Creating Technology for Social Change

Giving and Receiving Online:

Today is the Harvard launch of, a social network and app that facilitates a culture of giving and receiving. Hasit Shah helped me liveblog the event. SJ Klein also took livenotes.

Lily Cole, founder of, is a social entrepreneur, fashion model and actress. An advocate for socio-political and environmental issues, she has employed technology, writing, filmmaking and public speaking as means to build awareness and encourage dialogue. Two years ago, she began developing, a social network that encourages users to exchange skills and services for free in the hope of encouraging a peer-to-peer gift economy.

In Lily’s entrepreneurship and charity work around the world, she started out with initiatives on sustainable sourcing. More recently, she’s been interested in ideas of the gift economy and ideas of reciprocity. If we have a network, a society, a world where everyone is giving and receiving, everyone will inevitably receive, she says. Lily asks us to Imagine if we lived in a world where people knew that anyone could answer your questions and support you when you have a need. is a venture that encourages and facilitates people to carry out this vision of gift giving and receiving. In this social network, users have profiles, where they can post wishes, offers, and also thanks. All wishes and thanks are freeform text, with photographs as well. In this system, thanks are the only form of currency. It’s also possible to search for hashtags to find wishes connected to topics that people are interested in.

Lily shows us a wish by an astronaut who’s using the system — he asked on behalf of a Make-a-Wish foundation participant who wanted to visit Japan. Participants in the platform donated airmiles to help this girl find her wish.

The Internet and open source are great examples of the gift economy, says Cole. Wikipedia, github, and other online platforms demonstrate the cumulative value that comes from sharing our activities with each other — when we make our needs and our actions visible, we’re able to find and meet each other’s needs in ways that are beyond selfless and allow each other to support each other effectively.

Sonia Livingstone asks if people cheat the system. Lily tells the story of a conversation she had with an economist about impossible. She argues that just like flocks of birds are capable of self-regulating, she hopes that people will be able to manage their own community norms.

David Larochelle asks what kinds of tools have been made available for regulating what people do on the site. Lily responds that the system offers people ways to self-manage that information. The site will also take down inappropriate material, but it’s not always easy to make those decisions.

A participant asks how the giving economy could work across inequality, where some people may not have much to give, and where it may be difficult to share resources. Lily replies that they’ve started in Cambridge and Harvard. She also talked about a project idea coming from Berkeley, where people are prototyping wish ATMs. Another participant argues that systems like Impossible may be less needful among people who have fewer resources. In many cases, communities with limited resources tend to work together and share resources even more than people who have access to greater resources.

A participant asks who’s using the system. Most users are in London. There are also many in Cambridge UK, Mexico City, and Jordan. Another participant asks what kind of things people are exchanging. In London, there have been more face-to-face interactions, while people have been exchanging more virtual things across wide geographies. Every time a user makes a wish, the site asks if it’s location-specific or not.

SJ Klein asks what Lily thinks about anonymous gift exchanges. Lily has a hunch that identifying people creates the possibility for greater flexibility in trust. However, she has definitely thought about supporting anonymous requests. Where does Lily want Impossible to be in five years? In five years, she hopes that the service will widely used, and that communities will be setting up their own versions of Impossible for their neighborhood.

Urs asks what the largest challenge is for starting an enterprise of this kind. Lily replies that funding has been a challenge. As a Yunus social business, 100% of the profit goes back into the social mission of the organization. Growth is another challenge– the value of the system is dependent on the number of people who actively participate and meet each others’ wishes.

Tim Berners-Lee mentions sites like Couchsurfing and ridesharing services, sites that focus on sharing one specific kind of thing. He wonders if Lily imagines a site where people share one particular thing, or whether it will remain a site for broad sharing. Lily replies market-specific sharing apps build on decades of norms around things like hotel rooms or car rides. Over the long term, sites like Impossible may help us find how sharing works for other things. Lily also discusses the idea of interoperability between sharing systems.

At this point, our panelists go onstage:

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, an internet-based hypermedia initiative for global information sharing. He is the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and of the World Wide Web Foundation, launched in 2009 to coordinate efforts to further the potential of the Web to benefit humanity.

Rosemary Leith, a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, is one of the Founding Directors of the World Wide Web Foundation, a non profit founded with Tim Berners-Lee to bridge the digital divide by maximizing the impact of the Web on health, education and democracy working with underserved countries and communities to make them full members of online society.

Jonathan Zittrain is Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, cryptography, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, human computing, and the useful and unobtrusive deployment of technology in education.

