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Illustration by Frank Chimero

The Case for Generosity

Couch-surfing is only the beginning, says ANYA KAMENETZ. The Internet could unlock our natural impulse to share goals--and a global economy built on the kindness of strangers.

A few years ago, I was living in a converted glove factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One day, a large package came in the mail. It was from a pharmaceutical company and addressed to a nonexistent doctor's office in the building. After the box had been sitting in the hallway for a few days, I Googled the name of the physician and called her office, which was in another part of Brooklyn. When I told the receptionist about the box, she told me not to bother forwarding it. So I took a look inside.

It was filled with hundreds of samples of an unfamiliar medication. Another round of Googling revealed that the medicine was for diabetes and sold for around $80 a bottle. I was, of course, tempted to sell it somehow. I was freelancing and always needed cash. But my guess was that the kind of person willing to buy secondhand medication was probably not the kind of person I'd want to meet. So I went on Craigslist and placed an ad under the "free stuff" tab, where people usually post cats and old couches. I explained exactly what I had to offer and that it would be free to anyone who could produce a prescription for the stuff in their own name.

Amazingly, I heard back within a few days from a man who fit the bill. He came to my apartment, showed me his Rx and his ID, and thanked me profusely. Since he insisted on doing something for me in return, I asked him to take my recycling downstairs to the curb.

I often remember this story when people talk about how the Internet and social media are changing human relationships and maybe even human nature. Virtual friendships can leave us feeling isolated; virtual identities allow us to hide from even the ones we love; and cyberbullying, online hate groups, and anonymous smear campaigns are all part of life online. But what fascinates me is the way in which the Internet can unleash acts of generosity and true connection.

Truth is, anyone who goes online takes advantage of the kindness of strangers. Wikipedia is the most famous example. Still, sites like Amazon, eBay, Yelp, and TripAdvisor are also valuable because of the feedback provided gratis by millions of people. When it comes to sites such as PatientsLikeMe, or any of the thousands of message boards dedicated to infertility, cancer, and various other ailments, people get informed about life-and-death decisions based on volunteered information, while also deriving much-needed emotional support from strangers.

Sociologists attribute the desire to contribute to such communities to a "reputation economy," in which people gain self-esteem and standing by giving away their time and opinion. Information is the thing people will share most readily, followed by time, followed by goods. Clay Shirky describes this with the following metaphor: If someone stops you on the street and asks you for directions, 9 times out of 10 you'll help them out. If they ask you to help them cross the street, you'll probably say yes. If they ask you for a dollar, you'll probably say no.

The lost diabetes drugs, however, were a special kind of goods. They were worth nothing to me but quite a bit more than a movie review to someone else. I could give them away as freely as my opinion and gain plenty in reputation and self-esteem. The only missing ingredient: how to find and connect with the person who needed what I didn't? The Internet solved that problem.

A slew of new websites are springing up to facilitate the giving away of goods and services. These hubs translate the peer-to-peer principles of sharing from the virtual to the real world. CouchSurfing.org, which has allowed 2.3 million travelers to find willing and free hosts all around the world, is one of the best examp les. It's easy to see why people like to sleep in a free bed, but why do people host them? The answer is that by giving away something that has little marginal cost, they get to meet new people from all over the world. Most people I know in their mid-twenties have at least one couch-surfing story, either romantic or hilarious; one pal calls it "a friend delivery service."

Of course, getting a reputation economy going based on real goods, rather than virtual ones, is tricky. As anyone who has corresponded with a Nigerian prince knows, there are serious trust issues. And balancing the market between givers and receivers can be difficult. All TripAdvisor needs is a few people to post. A site like CouchSurfing, however, is more complex: A free sofa can be given away only once per night, so willing hosts and guests have to roughly match up.

Still, harnessing generosity and information to redistribute surplus goods and services is a compelling idea. People are taking the power of the Internet into their own hands to create a new form of global sharing. Will the couch-surfing generation take this sharing to heart and explore all the possibilities of this kind of reputation economy? Will this change how we live, work, and consume? It's now easier than ever to give away something that's of little value to you, but perhaps of considerable value to someone else -- wherever in the world that person may be. For me, just knowing that this is possible makes me more likely to dive in.

This is the first in a series of columns, built around the challenges and unforeseen opportunities of change -- from within and without. We've kicked it off with the name "Life in Beta," but my editors and I would love your input on other possible titles for the series. Please send me your suggestions.

Illustration by Frank Chimero

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29 Comments

  • Carol Sanford

    My greatest concern about social responsibility is it has been separated from daily life and real life. This What a great idea for a column. Life in Beta is an important concept and the start of a conversation. I just released my book The Responsible Business which is about re-imagining responsibility—not as officers or depts, nor best practices or programs, but rather an imbedded way of BEING in business. This feels so consistent with the one of the next ideas I am working on, The Responsible Citizen. This is not an initiative, but how we are when we are with one another as though others matter. The idea seems to be about Authentic Life.

