TimeBank Romania: how can alternative currency support an online knowledge exchange community?
This is the question I am still delving into since I joined the startup project TimeBank Romania about 9 months ago.
What is TimeBank Romania?
Imagine an online platform where users can exchange knowledge and skills. They do so not by means of money but time, a more affordable currency, especially for a target of 18-26 year-olds and not only.
The user scenario:
If you would very much like to learn anything from public speaking to HTML skills, you can easily create a personal account on the platform. Then you can search through for users who offer the specific skills you want to learn, connect with them and meet either offline or online in order to be taught. Your teacher will hold the lesson for an agreed number of hours. For the hours the teacher offers to you, he or she will then be entitled to learn a subject of their desire from another member of the community. For the hour credit you have just received, you are responsible to teach someone else a skill or topic you are good at. Giving back to the community is what then allows you to take lessons again.
1. a list with skills or knowledge in which you can be an expert or simply a passionate amateur
2. list of things you wish to learn from others.
The quality of the exchange is decided by both teacher and student (public feedback, reviews, grading), allowing users to stand out or be restricted from the community.
The insight here is that many young people want to learn interactively and establish social connections with others. The fact that they spend a lot of time online and are internet savvy makes a platform like TimeBank Romania a good approach to offering just that. The online also makes it scalable – it is important that the community grows so knowledge and skills market diversifies.
When I first joined this project, I knew little about alternative currency ( or local, virtual, electronic, creative, by that matter) or the particularities of a (knowledge) market on a virtual platform. But TimeBank Romania happens to be a startup – a social entrepreneurship one. Together with a team of 10 like-minded friends, we hope to launch soon. Therefore, the functionality of this platform brings up complex issues to a debate that needs answers. I will discuss two of these major challenges (as well as how they might be approached):
“So you pay with hours and that’s it?” & the complexity behind this question
The time-based currency is not new and is actually being used in real, offline communities for a few decades now. Global Transition to a New Economy lists them all, most based in the US or UK. Timebanking (using time banknotes) in most of these communities is used to supply traditional economy in social services, to support local businesses and indirectly help bond community members. The system usually benefits from authorities’ agreement on its legacy and only applies locally.
Most of these communities use time banknotes with an equivalence in dollars (10 time banknotes = 10 $). When you are exchanging actual goods or services, this makes sense. In the online, some communities developed their own exclusive virtual currencies, which are nevertheless calculated after a sum of real exchange rates. This is the case of HUB Culture , which gathers private companies and entrepreneurs in a wide range of fields. Its members use the currency of Ven (“a currency priced from a basket of currencies, commodities and carbon”) to exchange expertise between themselves but also to buy real products or services.
Does a real market model work for online knowledge exchange markets like TBR? Any link with the real price market would imply using time as a sort of conventional banknote. Not only is this difficult (how can you price skills and knowledge that don’t exist on a market? I have no idea how much a kite-making lesson would cost me), but the concept of time as currency is distorted. The idea here, I believe, is that while in a real market an hour of arabic calligraphy could be more expensive than an hour of English (a superiority in terms of value), this becomes irrelevant for an online community like TBR. The idea in the latter is that you cannot put different prices for the desire to learn. All users are on this platform to be taught things they are keen on and will in return teach things they are passionate about, which makes the parity of 1 hour = 1 hour for any skill a much more viable and valuable option. This opens an interesting perspective on whether online exchange communities can actually use alternative/digital/creative currencies exclusively and follow new, online markets based on other variables rather than just demand and supply.
Would you, as a user, trust the platform and its community?
I see trust and quality as essential to the very existence of the community; the two are strongly intertwined. Creating the right environment to build trust and a high quality exchange of skills and knowledge is a responsibility that needs to be taken by us as a developing project team but also by users. From our part, we are investing a lot of thought in creating a smooth and fair public feedback, review and grading system. However, the aim of the platform is to leave a lot of freedom to the community to manage itself, simply because we cannot control the actual quality of the exchange, nor the actual feedback. This being said, some questions arise. Some target the matter of trust towards the platform itself. At least incipiently, this can be built with good online and offline PR. Pitching online opinion leaders and bloggers creates user interest and more receptivity. Correlating the official site launch with an offline event would be a chance to have people meet the team behind.
Other questions relate to creating trust within the community itself: would it be more insightful to have both teachers and their “students” provide mutual feedback? To what degree should the developing team act as an online manager of the community? How could we get users to provide accurate feedback and still take responsibility for their words, or would anonymity encourage a more truthful opinion? Although I am a supporter of transparency, I think some issues depend greatly on how the community evolves. If I predict correctly, it will grow organically from our own network of friends (the intention is to have 100 users – friends and those we showed interest in the project until now – to test it before the launch) and this circle widens. This will help with keeping identities transparent as well as interaction.
Other challenges include creating an interactive environment to keep users on the platform, gaining sustainability as well as working out the best business plan. I only paused on two issues that relate to this blog’s theme.
Would you join a timebank on exchanging knowledge and skills? Why? What challenges would you see?