Sunday, 14 July 2013

Week 4: Streetbank (continued)

Regular readers of this blog will know that last week, I used the online service Streetbank to loan out our carpet cleaning machine to Joanne.

Although I was glad to have helped this complete stranger, sharing one of our household goods with someone I was unlikely to see again left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed. But to avoid writing the site off without giving it a decent chance, I decided, this week, to try and get a more well-rounded view of the way Streetbank works. So I set out to borrow something.

By the end of the week, I'd almost given up hope. I'd contacted at least five people who'd put recent messages onto the site, offering cookery classes for kids, dinner, a cup of tea (which was intriguing - did it involve a chat too, or would they just leave it on your doorstep?), help with gardening, and other services that weren't essential, but which might brighten my day.

Nobody replied.

I decided to put out a request. The person offering help with gardening had inspired me: it would be really, really useful if someone could come round for an hour to do some weeding. Our garden is small and pretty, but increasingly over-run with rampant mint, nettles from the uninhabited garden next door, and baby aquilegia that's been sprayed across the flowerbed by a fecund mother.

The very next day, Wilhelmina (not her real name) came to my door.

This bonny, dimpled, out-of-work Aussie actress had cycled, through pouring rain, to kneel in our garden and rip out unwanted plants, transforming what was a straggly mess into a garden with a semblance of order. She worked for much longer than the hour I'd requested; in fact, if I hadn't dragged her away when I took my son to pre-school, I have a feeling she'd have stayed for the whole day.

Wilhelmina's help brought a large drop of sunlight into my otherwise grey, damp day.

Of course, my life hadn't depended on her cycling round to do the weeding. And there was no physical impediment to my doing it myself, except for the fact that looking after two children under the age of 4 saps my life of practically any spare time to do non-essential tasks. Clearing away brambles and dead-heading flowers always comes way, way down the list. An extra pair of hands beavering away at what had seemed like an insurmountable task, gave me fresh energy and boosted my spirits.

I'd experienced the 'helper's high', only this time in reverse: a high on the part of the person who has been helped.

I did wonder, though, about what Wilhelmina could have gained from the experience. Yes, it got her out of bed but, apart from the slab of carrot cake and cup of tea she drank outside in the rain, there was no direct reward for cycling through the drizzle and tidying up my garden.

Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore recently wrote an article claiming that the digital economy helps create a system where artists, musicians and writers are increasingly working for free. They create interesting reads, catchy tunes or entertaining videos and then upload them to the internet in the hope of 'making it big'. But nobody pays for downloading any of this stuff, and very few people actually end up earning a living this way.

It occurred to me that Wilhelmina had done a similar thing: she'd offered her skills for hire, via an online network set up by Streetbank, without expecting any form of financial reward. I assume her motivation - unlike the artists described by Moore - wasn't an attempt to gain fame and fortune for her gardening talents. There must have been something driving her towards lending a hand in the garden, even if it was just the pleasure of helping.

But still, under different circumstances she would have expected payment for her efforts.

Moore quotes the computer science pioneer Jaron Lanier, who, in his new book Who Owns the Future, proposes a solution to this problem: people receive 'nanopayments' whenever their work enriches a digital network or community. So this would mean, say, the creator of a funny clip receiving a few quid when her video is shared on youtube. The youtube viewers have been entertained; so the creator gets a reward. One she can use to help buy food, or heat her home, rather than just a raised thumb on a screen to show someone 'liked' her work.

Wilhelmina's gardening efforts helped enrich my life (albeit in a small way), but, more importantly, they restored my faith in Streetbank. In this way, she enhanced the site's community, and I'll now be returning to it in the future. Of course, the set-up's not reliable enough for those who are genuinely in need: the elderly, sick, disabled or impoverished. They need to rely on more than just the good fortune of contacting a cheerful Aussie on a day she doesn't have a job to go to.

But after all the failed attempts, I can now see it is possible to get help, or successfully loan something, through Streetbank. It's exciting to know that, among all the many strangers living just beyond my doorstep, there are a few who may be able to lend me something I need, when friends and acquaintances aren't able to do so.

And, just like when you act generously in a 'real-life' community of friends (more on this next week), Wilhelmina has already been able to benefit from her contribution to the Streetbank community. She managed to get a free mattress through the site, when she had just moved to the UK and didn't have a bed to sleep on.

I'm hoping to be able to give something back to Wilhelmina. Her selfless act on that rainy day has left an impression on me. I was touched by her generosity, and I want to make sure I pay her back.

So keep an eye out for future follow-up posts.

Next week on Our Time of Gifts: the circle of friends.

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