GiftFlow: Using Social Media To Build Relationships In The Sharing Economy

Hashtags like #neweconomy, #collcons and #thefuture reveal the optimistic hope that sharing may finally bring an end to hyper-consumption. But is social media built to facilitate the relationships we need to end our addiction to stuff?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Max Coleman of GiftFlow.

The Twitter world just can’t seem to get enough of a recent article by The Guardian entitled “The End of Consumerism?” The article, which examines the role of the sharing economy in reducing consumption, has been retweeted so many times it’s a wonder Twitter doesn’t suspect spambots. Hashtags like #neweconomy, #collcons and #thefuture reveal the optimistic hope that the sharing economy may finally bring an end to hyper-consumption.

But the unfortunate reality is that, like anything else, not much can happen without drastic changes in our social behavior. Collaborative consumption sites like Freecycle, Tradyo, and OurGoods do an excellent job of altering our relationship with other products. What they don’t always take into account is our relationship with other people. We cannot begin to end consumerism unless we change the way people interact, not only with goods and services, but with each other.

Can You Trust Your Virtual Neighbor?

One frequent criticism of collaborative consumption is that there is no sense of trust between participants—or rather, that it requires participants to be trusting against their better judgment. How are we to know that Mr. Whitwall down the street doesn’t have other intentions aside from borrowing a rusty pair of hedge clippers and a heavy shovel? (Although if that’s what Mr. Whitwall is requesting, perhaps he shouldn’t be trusted anyway.) A challenge with these sites is assuring the credibility of those with whom we’re interacting.

What is the #1 most trusting group of people in the world? Anyone want to take a guess? It’s social media users. (Check out this recent Pew study.)  And if you think it’s because teenagers are just too foolish to worry about online safety, consider this: The average user of both Facebook and Twitter is 39.

No, the real reason social media users are so trusting is because they interact with hundreds of people on a daily basis. Many of their friends (followers, fans, etc.) are people they’ve met entirely online, but they gain the trust of those people through consistent online interaction. The media loves to exaggerate the stories of Myspace perverts and Facebook stalkers, but the reality is that the vast majority of people can and have proven themselves trustworthy through social media.

The solution to what is perhaps the most pervasive critique of the sharing economy is right in front of us: Build trust through social networking.

>>Up Next: How GiftFlow is changing the impersonal face of online sharing…

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Going With The Flow

In the spring of 2010, four Yale graduates set out to do just that. Hans Schoenburg, Brandon Jackson, Cris Shirley, and Jarus Singh created GiftFlow, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to reducing consumption and strengthening community.

GiftFlow, part of what’s referred to as the “sharing economy“, allows users to post their “Gifts” and “Needs” directly to the website, and when one user’s need matches another’s gift, the two meet in person and the gift is passed along. Because GiftFlow is based on a system of indirect reciprocity (“circular giving”), a user may receive far more than they give, and vice versa. For this reason, it was especially important to the founders that there be a strong sense trust between members.

GiftFlow draws inspiration not only from gifting organizations like Freecycle, but also sites like CouchSurfing, which allow detailed user profiles that mimic those found on Facebook and Myspace. These profiles encourage interaction between members and, like any social network, promote trust as well as community. At GiftFlow, users can contact each other in advance of the gifting process, gaining trust through conversation. In addition, any “need” met or “gift” given is listed on a user’s profile, so the more active a GiftFlow member is, the more credible their profile will be. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Because GiftFlow aims to replicate the communal feel of a social network, it is not limited to the impersonal exchanges of many collaborative consumption organizations. Without a social networking component, interactions between GiftFlow members might feel more like business transactions than neighborly favors. Instead, current gift listings include “a really big hug” and “a philosophical conversation.”

Some will be tempted to argue that, frankly, a gift is a gift. What does it matter if the exchange feels impersonal? I’m still getting what I need, right? It matters a great deal. As the Guardian article pointed out, we cannot possibly expect any radical change in our buying behavior unless we change our understanding of that behavior.

There is no doubt about it: America is crumbling with the wreckage that individualism has wrought. Collaborative consumption alone will not change this, because in many cases, it’s still focused on the attainment of stuff. A true attack on hyperconsumption will entail an attack on individualism itself.

So rather than make exchanges because we want something in return, rather than give in the hope we’ll obtain an item we’ve been coveting, we must participate in the sharing economy simply because it improves our neighborhoods to do so. The social networks we are building online mean nothing if they do not strengthen our real and tangible communities.

GiftFlow launches beta in late July, but you can sign up early at Follow them on Twitter @GiftFlow, and send any questions to

Wondering how you can become a part of the sharing economy? Read 5 Easy Ways To Embrace Collaborative Consumption.

Written by Beth Buczynski


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