Monday, January 31, 2011

OurGoods: Past, Present, and Future

Recently, I asked a mentor of mine if he'd be a reference for me on an application. He said, "Sure, but why don't I get regular reports about OurGoods? How IS OurGoods doing?"

So, this post is a report in 7 parts.
(I should do this more often)

#1) We're 2 years old.

In 2008, I applied to get funding from The Field's ERPA initiative for the idea that became OurGoods. As The Field explains, "ERPA (pronounced ur·pah) grows from the premise that the traditional non-profit model of fundraising does not support the majority of performing artists in New York City. ERPA aims to thus revitalize performing artists’ and arts organizations’ economic lives for long-term impact." In 2008, The Field took a risk and gave me $5,000. By the end of 2009, had 5 co-founders (Jen Abrams, Louise Ma, Carl Tashian, Rich Watts, and myself) and an alpha site built. Jen Abrams and I applied for the next round of ERPA funding on behalf of, and we recieved $10,000 for ERPA in 2010. We just applied for ERPA funding in 2011, and we are absolutely thrilled to hear that The Field is giving us $20,000! That's $35,000 in three years for five people, or just over $2,300 for each of us per year.

#2) We just received a $20,000 grant for ERPA Phase 4!

Thankfully, The Field understands that Economic Revitalization can mean an increased exchange of goods and services via barter, not just cash. OurGoods connects creative people who want to trade skills, spaces, or objects. And yes, even barter websites need legal tender to pay for web hosting, materials, and some labor. We encourage a hybrid economy, moving between non-monetary exchange and the cash economy. OurGoods gives creative people more opportunities for non-monetary exchange, and funding OurGoods with a little cash creates a lot of valuable non-cash exchanges for a lot of people.

#3) Online participation always increases with off-line events (in real space).

We have 1182 people using OurGoods and it's been open to the public for 3 months, so I'm glad that many creative people are interested in barter. But we have far fewer completed barters than we'd like. To really engage people in OurGoods, we need more live events. We had a handful of "live barter workshops" in November and talked openly about the awkwardness of action-oriented conversations about value, so that helped bring thoughtful users to the site. We also spent time helping people identify valuable skills (most people say they don't have anything to offer), and that helped people use the site more fully as well. Tomorrow, Trade School will open again, so increased face to face time with a barter-interested community should help build trust and energy around OurGoods as well.

#4) A major site upgrade is coming soon.

We are overdue for another interface design upgrade. Co-founders Carl Tashian, Rich Watts, and Louise Ma will be integrating the "dashboard" (what you see when you first go to OurGoods) in March so that a first time visitor to can browse the site more deeply without having to make a profile. Co-founder Jen Abrams and I will be calling individual users to ask them what works and what doesn't. Here's a chart we use to gauge how we're doing.

#5) We started working with other organizations as partners for our events.

Lots of groups have sent one or two emails about us (especially in the theater/dance community) for the live barter events, and some of them list us as an opportunity of their website (Queens Museum, Exit Art, BAX). I feel supported by generous people at many organizations, who all care deeply about cooperation and reciprocity. I'm still not sure we're asking them to do enough, or engaging them properly though.

#6) I continue to read about barter, money, alternative economies, and corporations.

I've been reading a lot of economic anthropology texts and connecting to grassroots economic organizers. Do you know SolidarityNYC? Through a meandering research path, I met people who connect land trusts, co-ops, alternative currencies, and others under one framework: the solidarity economy. On another note, I hope to teach a class about the morality of barter and its relationship to identity, trust, and mutual aid. I'm writing about barter as a space between gift and market economies, and hopefully I will be confident to post about that sometime soon!

#7) Meet me in person at Trade School!

It's so nice to open Trade School again, especially now that is open to the public (last year it was in a closed alpha phase during Trade School). It seems like teachers and students are just as enthusiastic about trading knowledge for goods this year as we are. Plus, we'll be featured in the Wall Street Journal tomorrow, for our opening day! I love imagining barter on Wall Street.

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