    Another similar idea is Reciprocity. That is how nature works. It is possible even in large and small businesses as well as with neighbors. I wrote some of those stories in the new book. Looking forward to your next installment. Carol Sanford, author of The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success. Named to CNBC Bullish on Books shortlist for 2011; called the 'indispensible textbook for the responsibility movement", by 800CEOREAD.

  • Sharon McGann

    Love the intention of the article Anya. I've read a number of times that "food scarcity isn't an issue - we have enough food (and stuff) for everyone in the world - distribution is the issue".
    I think Aaron is on the money with his mention of transaction costs - I love giving things away to people who need them but until I found Freecyle and ReUseIt I sometimes had trouble finding the recipients. Now there is always someone who finds my junk is a treasure. Same with Kiva and my pet project which is skilled volunteering - how to connect professionals and experienced people with spare time and skills to communities who need those skills.
    Somehow the title "Life in Beta" doesn't capture the connection you are implying.

  • Jym Allyn

    Who we are, is not what we see in the mirror or what we do or what we own, but rather is our relationship with others as a reflection of ourselves.

    However, the value of what we do or accomplish is based upon our interaction and sharing with others. It is why wealth does not come from ownership (King Midas) but from our interactions with others, and why creation of wealth is a "trickle up" and NOT a "trickle down" process. It is why "self-reliance" is not a lie, just an egotistical delusion because a group can accomplish a lot more than an individual.

    Hmmm. Or maybe I have been a Boy Scout leader too long.

  • David Kaiser

    I think we have three interesting points here. One is that giving something away makes us feel good. It means we have some value, surplus value even, that we can offer to the world, and it enhances our self-esteem just to give that way. When it also enhances our reputation or creates good will that may benefit us tangibly, that's icing on the cake.

    The second is that the way the Internet drives down search and transaction costs means that we are more likely to be generous and good, because it is easier. I love that Freecycle makes it possible to give away stuff to people who want it and will come get it, with minimal cost to myself. If I had to pay to put an ad in the paper, or commit to staffing a yard sale, this stuff would likely end up in a landfill.

    The third is that we are creating a new economy based on generosity. I know a lot of professionals, myself included, whose "marketing plan" involves giving away a lot of free product, in the form of white papers, eBooks, speaking events, teleseminars, podcasts, volunteered time, etc, with the assumption that most people will take and not buy, and that's OK, but a small percentage will like the product so much they choose to buy. How cool is that? We are generating a ton of value, and everyone benefits!

    So, great article, Anya, I look forward to the next one!

    David Kaiser, Ph.D.
    Executive Coach and CEO
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com

  • Ron Houp

    Great story and even greater ideas. I agree with everything you are saying and add one more reason that it is good to give. We are programmed as humans to do it. As a countercultural that believes in a Creator, I think giving is programmed right into the fabric of our being. It is genuinely better to give than to receive. We gain not just warm fuzzies, but all kinds of current and eternal rewards from generosity. It is also a great solution to materialism, greed and obsession with stuff.

  • Kristian Salvesen

    I definitely think the reputation economy will change the way we live, work and consume. It has already changed the way I live in many fundamental ways. I love, for example, to travel and there's a site called Tripping [] I started using which makes it easy for travelers to connect with locals. Whereas in the past I may have had to send emails to friends of friends to find someone to stay with in the Maldives, I can now find a host through Tripping and easily arrange the stay with them using the built-in calendaring system. I can connect with locals in New York during my trip there in a couple weeks; my company is paying for my hotel, but I can use Tripping to meet up for dinner. If I'm running late, I can just text message my local host directly through the Tripping site. And I in turn can offer my extra bedroom to either hosts who have been so generous with me in the past or to guests I like to call "friends-in-the-making."

  • Jen ONeal

    Nice column, Anya.

    I'm the co-founder of Tripping (), a hospitality network similar to CouchSurfing, and we are constantly impressed and amazed by the generosity of our members. For example:

    When the Icelandic volcano erupted last spring, I awoke to an inbox full of emails from Tripping Hosts who wanted to help stranded travelers. Asking for nothing in return, they all opened their homes to travelers who were stuck across Europe and the States. They cooked meals together, learned about each other and made lasting friendships while waiting for the ash to clear.

    Collaborative consumption is the way of the future and we're happy to see a rise in sites that enable people to share and connect in new ways. Thanks for writing about this and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series!

    Jen O'Neal

  • monika hardy

    i love this post Anya.
    i believe transparency is the new currency, which the web begs/allows/facilitates. that in unveiling ourselves, we do/will find enriching relationships, an in turn enrich our relationships.
    John Hagel writes of trust-based relationships, as a necessity when blending cognitive knowledge with tacit knowledge. i believe the web is nudging us, or at least offering us the potential toward more trust. and when there is trust, i believe it's human nature to be generous.

    i like the sound of life in beta.



  • Cathy Davidson

    Congratulations on your new column, Anya. I like it a lot. If you go back and look at Rational Choice theory even up to and about 1995 (when commercialization of the Internet and email really starts to take hold), there are lots of profound (sic) statements about how humans are competitors not collaborators, no one ever gives anything away for free because our evolution has made us predators, etc etc. Then comes the World Wide Web and open web development and even the Internet with its loose administration and lack of a single owner . . . and then comes everything from Wikipedia to Yelp! to TripAdvisor and PatientsLikeMe and the other online communities of knowledge-sharing and advice . . . and suddenly biologists like DeWaal are saying empathy is the main evolutionary human characteristic, We've evolved for the Web? I like it. Thanks so much.

