The Internet can be evil. I learned this lesson at college, thanks to JuicyCampus.com, an anonymous gossip portal. When it opened on my campus, all the eternal questions of the post-adolescent mind quickly flooded through its gates, like: What sorority girl puts out the most? And what sorority girl puts out the most and is also fat?
The web has always been a dumping group for the glibbest and grossest kinds of schadenfreude. Civility and anonymity, after all, tend to correlate negatively, as a stall door in any public bathroom can testify.
But when four of my classmates launched the website GiftFlow.org, my faith in digital humanity rebooted. GiftFlow is a gift economy where individuals and organizations can post what they need and what they have to give away in the format of a social network.
Far less attention is paid to the brimming goodwill of the Internet than its sexual-assault-mocking underbelly. But as Anya Kamenetz wrote last week, more and more websites are in the business of connecting good deeders and good dones across the globe.
CouchSurfing brings together couch owners with cash-strapped travelers looking for a crashpad. Tripping connects tourists looking for info with locals who want to give it. NeighborGoods helps people in the same area share their belongings. On LandShare, gardeners find spare patches of land to sow. And like GiftFlow, FreeCycle and Craigslist's free stuff section matches up people who have stuff they don't want with people who want free stuff (in Kamenetz's case, a box of expensive diabetes medication and a diabetic man).
With the Internet reducing search, transaction and distribution costs to near nil, savvy start-ups have been able to thwart the capitalist order and make use-value the sole value of a good once again. These sites are part of the collaborative consumption movement, which aims to minimize waste through peer sharing, swapping and gifting.
It's wealth redistribution. Not in an Obama's-a-socialist kind of way though, but rather in a voluntary, organic, everyone-wins kind of way.
With the mantra "access instead of ownership," collaborative consumption challenges some of the most basic principles of American society. NeighborGoods, for example, begs the questions: Does everyone on your block really need to own a newfangled lawnmower? And wouldn't it better to share our neighbors' stuff instead of coveting it?
The very architecture of the Internet is perfect for free giving and getting. Who knew the number of people, for example, willing to hurl hours of photo-taking, music-making, writing, or looping Maury Povich screenshots into the public domain without a cent of compensation? The untapped labor potential of man, when he labors wagelessly!
But the problem is, we don't live in a post-capitalist age. As long as we still need to pay our wireless bills and Comcast refuses to accept my free massage vouchers, some of that labor potential needs to turn into cash.
Exactly how photo-takers, music-makers, writers and other creators can get money for their content is one of the greatest dilemmas of the digital age. We're just so used to getting our online kicks for free, why would we ever pay?
But why would people ever give up their couches, or stuff, or time to strangers? Because it's not so costly, and kindness feels good.
The Internet has enabled people to do all kinds of new nice things. So two Swedish hackers, Peter Sunde and Linus Olsson, had a counterintuitive thought: What if people actually wanted to pay for content online, there just wasn't a good way to do it?
It makes no sense. The web is littered with the rubble of fallen paywalls, torn down by all the information that wants to be free. But what if there was a way to pay, like how GiftFlow lets you give, which is voluntary, organic, and everyone wins?
Sunde and Olsson launched Flattr in 2010. Users load up a minimum of €2 to their Flattr accounts, and while merrily going about their month online, they can click the Flattr button (like a Facebook "like") on various content pages. At the end of the month, their Flattr allowance is split between all their chosen creators. Flattr has digitized the simple idea that people like to support awesome things.
Although Flattr buttons are still sparse in the US, they're flowering on the European webscape (including Wikileaks, where the button remained, even after Mastercard, Visa and PayPal bailed). Creators can even print out their Flattr codes and stick it on a real world thing, like a tip jar, graffitti art or a sidewalk strummer's guitar case, so that people with the smartphone app can Flattr the physical world too.
Wired magazine called Flattr one of the "Big Ideas of 2011." It is a big idea: combining the principle of collaborative consumption with the reality that private consumption, and the money that supports it, is still really important to survive.
All these sites, from GiftFlow to CouchSurfing to Flattr, offer very different services, but are identical in kind. They're transforming not only the Internet marketplace, but our assumption that human existence, particularly online, is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. For every ugly commenter, there is someone giving an old printer, a spare room, or a few bucks to a stranger, and building, peer by peer, a new kind of world, where gifts replace money, and money becomes a gift.
Follow Claire Gordon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/clairedon