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Is a giving economy Impossible(.com)?

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Is a giving economy Impossible(.com)?

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You’ve probably heard of Lily Cole.  You’ve probably heard that she’s an extremely successful model and sometime actor.  What you probably haven’t heard about her is her new social network – impossible.com.  The site builds on the giving zeitgeist so aptly captured in Adam Grant’s book Give and Take.

The site, which has obtained backing by Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame, aims to provide a social network of givers.  Users post wishes and they are answered with gifts of time and assistance. They can then respond to a successful wish-fulfillment with a ‘thank you’ post. These thank-yous are recorded on the user’s profile for all to see, a sort of virtual tally of their generosity.

It initially launched in beta mode only to Cambridge University students at the back end of last year, before launching nationally.  At its core is a mobile app that allows users to post their wishes to the network.  Using geotagging, people can then respond to requests local to them, as well as to those from people in their social network or with matching skills.

Whilst it may appear on the surface to be a modern take on a bartering network, users are discouraged from trading in such a way.  The emphasis instead is very much on giving freely of yourself, with reciprocity at its core.

Will it work?  Of course, it’s nice to think that something with such a generous and kind hearted intent will, but a recent study suggests there may be some obstacles to overcome.  The study looked at the concept of fairness, and more specifically at whether we behave fairly towards others due to an inherent sense of altruism or whether something else is behind it.

The researchers built a version of the Ultimatum Game, a well known test of game theory in which players are given a sum of money and told to distribute it with their partner, who can then either accept or reject their offer.  If the offer is rejected, no one earns anything.  It’s well known because the rational man of old school economics would take any sum offered as anything is better than nothing, but of course this never happens, and anything less than a ‘fair’ offer is usually rejected.

The research identified four main type of player: the rational, the fair, the easy rider and the spiteful.  Spiteful players, who would reject even reasonable offers if they felt they had been unfairly treated previously, would eventually drift out of the game, with the so called easy riders, who consistently both made and accepted reasonable offers, becoming the dominant player type.

The researchers suggest that the easy rider approach was adopted out of a fear of losing to those who might spite us.  What might this mean for Impossible.com?  Probably not a great deal.  After all, the web has a strong culture of altruism whereby users give and share knowledge and other things freely.

It is possible to see the user history of each member of Impossible, so you can determine whether they are someone that gives and receives in equal measure.  Maybe that doesn’t even matter however.  Adam Grant highlighted a number of examples in his book about the virtues of giving unequivocally rather than relying on a tit-for-tat style approach, so maybe giving people a platform to do that is all it takes.

Have a look at the site and see what you think.  You can learn a bit more from the video below.

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