  • Wick Sloane

    Anya --

    Great column and great idea. An example: www.razoo.com

    For reasons not entirely understood by even me, I signed up to run the Boston Marathon to raise money for ACCESS, an organization that helps students such as mine at Bunker Hill Community College, find their way through all the (deliberate, I think) barriers to the poor in the FAFSA form, any financial aid for, and the college Common Application.

    Razoo lets people donate online. I am thrilled with how easy Razoo makes generosity. Making a page for myself was idiot-proof. I can e-mail that link to friends. Easy for them to reply, to be generous. Every $1 spent by ACCESS raises $61 in financial aid for students who really need the help. So, a double bump for Web generosity. Easier to give and inexpensive fundraising costs for the cause.

    Definitely couch surfing. Our training run Saturday was 16 miles. I do all my fundraising, exhausted on the couch.

    Anyone who wants to see how well Razoo makes your point, Anya, just click here and (please) donate --

    http://www.razoo.com/story/Wic...

  • Adelaide Russo

    Dear Anya,
    I don't know how many times others have given me the gift of unexpected kindness. The exchange of reciprocal generosity is a highly esteemed gesture. I often found myself not being able to repay those who had offered hospitality. I have tried to be hospitable to others in turn.
    I look forward to following you on this journey.
    Love,
    Adelaide

  • اهةش سشهي

    Great piece! I had an interesting experience recently that somewhat relates. I ordered some bottles of wine online as gifts for some friends, and the package was to be delivered via UPS. I would have to be there to sign for the package, since I'd have to prove I was 21. Unfortunately, it would have been very inconvenient for me to stay home from work for an entire day to wait for the delivery. Instead, I managed to connect with the delivery man who works in my neighborhood, and he was kind enough to text me when he was going to be about 20 minutes from my building, so I could drive home and meet him and then go right back to work!

    A radical change of trust is happening to the digital community. As it becomes the preferred method of communication, walls of worry are broken down as open conversations showcase that, indeed, the majority of people are kind. Does my 68 year old father in Iowa still fret about online predators and buy every McAfee update available? Of course. However, he is also learning to love our family's shared Tumblr, where we post personal stories and pictures from across the globe. As a fellow Brooklynite (Dumbo, to be exact), echoes of online generosity like Anya's bounce all around our warehouse tech offices and local bar trivia nights. Nerds are the new jocks; the respect we never got as kids is redoubled and shines as brightly as our Macbook LCDs.

  • Meliora dockery

    I enjoyed this article and look forward to more.

    I just discovered the satisfaction of giving. My house is stuffed with stuff. I recently discovered an Internet site called "RedStickFreeUse" on which one can both offer and seek almost anything at all.

    I recently gave away an old but working TV to a woman with an autistic child, 2 printers to a school that was badly in need of them and another printer to a single Mom with 3 young children. They got the goods and I got a glow in my heart - fair exchange.

  • Anya Kamenetz

    That's wonderful! I'm sure there are many more grassroots examples of sharing sites, like Freecycle, in local areas.

  • Jill Ruchel

    There's a great book on just this subject by Rachel Botsman called "Collaborative Consumption".

  • Byron Washom

    I have been most fascinated by Dr. Albert Mu-Yin Lin, named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and his use of crowd sourcing to harness the power of many human brains volunteering from around the world to look at millions of bits of high-resolution satellite images online to help discover, in a non-intrusive manner, the lost Tomb of Genghis Khan. Bypassing computer-generated algorithms, the combination of human generosity, curiosity and most importantly, intuition, to look at photographs was more powerful as a whole than any computer could ever have been. This is how the power of the Internet is now going back and utilizing what is human to go beyond the limitations of technology.

  • Aaron Bornstein

    Anya -

    Your opening anecdote brings to mind a complementary interpretation. Maybe, instead, the Internet's enabling contribution to this exchange was not the incentive side, but rather on the transactional.

    I wonder -- how much did your reputation really stand to benefit from sharing the drugs? Maybe it gives you a nice story to tell, one that reflects well on you, but I doubt that you really fantasized about telling everyone what a good deed you had done. Without the Internet, you probably still would have wanted to give the drugs away, but you might not have been able to realize your generous inclination.

    There's a famous proposal in microeconomics called Coase Theorem; loosely translated, it states that "in the absence of transaction costs, an efficient or optimal economic result occurs." In other words, when there's no cost to giving away items of little personal value, they're much more likely to end up in the hands of someone who values them. Maybe what the Internet allowed was simply a nearly costless way for you to engage in the transaction you were already motivated to try.

    The internet's enhanced memory for and broadcasting of reputation might add to (or even create) an incentive to do good, but perhaps just as valuable is it's ability to help us realize the charity to which we already aspire.

    Congrats on a wonderful first article. Looking forward to many more...