Getting and Giving, Big Time

We haven’t gotten this far through brutal force or greed.

Nope. It has taken cooperation, curiosity and cleverness.

Ninety-nine percent of our time on earth as a species has been spent as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived without collaborating to find food, raise children and stay safe from large predators.

This is still true now no matter what 24 hour news channels tell us. Each moment of the day we’re more likely to react with compassion, calm interest or cleverness than with any form of overt negativity.

Cooperative efforts abound all around us. Perhaps we simply need to look at life-enhancing innovations we take for granted in a new way. Consider these examples.

Want to travel the world finding friendly strangers offering you a place to sleep for free? You can through CouchSurfing. Their motto encourages everyone to “Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time.”  Started in 2004, this non-profit network has connected travelers with locals in 232 countries. This has resulted in nearly 3 million positive experiences, almost 2 million reported as friendships. People who never would have met are connecting, sharing experiences and developing greater cultural understanding.

How about Freecycle? Nearly 7 million members across the world make up this grassroots, non-profit movement of people who give and get goods for free in their own communities. The Freecycle Network, which started humbly in 2003, says, “Our mission is to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.”

Or consider books set free to find new readers. Since 2001, BookCrossing members in more than 130 countries have shared millions of books with strangers. They’ve also enjoyed the treasure-hunt pleasure of finding books they want to read. It’s all part of an innovative network linking books and readers.  More local book-sharing concepts are springing up everywhere. Recently a small town in the UK transformed an unused phone booth into a book exchange. They outfitted the booth with shelves and waited to see if anyone would participate. Residents continue to share books and movies anonymously at the booth, which is always open.

Maybe you need a bigger example. There’s always the Internet. Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain notes in a TED talk that the net itself is built by millions of “disinterested acts of kindness” and based on trust, curiosity and reciprocity.

Giving and collaborating seem to be an intrinsic part of human nature. That may be why people freely share their expertise by editing Wikipedia entries, providing support online or otherwise helping people they’ll never meet via the net. That may be why giving inspires people to greater heights of generosity or creative expression, even when the act remains anonymous. The blogosphere abounds with art, craft and music exchanges.  Increasingly this is taking place IRL more often too.  In October an art collective calling themselves the Future Machine transformed an unused newspaper box into a “Stranger Exchange.”  Located in Boston, the box features simple instructions on the side.

1. Leave an item; 2. Take an Item and 3. Don’t be a Stranger.

Their website offers a simple way to link people who give and take items in the box.  Items in the box have included a map of Luxembourg, AA batteries and an invitation to a long ago New Year’s Eve party. They’ve also included projects created specifically for Stranger Exchange such as artwork and a mix tape made in response to another mix tape found in the box.

A post about this phenomenon by Rachael Botsman noted, “Interestingly, the early ‘members’ of the Stranger Exchange seem be participating for similar intrinsic motivations that are fueling the open peer-to-peer movements such as Flickr, Wikipedia, BitTorrent, BePress and so on. For these systems to keep flourishing, people need to “give before they get,” a dynamic that is built on a new kind of trust, trust in people you don’t know or are not even friends with.

This in turn reinforces certain behaviors—collaboration, kindness, openness and honor—that are critical for sharing to happen between strangers. What’s interesting is that once people participate in these exchanges, they experience the proverbial “warm inner glow” and they crave that experience again. In other words, the altruistic action and indirect reciprocity becomes self-reinforcing.”

Botsman is co-author of a book coming out next fall titled What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. I’m looking forward to what the book will tell us about the rise in sharing, trading, gifting and swapping in communities around the world. I suspect it will have to do with the cooperation, curiosity and cleverness—-the foundations of our early survival and the building blocks of our shared future.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Erica Reid’s Flickr photostream

3 thoughts on “Getting and Giving, Big Time

  1. Interesting article – I had no clue that other such organizations such as this existed, however, I don’t see giving and sharing happening as much as it seems it should. There have been lots of wars and fighting and stealing of resources as well. This article demonstrates, however, the better side of human beings. I’m not sure whether humans are more selfish in nature or more giving in nature, but it is good to know there are some large giving and sharing movements going on out there! Interesting post!


  2. You’re right Dan, it’s not all roses but the gloom and doom folks have the airwaves 24/7. If our attention is constantly given to this stream of misery the only logical choice is fear and despair. That’s why, in my opinion, we need to make an effort to seek out what’s going on that lifts our spirits.

    I’m glad to see you’ve started a Self-Growth blog carnival. I’ll gladly jump in from time to time.


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