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.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.