Lily Cole’s Impossible Mission

Possibly anarchist. Almost gentle. Definitely positive. Dazed Media’s Jefferson Hack interviews the Impossible founder

Impossible is an altruism-based social network which invites people to give their services and skills away to help others. Founded by Lily Cole with the support of Kate Tomlinson and Kwame Ferreira, the site allows users to post something they would like to offer or need, creating a culture of giving. In 2013, Lily presented the app’s beta in conjunction and with the support of Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales at a special event at Cambridge University. The site has a global membership spanning over 120 countries and has since developed a shop selling responsibly sourced products. It has also ventured into the world of independent publishing with Impossible to Print, a collection of stories, interviews and workshops her team has collected over its first two years.

This summer, Lily launched Impossible to Print at our bookshop, Libreria. On hand to ask her more about the project was Jefferson Hack, the co-founder of influential youth culture magazine, Dazed & Confused.

Jefferson Hack: Quite often I speak to people that want to launch magazines, they come up and tell me “I’ve got an idea I’m going to launch a magazine, it’s gonna be amazing, it’s gonna change the world” and I go “alright” and they say “do you have any advice or what can you tell me” and I just often say just ‘believe in yourself, don’t compromise, go for it, do something amazing, do something you believe in’. Then I see it and it doesn’t quite live up to the expectations. It often happens. Lily has blown me away with Impossible. It is an amazing magazine, it is a great first issue, it defied my expectation massively as I have a very high bar for magazines because I make magazines myself. This is a beautiful magazine, a great first issue, it is going to be highly collectible.

Lily Cole: Thank you for your very kind words. Yeah there is a couple of people in this room who worked together on it, it’s been a little collective effort. Everyone, I must say, working for free in their spare time which is very much the spirit of impossible.

Jefferson Hack: It’s an independent magazine, it’s a first issue, its got to be a labour of love. Tell me about the Impossible dream? You’ve made this magazine but I want to put a bit of context around this for people who don’t know. What is the purpose behind Impossible?

Lily Cole: About 4 or 5 years ago I said to you, ‘I’ve got this idea and I am absolutely obsessed with it, to build a technical platform that will connect people to do things for each other for free.’ It was an idea that I had with a friend and became literally obsessed by it for a few years. We built the platform. It’s not perfect, we are actually rebuilding it right now, but it is also the first version of the idea. It does connect people and it does fulfil that philosophical mission of trying to encourage people to think about doing small acts every day that are not about money. The magazine is a kind of offshoot of that, because we started a news platform a year in and we had quite interesting content, we had people doing different workshops, we had people doing different favours. After running that for a year I met Graham. He said you have some really cool stuff online, why not put it onto paper?

Jefferson Hack: I think you are underselling yourself. I think Impossible is a really ambitious idea. You did something really incredible with very little resource which was, kind of, to articulate what a gifting economy could look like and how that could work and how that ecosystem could operate. I think this is a really important test that you did. You did, in small ways, as you have written in Impossible, affect and influence people’s lives, but you also created a model that others could look at and study – which is really about harnessing the power of the gifting economy. Give us a few examples of how people traded, how it worked and some of the stories that we can learn from?

Lily Cole: The magazine is actually a very good example of somebody saying, “Hey, I like this. I am a writer, why don’t we make this?” and somebody saying to somebody else “hey, you’re a designer do you want to contribute?” and then saying “hey, you’re a photographer do you want to contribute?”. Everyone kind of puts their skills together and as a consequence produces something that is a very collective version. On the online platform it is more peer-to-peer, so we have got about 100,000 people around the world online and they will trade things – from sharing languages to, for example, Steve who is in this room has offered to give his boat away. I actually met Steve because I let him stay in my apartment in New York because he had initially given me a cooking class.

Jefferson Hack: All through the Impossible platform?

Lily Cole: Yes. It is very normal behaviour that arguably you do with friends and you do with family all the time – a simple favour exchange. The reason I became obsessed with it is because there is a lot of research to show that it is small favours that create relationships and communities, it’s what creates social cohesion. That is something that, growing up in London, I really felt was missing from our society. So, what we’re trying to do, what we continue to try and do is to say can you take that behaviour, which by the way the British government say is bigger than GDP in the UK, and can you take that outside of your friendships and your family into your secondary communities, into neighbours, into other people.

“There is a lot of research to show that it is small favours that create relationships and communities, it’s what creates social cohesion. That is something that, growing up in London, I really felt was missing from our society.”

Jefferson Hack: What are some of the key things that you learnt from doing it?

Lily Cole: That technology is really hard! It has been a big learning experience on that front.

Jefferson Hack: The engineering, the coding, the making of the actual platform?

Lily Cole: Yeah. We’re really lucky right now as we have got an amazing team at Pivotal Labs working with us. But I have a lot of experiences with bad code that I can’t fix myself which is quite frustrating. Also designing, like beyond coding, how do you design something that people are going to walk through in their mind walk through online and have it make sense to them and intuitive. It’s not like building a shop. I mean, you’ve seen shops a million times you could almost copy a different architecture and just change the decoration. I haven’t seen that many versions of the gift economy, so, trying to design a gift economy, you can’t just download the manual, download the idea and then change the front. You have to think through the whole process and that has been quite challenging.