Judith Donath synthesizes knowledge from fields such as urban design, evolutionary biology and cognitive science to build innovative interfaces for online communities and virtual identities. A Harvard Berkman Faculty Fellow and formerly director of the Sociable Media Group at MIT Media Lab, she created several of the earliest social applications for the web. She is the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online (MIT Press).

Urs asks Judith, “what is a gift, as a social practice and phenomenon?” “Gifts are complex ideas,” says Judith. In the case of Christmas gifts, we’re often signalling what we think about another person and what we think about their relationship. Gifts exist within relationships and communities, Judith says. The gift part of gift economies are easier to understand and support than the community parts. Communities will often share rituals and develop norms over years of history– breaking those norms can often have great penalties. Once we move outside the individual relationship with a gift and a larger community, it becomes harder to establish relationships of trust. Many of the gifts on Impossible, involve people asking and answering questions. Every time we answer someone, we’re giving a gift. On the early Internet, services like Usenet fell apart once search engines arrived: when web access broadened, it expanded the number of freeloaders.

Judith riffs on a variety of gifts: the bottle of wine that people keep on passing from dinner party to party, the gift that is an insult, the gift that presumes the person is someone they’re not, or the gift that misjudges the nature of a relationship. Many gifts require a large amount of guessing. On Impossible however, people reveal what they want and what they’re able to do. “If I know what you want, it’s harder to say something about our relationship.”

Urs asks how markets are changing our culture of giving and receiving, especially now that we’re seeing business models built around sharing practices that used to be focused on giving and receiving for free. Rosemary Leith replies that economics online often relate to social capital: carrying out actions within a community to get a personal advantage. Lily has been attentive to the role that reputation plays in social systems. She acknowledges that people bring a variety of motivations to cooperation; if motivations related to social reputation lead to a more cooperative world, it’s a good thing. Often, Lily says, reputation is based on power or influence. She would like to see reputation based more on kindness and doing good.

Urs asks about the role of technology in shaping cooperation on the platform. Tim Berners-Lee talks about commons models built into the protocols that underlie the Internet. He argues that the protocols are designed to support whatever kinds of arrangements people want to create. He cites John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, a high point in cyber-utopianism. The Internet doesn’t naturally tend towards any particular kind of cooperation, but it does give us a choice of what we want to build on top of it.

Lily tells the story of the wireframes she created for Impossible on note cards. When she showed it to a former history and politics professor, he was blown away by the realization of the flexibility afforded by the Internet to re-imagine and reshape the cultures we want to have.

Urs asks about the generative nature of the Internet and wonders if we will continue to have an Internet where this kind of creativity will remain possible. Berkman Center co-founder Jonathan Zittrain says we’re seeing increasing fear about the negative consequences of activity online. People, including parents, tend to reach for protection and rules to deal with this. As we find more rules, including automated rules that categorize and limit what we can do, there is a longer term cost. More and more, when we behave in certain ways, we can’t answer the question of whether we’re doing something because we’re a decent person, or because there are rules around us that have consequences. Any time we’ve seen acts like Tim’s choice not to patent the Internet, or the work on Wikipedia, it’s been an inspiration. JZ talks about barnstars on Wikipedia, where anyone can edit anyone’s web page and give them awards. In a world of rules, we tend to get trolls because they’re looking for rules to break. In a world of fewer rules, we can break the power of trolls by choosing to be nice to each other.

JZ also talks about fandom, and celebrities who choose to direct attention toward specific causes. What makes Impossible special is that Lily is choosing to channel her fans towards acts of kindness towards each other.

Is there a movement to crowdsource kindness, a new version of soup kitchens inspired by groups like Reddit Gifts? That particular subreddit transforms people’s worlds. Of course, if someone were to make a reality show about that subreddit, the motivations would change.

A participant asks if systems like Impossible might just re-stratify society online, as we give only to people like ourselves. Lily replies that the system sets out to offer serendipity. Judith replies that you don’t want to build interfaces that go contrary to what we understand of human nature. She points to research about teams and sports, where the color of someone’s shirt can also be influential in who people tend to cooperate with, even across differences that we might not ordinarily speak with. Judith wonders where Impossible falls on the spectrum between charity (where it can be anonymous) and gifts, which are not anonymous. She refers medieval philosophical writings by Maimonedes, who argued that anonymity of giving was the highest virtue, since gifts can challenge the dignity of receivers.

Jonathan Zittrain talks about a new kind of gift that we’re seeing online, where members of the public take collective action to make a statement about how someone was mistreated. He cites a time that Redditors gave over a half a million dollars to a bus monitor.

Maimonides, #Movember champion, 1170-73 A.D.

The session closes when all the panelists wish the best for the future of Impossible, hoping that it surprises us with the culture it fosters of wish granting it creates.