Flea market in the old city of Jerusalem (Image: Ester Inbar, via Wikimedia Commons)

Simbi — a digital marketplace with a difference?

I imagine human civilizations as anthills — each individual contribution vanishingly small, contributor anonymous, but the product of their collective labour grows and develops. That’s why I’m always on lookout for digital projects akin to Wikipedia — a crowdsourced, meritocratic, value-creating project based on goodwill and cognitive surplus. Finds so far include Gutenberg Project (upload and proofreading of non-copyrighted books) and Zooniverse (citizen science).

Facebook — chaotic good

Last week among Facebook ads about dresses and exhibitions in the US I noticed an ad for Simbi “a talent-exchanging network & community.” Googling for Simbi unearths a Mali town and voodoo “ large and diverse family of Gods,” but the founders just thought about “symbiosis.” There isn’t even a Wikipedia article which shows an absence of media exposure.

Simbi works like digital marketplaces e-lance and PeoplePerHour. You advertise your services, you find other services. The main difference is that no money is exchanged with either the site or your counterpart. You can either donate your services and goods, swap them or deal in local virtual currency, simbi. You make deals, you get reviews.

How Simbi works — the barter bazaar

As a start, you can earn significant amount of simbis for free by registering, filling profile, inviting other people etc. I got 200 simbis and felt dizzy seeing the myriad of opportunities — garden planning, handmade bracelets, proofreading and editing. For material things (Marketplace allows you to get free artisan goods) you just pay for postage.

Tinder-like matching game of “your digital marketing consultancy in exchange to my tarot reading” is addictive. It’s like a jumble sale or an Eastern market with lots of interesting things on display and dirt cheap — free!

Unsurprisingly, most of the services are internet-based. There’s more people offering tarot reading than computing lessons and plumbers services are non-existent. But the services I sell and buy through the nose on “normal” digital marketplaces — writing and editing, correspondingly, can be had for free. The current community is heavily US based and I live in the UK, but via ‘local service’ panel I did find somebody who might be useful IRL (haircuts).

The interface is OK although I’ve had trouble uploading files and have an anecdotal evidence that other people had this problem.

The Americans vote against socialism

Meanwhile, the comments under Simbi Facebook ad are skeptical verging on nasty. “It will not work because it’ll never work.” “The capitalism is the only possible solution to any problem and money is its prophet.” I agree that simbi-like organisations will not replace the current economy any time soon. Simbi feels like a cherry on top, but you still need to buy the cake.

But while traditional “long term job for life and retirement” is being replaced by the “gig” (aka temporary work) economy where an average person is becoming cash poor time rich, there must be a place for a barter economy. I’m already getting seeds from the US and writing content for somebody in Kenya. No ‘real money’ exchanged in either case.

And if you need a proof that cashless, crowd-sourced, internet-enabled economy works and sometimes trumps the traditional models just look at Wikipedia vs. printed Britannica vs. stillborn Google’s encyclopedia, Knol.

Any economy starts locally. While it is small, requirements and exchange options are limited, bartering works: I will help you to dig a well in exchange for a sack of turnips. Then increase in a sheer number of options available, specialists skills required and distances involved causes a universal exchange equivalent, currency, to appear.

The internet cuts the middleman and provides technology to barter at a larger scale. Participating in a sharing economy requires a paradigm shift but a hop from PeoplePerHour to Simbi is much smaller than changing thousand years old tradition of going to a market and buying a thing to paying on a basis of a picture to something called TreeShoppe in belief that the purchase will be delivered.

Free Cheese Fallacy

Simbi is not a cottage service. Even with an absence of visible moderators, the software is custom-made and smooth enough to ask who’s paying for the party?

Behind free-for all services such as Firefox, Wikipedia, Kiva are independent NGO with endless fundraisers and volunteers. Who tops the bill for Simbi? This techcrunch post answers — venture capital. Simbi raised $1,2 million and venture capitalists are not a charity. At some point the service “could charge users to buy credits if they don’t want to put up a service to swap, or allow users to cash out their credits, for example, to get rewards from sponsors.” This will be a crucial point. If Simbi will be less greedy than other freelancer services that charge up to 20% of transaction, it may not shed the users even if it will loose the warm feeling of universal goodwill it invokes now.