Social relationships and the Economy : Social Development

Social relationships and the Economy

new guineaBy Paul J. Zak
On March 11, 2013

Last year I stayed a week in the Papua New Guinea rainforest in a village of indigenous subsistence farmers. I was there to run an experiment related to the sharing economy, which has become the latest buzzword du jour in startup circles. There I was struck by how fluid the “mine/yours” concept was. Mivai (a common name there) might grow food and give it to Lilla (same), and perhaps at some point Lilla will reciprocate. Or maybe not. This works in the rainforest because there is plenty of food for everyone, and sharing sustains social relationships, which work to everyone’s benefit.

As I see it, the Papua New Guinea approach to commerce exemplifies two forces that are changing Western economies. First, economic transactions are always social. The only reason you purchase the good or service I sell is that it will improve your life in some way. Uncoerced trade is fundamentally about service to others. Maximizing profit by shortchanging customers is a brilliant way to go out of business fast. Commerce, especially commerce via the Internet, is getting increasingly personal, which characterizes virtually all economic exchanges in Papua New Guinea. Second, even if our society has plenty, the planet doesn’t, so there is no reason to waste. Conserving resources just makes good sense. This is especially true when, like the Papuans, one’s resources can be used to build better social relationships.

Call this the “social” or “sharing” economy. The DIY movement and the maker subculture are manifestations. Nonprofits like,, and not only facilitate sharing, but have a hidden stickiness: social relationships. Even the for-profit world is using this model with businesses like, and perhaps the original social economy site Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. A recent innovation in the Mechanical Turk site is free-tasking: listing jobs that do not pay anything. This wiki model goes to the heart of the social economy, gifting time to another person to help him or her achieve a goal.

Why work for someone else? This is the wrong question. The goal of free-tasking is finding an activity that is engaging. The social economy thrives on engagement, paid or not. And that is why I went to Papua New Guinea.

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