Barter and the Exchange of Knowledge on the Web

Jon Udell’s recent remarks on apprenticeship and barter in the new economy generated a surge in my web traffic so I want to extend some of my remarks about the reception of his idea among the audience at SI.

For one thing the STIET program at Michigan, which sponsored the Thursday talk, is particularly focused on the transactions enabled by electronic technology. A major problem with barter is the lack of information connecting traders. Jon showed the audience two examples of education exchange: fixing his reel mower, and rebuilding a laser printer. One of the comments mentioned how unlikely it would be to find someone who who wants to show Jon how to rebuild a printer and also wants to learn from Jon about repairing a reel mower. For now this information is way too opaque to make barter a reliable option on the internet.

Paul Hartzog defended barter as a means of exchange for goods that are widely needed or available. For example, exchanging baby sitting for tutoring and education. The larger the potential number of participants for barter the more likely people are to meet and arrange a trade.

Right now almost all of the web is a gift economy. People post videos about repairing their lawn mowers or fixing printers without any explicit agreement that they will get something back from their readers or viewers.

There are lots of selfish reasons for people to post this information. It can help build reputation, create community, foster a sense of efficacy, or hope for a future return of reciprocity.

I think barter may work better in a community where people know each other or are only a few social connections away from each other. The social networking sites such as Facebook, Friendster, or LinkedIn may be the real potential locations for barter to work online. The question is what kind of barter will take place.

Bartering goods is easily understood, most people have experience. Doing a favor for someone is also something that most people are familiar with. These activities usually take place among an immediate circle of friends, people that are connected to others and then to their friends of friends. Searching for a job is a great example of this kind of exchange. The untapped market for social networking sites ma be to formalize the exchange of jobs. Someone asks for a referral to a job in exchange for designing another member’s website or teaching that person about fixing printers.

In order for such exchanges to work we must return to the question of information disclosure and openness on the web. A sea change in personal attitudes may be needed in order for people to become more comfortable with sharing their talents online. Newer generations are already experiencing this by living in the constantly on world.

In the meantime we are left with pockets of people who are willing to put a persona onto the web. Weblogging, social bookmarking, photo sharing, a lot of Web 2.0 technologies are all making more exchanges possible. Where the web started with a gift economy it may be soon be ready to transform into a barter economy as well.