Jefferson Hack: And psychologically, how did you find, when people went out their immediate social circle and started offering services and changing and exchanging peer to peer within the wider public, how did you find trust was built? Was it easy to establish trust or was that a barrier for you making it work and making it gel and making things happen?

Lily Cole: I think trust is a really interesting one. I think trust is absolutely essential to the success of failure of any idea like ours. For me, it is also one of the reasons I am doing it, is to try increase trust because I think there is a general mistrust of strangers which is largely based on this fantasy that they could rob you, they could kill you in the night, but actually, in reality, most of the time they are lovely and interesting people.

“Trust is absolutely essential to the success of failure of any idea like ours. I think there is a general mistrust of strangers which is largely based on this fantasy that they could rob you, they could kill you in the night but actually, in reality, most of the time they are lovely and interesting people.”

Jefferson Hack: How do we do it in a way that we are not relying on, say, other people’s reviews or sort of an Uber rating. Is there another mechanism that you’ve thought of?

Lily Cole: So we’ve done Say Thank You. If someone does a favour for someone, you say ‘thank you’ on the platform and it is always public and the rest of the community will see that.

Jefferson Hack: So the social currency is thanks?

Lily Cole: Yes, exactly. And so you go to somebody’s profile and you see their thanks. It seems like a very simple solution, it took a lot of thinking to get there and I don’t even think it is necessarily the perfect solution. We are actually looking now at deprecating that and other ways of doing the same idea which is really social reputation. How do you create a narrative about somebody online? In old school communities that narrative would just be known, like you would know to trust this guy because you had seen in the community that he is a positive person.

Jefferson Hack: I think it is really beautiful that it’s the idea of being valued for your generosity, and that’s the crux of thanks. As a social currency that’s what’s really powerful about the idea. In the digital realm there is a quiet revolution happening, and it has been getting slowly louder and louder and you have some incredible case studies. I’ve amazed that there is not more of it in society and culture, that there is not more of this kind of gifting economy taking hold. What do you think the reasons are for that?

Lily Cole: When I started working on it about 5 years ago, the sharing economy wasn’t understood or known at all. I started researching online and I found AirBnb for example before anybody had heard of it really and I thought that’s a really well designed example. You could see these websites bubbling up in the collaborative consumption sharing economy space. Some people from the gifting community side are pessimistic because they say now we’re renting out all our belongings and our house and our car etc, it’s going to be really hard to get people to give it. I come at it in a slightly more optimistic sense of no, actually, the sharing platforms are encouraging more trust, they are encouraging us to get used to staying in a stranger’s home when you’re travelling or getting used to sitting in someone’s car when you’re travelling around London, and that is a step in the right direction. From that point it might be easier to then go into the gift economy type space.

Jefferson Hack: In a way the gifting economy has to be seen as a greater value transaction, because it’s about the human spirit, it’s an antidote to currency exchange. The sharing economy is really about efficiencies. I guess you have to make your app incredibly efficient. I was reading a story today about, I can’t remember what the chain is but there is quite a well known chain in America of cafes, and they have a cafe in Detroit, one in I think Portland, and you can pay what you want. So it’s the kind of the Radiohead model, in that way, which is also a part of the gifting economy as well because it does involve currency but it’s also you don’t have to pay if you don’t want, you pay what you want. It seems to be working for them.

Lily Cole: Yeah I like that. We haven’t gone down that model itself. We’re not explicitly against it but we didn’t go down it. I have found other people in the gifting economy who do that “I’ll do you a service” and if you want you can give me money back but you don’t have to.

Jefferson Hack: So it’s not anti-capitalist, its pro capital, but it’s about adding a different value dynamic, right?

Lily Cole: I don’t think it’s anti or pro, it’s just kind of like here’s this other thing that isn’t capitalist, that can co-exist with everything we’re doing already, and wouldn’t it be nice to have both.

Jefferson Hack: That’s smooth. So… magazines… let’s talk about this. I love that you’ve put “Impossible to print” on here, I thought that was really funny — impossible to print. But it wasn’t, you’ve made it, it’s here, we have it. Why a print magazine after you’ve been in the digital realm for so long?

Lily Cole: It was a suggestion that I liked from Graham, and I have a real soft spot for physical objects. I am involved with a bookshop in Central London called Claire de Rouen and I have a penchant for physical objects as well as the digital. I think that I personally spend way too much time looking at a screen and kind of consuming content through a screen and it’s a really nice antidote to actually take a book, to actually read a magazine. I think I have a completely different experience with it, and I also think that it has a different life story as an object because you don’t share a link that somebody might download and click through, you give them an object that they might pass on, that might end up sitting next to a toilet in two years time, that somebody is going to read, that’s completely disconnected from what you’re originally trying to do but serendipitously find your story. So, there’s something about the object that I really really love.

