Why Whuffie Is Wiser: Hacking the Economy Blues with Social Capital

Tara E. Hunt is the author of The Whuffie FactorI can hardly stand to listen to the radio or read the news these days. Seems that every bit of news tells me that there is no money left anywhere. Companies are laying people off and cutting back their budgets, the state of California can’t afford to pay the counties who can’t afford to provide services to the citizens, taxes are squeezing the middle-class and non-profits are suffering big losses in donations, which is leading to cutbacks in aid to the people who need it the most. It is as if the sky opened up and a big vacuum cleaner came along and sucked up all of the money. Top to bottom, the money is gone. It’s as if money was a figment of our imagination all along and now we’ve awoken to find that we have to find a way to get along without it.

Of course, there is a financial economy and the currency we use to buy a loaf of bread or pay our rent is real. But I believe what this time period will teach us for the years to come is that money is not the only — or even the strongest — currency we have to rely on.

I was taking my dog for a walk the other day when I ran into the bar manager from next door. As we chatted, the economy came up, so I asked her how it is affecting her establishment. She told me that people were still drinking as much as ever, but they were leaving smaller tips. At first, I cringed. “That’s too bad,” I said, “that it has to hurt you and your staff like that.”

She replied, “I don’t mind, really. I want our customers to be able to pay the rent at the end of the month. I’ll gladly give up a few extra dollars so we can all survive this period of time.”

I was blown away by her ‘we’re all in it together’ attitude. But this wasn’t the only time I’ve witnessed people come together to help one another through the rough spots over the past few months. People I know who have less paid client work are spending their spare hours on helping non-profits fundraise. There is more couch-surfing going on with people I know who are traveling — I’ve had so many guests lately that I ran out of extra keys to my apartment. As people are feeling especially reciprocal these days, my own travel budget has been cut back while I’ve done my own couch-surfing with generous hosts. More and more people are using social media tools to put out calls for volunteers and find help for charitable organizations and more and more people are dipping into their savings and time to help out. Just last weekend, I put a call out on Twitter for help building kitchen cabinets for the community space I own — the help would save my budget about $1200 of contractor time — and around 25 people showed up to pitch in. Everyone around me seems to be aligned to the ‘we’re all in it together’ idea.

This is whuffie in action.

it is as if the sky opened up and a big vaccuum cleaner came along and sucked up all of the money.

What is whuffie? It’s the currency dreamed up by Cory Doctorow in his fantastic book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In Cory’s imagined future, there is no money like we know it today. Whuffie, a digitized version of social capital, has replaced money. A person can earn whuffie by doing certain things: like helping someone out, making new friends, or creating something useful or beautiful to be enjoyed by others. One can also use earned whuffie to buy a loaf of bread or pay rent. In Cory’s book, the earned whuffie points are stored in an internal computer that can be ‘pinged’ to get back a score — an effective way to monitor the amount of nice or notable actions a person has contributed to their community. From there, you can figure out whether you want to associate with her based on her score. There are a few problematic details to this system, but in general, the idea is that people who do nice, notable things for the community will be taken care of.

As you may have gleaned from my account of the bar manager and many other stories above about people pulling together to get through our economic downturn, whuffie is a reality today. There are people giving the gifts of kindness, time and energy to others in the community so that we can all get through a very tough economic time. There is no tax system that can (currently) capture the amount of social capital that we are The Whuffie Factor by Tara E. Huntexchanging (and I hope there never will be). Sure, we aren’t able to ping someone’s internal computer to get back a score, but through our networks of relationships, we are able to give whuffie points to someone who has help us along the way and remember to watch her back when she needs it. We can also tell others of her act of kindness, which will be remembered far longer than her line of credit. Our communities are growing stronger because of whuffie right now. I think we will see in years to come that the stronger currency was in us all along and nobody, not even Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, can deregulate it.

As our bank accounts sag under the pressure of the slowed economy, our whuffie accounts are overflowing with the wealth to pull us through each day. That’s why whuffie is a wiser form of currency to fall back on. You never know when you’ll have a rainy day.

Tara E. Hunt is the author of The Whuffie Factor


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