Monday, 8 July 2013

Week 3: Streetbank

A couple of years ago, a good friend was cooking us both dinner. He described a new venture an American entrepreneur had set out at a conference: a website, designed so that neighbours could pool their stuff. It was based on a notion called 'collaborative consumption', and the idea that there are some goods we don't need to own individually. Why does every household have to possess a lawnmower, for a small patch of grass they mow only once a month? Surely it makes more sense for people to share these items, borrowing them when needed?

My idea for Our Time of Gifts has been brewing ever since our discussion. And, in the run-up to getting my experiment off the ground, I discovered that there is a website here, in the UK, which is doing exactly what my friend had described. That website is called Streetbank.

The idea is simple: you register, create a profile including your postcode, and the computer gives you a list of people who live within 1, 5 or 10 miles, who have all pledged to give away or lend out their stuff. If you like the look of any of it, you get in touch with them; and if there's something you need that isn't already listed, you send out a request to your neighbours.

I decided, this week, to lend something out via Streetbank. We don't own a lawnmower, but we do have a carpet cleaner to offer. I used to regularly lend it to a friend who's since moved away, and I thought it might be useful to a fair number of people.

I wasn't wrong: within a week of my signing up, a woman who lives nearby (Jenny - not her real name) contacted me and said she wanted to borrow it. So week 3 of Our Time of Gifts involved me loading the carpet shampooer into the car (along with the children), driving up the road, and trundling it down the pavement to wait outside a stranger's house while she answered the door in pyjamas, a baby tucked under one arm.

Our exchange was friendly but fairly brief, and when we drove off, my three-year-old son gave voice to some concerns. 'Who is that lady, Mummy? Will she give the shampoo machine back? What if we need to use it, Mummy? Will she break it?'

'She's a very nice woman, and she'll return the cleaner when she's finished with it. I'm sure she'll look after it....' But, at the back of my mind, there was a nagging little worry. Could I trust this complete stranger with a machine that, while not exactly top-of-the-range, was worth a fair bit more than the customary bag of sugar people used to give their new neighbours?

In the end, my fears proved to be completely unfounded. Jenny returned the cleaner within a few days, with smiles, thank-yous, and an offer of the loan of her tile cutter. And I was pleased to have been able to help her out.

The positive effects of sharing on emotional well-being and mental health are well-documented; this phenomenon is know as the 'helper's high'.  The high is often attributed to the presence in the brain of feel-good hormones like endorphins and oxytocin.

I was happy to have helped Jenny, but, whereas sharing food with neighbours at the Big Lunch left me feeling undeniably perky for the rest of the day, when I loaned out the carpet shampooer I didn't feel quite so euphoric. I didn't experience the rush of oxytocin described by Lily Cole when talking at the Cambridge Union about the effects of giving and her new website (which, as far as I can make out from the beta that's currently trialling, is based on a very similar notion to Streetbank).

Relationships built through Streetbank are created online. During her talk at the recent BritMums Live conference, neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield pointed out that online interaction doesn't use empathic skills (which is why those with autism often feel comfortable in online worlds). Without the activation of these 'empathic' skills, is it reasonable to expect we'll feel the 'helper's high' when moving from an online exchange to a real-life meeting?

My face-to-face time with Jenny was very brief. I didn't manage to find out the first thing about her life, apart from the fact that she had a very cute baby and a tea-stain on her carpet. I knew that I'd helped her out, but I didn't know how much that help had brightened her day, how dirty her carpet was, or how much she'd needed the free use of this machine. Perhaps, for the 'helper's high' to work properly, relationships built online through platforms like Streetbank need to first be strengthened offline?

But I'm not sure how I could get to know Jenny better, now that she's returned the carpet cleaner. At this present moment, and without  a pressing need for a tile cutter, it seems a distinct possibility that I may never see her again.

However, I feel that I owe it to Streetbank to wait and see what happens next. After all, their idea is what helped germinate Our Time of Gifts, and to build any community takes time. So I have decided to spend the next week exploring Streebank further.

Find out in a few days' time if I was successful, in week 4 of Our Time of Gifts.

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