part of collectives, but not at the expense of our own individuality.
To truly thrive and prosper we must collaborate, but also, crucially, have the space to be inventive and innovative and not be subject to the possessiveness of others.
Hardly anything is ever “free”. It is a misnomer to speak of it as such. The true value of gift economies lies not in the fact they provide goods and services free of charge. It is the opportunity that they provide for human beings to express themselves through group bonding.
They scale successfully when people are able to come together with ease and also to break apart with ease.
Indeed we are living through exciting times.