“I have a real soft spot for physical objects. I spend way too much time looking at a screen and kind of consuming content through a screen and it’s a really nice antidote to actually take a book, to actually read a magazine.”

Jefferson Hack: I have never seen a magazine do a whole column on why they decided the cover price should be the cover price, it was definitely a first to me. So, that’s the story of how we got to ask you for £1.75 for Impossible, how would you have done it. I think it’s so amazing, the tone of voice, the way you speak to the audience. You know, why is it this shape, why is it this size. What are some of the decisions that went into making this object, the object that we now have?

Lily Cole: It’s got a lot of analog references in it, so a lot of photography was literally printed, cut out, stuck on a wall, collaged together, photographed and went in. There is a manifesto at the end that we will make the next issue entirely without a computer. It was really trying to push the analog as far as possible. The newspaper-like quality was just to make it feel like not an expensive, to be treasured object, to give it a more casual sentiment to it, but then we have actually done a cellophane wrapped version which is £8 which has a print that’s signed. There are a lot of contradictions there, but it felt right.

Jefferson Hack: Well it’s great, you have the deluxe version, you have the more accessible version. And like you said, the analog aspect of it is really brilliant, you really feel the craft, you feel the handmade, you feel that in the layout. I love the design Graham’s done it really comes from a place of punk fanzines, punk album covers. It has that kind of very anarchic feel to it but yet the text and some of the photography is so positive. I like that kind of mix of punk positiveness that you feel from it, you know you get this sense that anger is an energy, which it is, but you are also pushing messages that are very much about there are solutions and we can work together to make this world a better place and I think that mix of optimism and rebellion is really powerful and you don’t see it in a lot of places in culture. You don’t touch things in that way, it’s like the gifing economy making a world a better place really seems like soft and cuddly and all just bland and vanilla and then you have anti-capitalist culture which is very much about tear down the walls, smash the system, break the system. What you are doing is bringing energies together and trying to find a new path, a new direction to channel energy and anger but with some kind of, offering some kind of solution or sense of at least common ground between points of difference within the culture.

Lily Cole: I think that’s a great way to analyse it. Punk positivism is definitely the main theme around this and behind this. The news platform we started on Impossible only did positive news, that was the idea — positive news. So it has that positive feeling throughout it but like you just said I kind of get a bit put-off super, cuddly, vanilla ways of dressing up positive which is usually how you find it. I went to a rare book fair at the ICA a few years ago and we found this magazine called the Impossible Dream by coincidence, which the Poison girls had created. They did 4 issues and it was super anarcho-feminist, punk, amazing, collage based and in colour magazine. I bought it obviously because I have this interest in the word impossible and when we started talking about creating this I bought the magazine down and said can we please make this part of it. I think the spirit of the Impossible Dream kind of informed a little bit the direction that this took.

Jefferson Hack: There is this beautiful end note, this tribute to Vi Subversa, who was from Poison girls, where you dedicate the issue to her but, you know, she was 81 when she died so she lived a life, but you never got to meet her which is a shame.

Lily Cole: She died very recently, like whilst we were in the midst of making this. We tried to reach out actually to tell her we were doing this.

Jefferson Hack: There is an incredible humility to it and there is this incredible sense of ambition, which is also a kind of weird contradiction, and you kind of embody that as well in your personality. I think you take on these big, big challenges with very little resource. I think that kind of openness is really rare. It is a really cool thing. An attractive thing. What are some of the big lessons that you learnt putting this issue together? What are some of the things you thought, “Fuck I am never going to do that again?”

Lily Cole: I don’t think there really were any. The first wire-frames I ever did for impossible.com were actually collage — I struggled, I hired 2 or 3 different designers to make the wireframes, like the layout of the site, and I hired a couple of different people and every time they delivered it to me would be completely different to what I had in my head and I was like ‘ahh this isn’t working’ and I’m really shit at any of those software tools to design your own and I eventually had a brain wave that I could just make it myself and I just started collaging. Literally, with scissors and paper and a scanner, collaging together the wireframes and that was a real breakthrough where i was like oh, I can now put all my ideas into reality. So when I came to making this, it’s a world I feel much more at home in and we’ve approached it in a very fun way, it hasn’t felt like a job, it has been mildly easy. I hope the guys who worked on it with me would agree!

Jefferson Hack: People are going to say, “Ah Lily Cole, she’s got a magazine now, of course she has, she’s Lily Cole, she can do anything, she can get interviews with famous people and it’s so hard for the rest of us”. I know your set up and I know how hard it is to make a magazine and you have done something which is incredibly well edited, well written, incredibly well designed. Getting all those elements – graphics, texts, image – coming together, in a very focused way, in a first issue is a huge achievement and you have done this with a very, very small team and fuck all money. Lily it’s been amazing talking to you, you’re an inspiration, your magazine’s fucking cool and I’m proud to know you.

Lily Cole: You too. Thank you.


This talk took place at Libreria, a new bookshop by Second Home.

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