Nov 5 2009
Back in the days well before the internet existed (also the car, the telephone, and digital watches), a person survived by having a skill that not many other people in their area possessed. That skill might be baking bread, and if your neighbor happened to be a blacksmith, you might trade a few loaves of your bread for a set of horseshoes for your pony. Another two neighbors might trade roofing work in exchange for your promise to plow their fields in the coming season. Yes, it was a simpler time, a time where communities were built on the labors of their people, a time where honest hard work was valued and a day’s work meant a chance to eat that night and perhaps survive long enough to perpetuate your family name.
Then, people began to trade precious metals and stones in lieu of the actual goods and services. It was easier, they reckoned, and you wouldn’t lose track of who owed what to whom. You might trade some loaves of bread for some gold coins and then, a few months later, you’d trade some of those gold coins for horseshoes. Coins made from precious metals, though, are bulky. So banks sprang up, allowing you a secure place to store your coins. Then those banks started issuing bank notes that represented the coins you had stored there and you could trade the notes instead of the coins. After a while the government, knowing a good opportunity when they saw it, stepped in and standardized everything, backing their new paper money with vast stockpiles of gold. After a while, though, there wasn’t enough gold to match up to the bank notes in circulation and so the government began backing their notes with the peoples’ faith in their own country and its economy, which can be a pretty tenuous thing sometimes.
It’s at this point that money ran into some problems: inflation, currency exchange between nations, fluctuation of the economic markets, and corruption within the institutions that regulate money. And the trickle-down effect means that we, the average working men and women upon whom the economy is sustained, feel the strain of these problems the most. When you travel to Europe for vacation one year and a croissant costs about a dollar, and then you return the following year to find that the same dollar will only get you a third of a stale croissant, you might start reevaluating your own faith in the dollar. Surely there is a better way to do things. Can’t we just get back to the old system of trading skills and services? Can’t we just go back to those simpler times and avoid the whole mess of money and economics and the feeling of being a helpless pawn in the machinations of The Man?
No, probably not. But there are groups of individuals and companies out there who think that you should be able to skirt around at least some of the issues that accompany money by using the internet. Favorpals, a website that helps you meet and exchange favors with other people from all over the planet, leaving money completely out of the equation, is one such company.
Favorpals encourages you to imagine a world without money, a world where favors are the currency and are exchanged for mutual benefit. Favorpals functions much like a simple social networking site, but with the added functionality of being able to post and respond to favors (more on that later). Signing up was simple, a quick form and then you need to click on a link in an email they send you to confirm your registration, which is standard protocol these days.
After signing up, you’re encouraged to recommend friends by allowing Favorpals to connect directly to your webmail account, which, if you’re anything like me when it comes to your internet security and privacy, you will never, ever do. I was honestly a little shocked that this was even asked. I might have recommended someone if they’d just asked for a few email addresses, but I was instead immediately put on my guard when they asked for what amounts to being the keys to my online kingdom. I’m sure an upstanding company like Favorpals would never use that information in any malicious way (they claim right there that this password will not be stored in any way), but it’s not a chance I can ever take, not with my main webmail account.
That hiccup aside, the rest of the setup and introduction to Favorpals went smoothly. You can customize your Favorpals account with a picture of yourself, a few personal details about your work experience and educational background, and information about the kind of favors in which you might be interested. After that, you can get right into browsing other users’ favors or creating your own.
Browsing and responding to favors is simple and straightforward: you can browse by category, location (probably the most useful, given the nature of many favors), or search through the most recently added favors. Browsing in my own area, I found mostly young urban professionals in need of help with real-life tasks (cleaning gutters, aluminum siding repair, child-care) and willing to exchange their professional services (legal council, academic tutoring, photography, scrapbooking). Favorpals seeks to make all services (measured in Units Of Service) equal across the board: one dental filling is equal to one tax-filing, which are equal to one leaky-faucet repair. The idea, I think, is that, even if the monetary value of favors exchanged isn’t equal this time, if you participate in Favorpals often enough it will eventually even itself out. Responding to a favor is easy; just click on the favor and start typing into the response area, and creating a favor is as simple as filling out a few particulars and hitting the “create” button. You can set your favors to have a deadline, if necessary, and each favor listing has handy social networking buttons for spreading the word around.
A nice addition that is particularly helpful for those who have just joined is the “Favor Hints” page, which lists helpful suggestions for returning favors that nearly anyone can perform (be a personal assistant for one day, pet-sitting, watering plants, make a lunch-run, etc.). Another good feature is the apparently seldom-used charity favors area, where you can put some of those skills to use in the name of selflessness. You can offer to build a website for a charity in exchange for nothing or… well, that’s actually the only charity favor that’s been listed. Perhaps it’s a slow month for giving?
It should be made clear that Favorpals relies on self-regulation. They provide only the meeting place, and wisely remove themselves from solving potential disagreements between users or banning users who are “swaplifters,” the term invented to describe a person who enters into a favor exchange and then never fulfills their end of the bargain. After a successful (or unsuccessful) exchange, users are encouraged to rate one another’s performance. Users with a low ratings and a slew of bad reviews can then be avoided from then on.
So, does it work? Ostensibly, yes. Contacts are made, favors are exchanged, and, most of the time, everyone walks away feeling pretty good about the deal. There aren’t a whole lot of users yet, so it may be difficult to find someone who wants to trade what you’re offering for what they can do. Something that I was hoping to find, but didn’t, were testimonials. There is a link on the front page of the site that asks you to send in favor-exchange stories, but I couldn’t find them posted anywhere.
That said, there are a few other problems, namely design issues. While the site is quite usable, I never felt like anyone was doing me any favors with the design aesthetics. The chosen colors and blocky interface remind me of something that comes as the “default template” for an out-of-the-box social networking website, meant to be changed long before being released to the public. The lime-green background is painful to look at for very long and browsing the favor listings reminds me of low-budget sites from the late nineties. A facelift for the site (or a tweaking of the colors at the very least) would be welcome and would bring the site’s image up to the level of its functionality and ideals.
Another issue I ran across was with the “Bookmark and Share” mouse-over box just below the site’s navigation menu: every time I ran my cursor over it, it opened up, covering a portion of what I was looking at. It’s in an area that gets a lot of cursor traffic, from the content to the menu and back again. Simply moving the social networking buttons to the bottom of the page, or even to the top right side of the page rather than the left, would be fix this problem.
While I’ve come across a few websites that have the same basic idea as Favorpals, I’ve yet to see it executed with such ease, so simply, or with such great faith in its users. Favorpals’ team watches over the site to make sure that inappropriate content is promptly removed, but mostly allows the users to police themselves and work toward a common goal: loosening the stranglehold that money has over us. The more you participate, the more used to the idea of not using money you become.
After using the site for a few days, I found myself wondering why I should shell out cash to have my house painted when I can offer up my website design skills instead? Why not exchange dog-walking for editing advice? If it benefits everyone involved, then why not? I would normally do a series of jobs in order to earn enough money to pay for the service; this is just cutting out several steps from the middle.
And this, really, is the purpose of Favorpals. What they offer is a chance to break free from the problems inherent in the exchange of money; what they’re asking in return is your honesty, integrity, and participation. Favorpals wants us to become less reliant on our monetary system and more reliant on the idea of ourselves as individual, contributing members of society.
I have to admit that I find the idea inspiring, even if the execution isn’t yet perfect. And while I’m not yet inspired enough to toss out my computer and start baking bread for a living, I am feeling inspired enough to post a favor and potentially even come through on my end of the deal.