Lily Cole on Gift Economies and the Possibility of Goodness

Today’s global economy is, obviously, based on money and on commodity exchange. But it wasn’t always like that. Prior to the use of money as currency, many societies operated in a gift economy. (This is in opposition to both a market economy and a barter economy, in which goods and services are exchanged without the intermediary use of currency.) A gift economy, however, can be defined as one in which voluntary and recurring gift exchange circulates wealth. These gifts can be goods or services. You don’t do something for something; you do something for someone. I think it is a concept we all experience and understand intuitively. When you do something for your friend or a family member, that’s creating a small gift economy within the context of kinship.

There are still gift economies in the world. I just got back from northern Ghana in January where the men in the village were rethatching the roof of one of the village huts. They told me they do this every three years, rotating whose hut is repaired. Barn raising in Mennonite towns in Pennsylvania is another example, as is the potluck tradition of Native Americans. These are examples of both gift economies and basic human cooperative behavior.

Gift economies, though, don’t exist exclusively in what some might call pre-Industrial societies. I
just read that if one
 were to monetize
the amount of
things people do
for each other
without charging 
them in the U.K.,
 it would equal the
 Gross Domestic
 Product of
 England. The science
 community has long been one that operates within the logic of a gift economy. The internet, too, has opened up an entire new frontier for the gift economy. Just think of open source software or Wikipedia, which relies on volunteers to contribute to a body of knowledge.

I am currently developing a website called, which seeks to add a social networking component to the gift economy. I call it a social– giving network. My idea is to build an online community wherein as one donates gifts, goods, or services, and the donor can be thanked by the receiver and thus earn a “Thank You” which, in turn, inspires more giving. Users can wish for either “Someone who would like me to…” or “Someone who can…” complete an almost endless array of tasks. Think of it as an altruistic version of Facebook. I’m lucky enough to have the help of folks at Google, and Jimmy Wales at Wikipedia.

Unlike Wikipedia, where the gifts in question, namely entries, are donated directly to Wikipedia, the idea for Impossible is that it is a tool to connect a dispersed population. Say, for instance, a graphic designer in New York might design a poster for a book signing in London. Whether a gift economy can function in a geographically dispersed population is a good question, but I’m nothing if not optimistic.

Lily Cole is a supermodel and actor who most recently appeared in Snow White and the Huntsman. She will next be seen in Confessions of a Child of the Century.

Photo by Carter Smith

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