My Life in Beta column this month is all about how technology can enable our naturally occuring generosity.
[Commenters have added their own great resources, like Tripping, a site for travelers seeking hosts, and Razoo.com, a site for charitable fundraising, and the crowdsourcing science of Dr. Albert Lin.]
Hans Schoenburg, a 2010 Yale graduate, is part of a growing movement of young people seeking to turn that insight into a life calling. Giftflow.org is a nonprofit startup online platform that enables the giving away of goods—or, in their words, "connects community organizations, businesses, governments and neighbors into a giant network of reciprocity."
Q. How did you get started with this idea, Hans?
A. My background is in political science and community organizing, so a lot of it came from studying economic anthropology. A gift economy has been the basis for entire societies in the past, albeit small tribal societies. Something like the Trobriand Islands kula exchange helps maintain peace between diverse tribes. In another way, the academic community is a lasting gift economy where scientists, for example, share their research with the community in exchange for reputation. We’re hoping to capture this dynamic of circular reciprocity, where the relationship is between you and the collctive as opposed to you and another person.
Q. So you're seeing this a something that has really ancient roots, and yet it's enabled in a new way by technology.
A. That's right. We see this as a next step beyond Couchsurfing: a social network with a reputation model. Couchsurfing is a gift economy of hospitality. We want to start a gift economy open to anything people want to give.
Q. So are review and profile functions—which you haven't built yet—important to the success of the project?
A. Yes. When you’re offering you can look at people's profiles and choose who to give to. A reputation system enables a much higher level of trust, and we’re hoping that will bring about higher quality of interactions, goods, and services. I think people will feel safer, more committed to the community, and see everybody using the website near them.
Q. You're starting initially with the New Haven area, right?
A. Yes. We're trying to make contact with as many organizations as we can, like community groups, homeless shelters, and get them to list their needs. So far the response has been really positive. I really like this as an example of something on the computer that turns you around and gets you outside to meet your neighbors in person.
Q. I'm also fascinated by the fact that in an historically bad economy—even for college graduates—you and your team have managed to create your own opporutunities.
A. Well, we have a core team of five or so volunteer programmers and organizers—some are alumni, some are still students at Yale. We’re afraid that as a for profit we'd build less trust, and compromise our social mission. So far we've been funded by grants and friends and family. It’s been really rewarding to graduate from college and work on a project like this.