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It’s virtual barter!

A website that encourages you to lend or borrow items. Interested?

Net benefit The Social Way has an answer

Mira Nair’s “Namesake” is in town and you want to read the book first. Read, not own it. In Chennai on business, you need a desktop and wouldn’t like to invest in it. You need a cell phone while holidaying in India.

Now, step on to the other side. You have a couple of unused mobiles you wish someone would use. You feel ditto about your packed shelf of books, tools, children’s toys or a piece of old furniture. Would someone drive the Zen while I’m overseas, please? The problem is you don’t know how to reach interested parties.

A virtual community

Nita Goyal has a way. The Social Way, a virtual platform where a potential lender can meet a grateful borrower. Log on to this site and sign up as a member. Post the items you want to give or lend, and search for items you might want to borrow. Better still, form a virtual community of neighbours, and start exchanging stuff that clutters up your home or chokes up your loft. “You can as easily lend and borrow movies, games or an idli pot for that matter,” says Nita. “Why can’t your north Indian neighbour borrow the idli pot she needs once a month?”

Benefits go beyond free movies and unpaid-for idli plates. You feel good about helping. Nita says you should actually glow, since the transaction puts you in the environment-friendly loop. You just reused and recycled and thereby, reduced the demand on our depleting resources. “When you share, you help avoid CO2 emissions, reduce landfill, save money and make friends.” Anyone from anywhere in the world can sign up, invite people to join, launch sharing groups and post items. All for free. The website tells you exactly how much your action’s worth in terms of saving the planet.

The idea struck in 2005 when Nita was doing her Fellowship for social entrepreneurship at Stanford. “I wanted to use my experience in technology and business, and apply it to a socially relevant issue,” she said. The result was the concept of a virtual library (“lack of good libraries in India”) with real books. She saw how such libraries could be created quickly — families in a single apartment building with access to Internet and willingness to share could do this. Social Way would provide the space to post books and browse for borrowing. It would help build communities online and enlarge social networking.

Social returns are fine, but where’s the bottomline? “Even social entrepreneurs need to eat,” Nita says. “I was fortunate that Tavant Technologies, the company I work for, supported the development of Social Way with a team of talented software engineers. There were external volunteers too, qualified women looking for “the joy of doing something worthwhile beyond family and home. One of the designers is a CS professor from Canada who, together with his student, researched efficient ways of combining social networking with privacy.”

Since it opened to the public six months ago, Social Way has helped create over 75 communities. A 1,000 people have signed up for virtual exchange. The home page tells you Social Way has already saved emissions of 2.8 tonnes of CO2, equivalent to growing ten 25-year old trees. Individual figures are recorded in Social Way Rootprint. As in any venture, there are high and low points. “I had lent my copy of ‘Kite Runner’ to a colleague in a different building,” Nita said. “I left it with the security guard on a Friday. There was a bandh on Monday. Over the long weekend, the guard finished reading the book and told me on Tuesday that he really liked it. I wished he could be on the Internet and participate in Social Way.” But she’s happy her DVD player could be used by a colleague on a short stay in India.

What’s the guarantee you’ll get to see your stuff again? “Social Way promotes trust through an eBay-like rating system,” said Nita. “There are extensive privacy options for users to decide what they want to share with whom.” Eventually, she’d like to open-source the code so anyone who wants to participate in development, can do so easily. “Then it will be for the users, by the users, of the users.”

Once we knew our neighbours well. We sniggered at the guy who borrowed the newspaper daily, but didn’t mind being asked for the wooden stool, the car jack, garden scissors, a cup of coffee powder, sugar and milk all at once. We noted down the book and the borrower on a piece of paper. Nita’s website virtually revives this tradition. Either a borrower or a lender be, and in the process get to know your neighbour, reduce carbon emissions and leave behind green footprints.


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