One of the most amazing things about the internet is the manner in which it decreases the costs of information exchange. The focus of this decreased cost is often the business world, because that’s where the money is. However, I’m fascinated by the other forums for information exchange that simply wouldn’t exist without extremely cheap publishing and distribution of information. In the past, I’ve taken a look at the web and government budgets, but I recently came across two other activities that I feel are impressive, and exhibit just what the web can provide: freecycling and couchsurfing.
In the past, when I had something (an excess of garden crops, for example) that I didn’t want anymore that was of negligible value, I had a few options for getting rid of it. In decreasing order of personal preference:
1. Foist it on a friend or family member.
2. Put it on the street with a ‘free’ sign.
3. Give it to Goodwill/Salvation Army.
4. Save it and have a garage sale when I had enough items of negligible value.
5. Give it to a thrift store.
6. Throw it away.
Well, now the internet gives me another option: post to a freecycle email list. There are thousands of these groups. I joined the Boulder list, and it has a simple rule: no trading, just giving. 876 people are subscribed to this list. Freecycling is similar in nature to option #2, except many more people will probably find out about your surplus rutabagas via an email than will drive by your house before they turn into a rotting mess (less effort, too–you can send emails from the comfort of your computer chair, as opposed to hauling produce to the curb). In addition to helping you get rid of stuff, these lists also let you accumulate more crap, easily, and without requiring new production. (I don’t know, there may have been freecycle newsletters circulating around yoga studios and health food stores before email took off. Again, the sheer number of people, who by self-selection are interested in giving and getting new stuff, and the ease of posting and receiving the information, means that email freecycling is a better way.)
Speaking of free stuff, a few years I was bumming around down under, and ended up staying with a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. The free place to stay was sweet, but so was the local knowledge and a friendly face in a strange land. Upon returning to the USA, I decided it’d be great to build a website dedicated to these concepts. Friendster and the other social networking sites give you some of the needed functionality (who’s connected to me, where do they live) but not all of it (search by locality, meet random people). I wanted to call the website ‘findalocal’ and even threw together a PHP prototype before I got sucked into other projects. Well, I was browsing Wired a few days ago, and came upon Couchsurfing.com, a site which does almost exactly what I want, has been around for since 1999, and is much more professionally done than what I would have whipped up. The basic premise is, you offer up your local knowledge to anyone who is a member. You can also offer up other services, not least a place to crash for a few nights. For more info, check out the couchsurfing FAQ. Again, this is a service that would have a hard time without the easy dissemination of information provided by the web.
In short, I think that, although a lot of excitement revolves around the portions of the internet where you can make gobs and gobs of money, plenty of interesting stuff is going on with no money involved. In fact, the ease of information transfer is even more important when there is no explicit economic value. Invoices are going to be sent to suppliers, whether via carrier pigeon or extranet, but getting rid of my old bicycle by giving it to someone has to be easier than just trashing it, or, nine times out of ten, I’ll throw it away. And couch surfing is even more dependent on free information exchange, due to the dispersed geographic nature of the activity.