Dealing in more than one currency

I remember after a relatively lazy lunch some years ago, asking a friend of mine who worked at the Bank of England what this thing money really was.  After the initial look of alarm in his eyes, normal service resumed and, being a solid economist, a solid economist’s answer is what I got.  Somewhat unsatisfied, I then perused the rather fun Bank museum but to no avail for my question remained: what currency truly motivates our actions?

While the term online transaction may conjure up images of frozen Paypal screens and shoes which looked good on screen but give you blisters on the street, let me use it to refer to the motivation behind interacting in online communities, be that the blogosphere, social networks or whatever.  The intention behind this transaction is rarely clearcut but there appears to be two main contributions.  One is the wish to share and connect.  The other is the desire to be seen.

Together these two factors constitute whuffie, the currency introduced in Cory Doctorow’s cult hit Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Tara Hart in an excellent recent post on this topic clarifies whuffie when she says that:

Whuffie has replaced money, providing a motivation for people to do
useful and creative things. A person’s Whuffie is a general measurement
of his or her overall reputation, and Whuffie is lost and gained
according to a person’s favorable or unfavorable actions. The question
is, who determines which actions are favorable or unfavorable? In Down
and Out, the answer is public opinion. Rudely pushing past someone on
the sidewalk will definitely lose you points from them (and possibly
bystanders who saw you), while composing a much-loved symphony will
earn you Whuffie from everyone who enjoyed it.

But does working in this kudos or gift economy get you fed?  Tara says oh yes it does, and is confident that as the value of online communities continue to grow and evolve this can only be more and more the case.  In fact, she is so confident that November will see the publication of her new book on this very topic. 

In the next few years, I believe the ability to deal in multiple currencies in a consistent and integral way will become an increasingly key skill for fruitful 21st century living.  Money, time, carbon, whuffie and attention all have their value and their place, but to over-emphasise one to the exclusion of the others can limit our view and therefore our capacity for innovation.

PS Guess how much it costs to visit the Bank of England’s museum


  1. Roland,
    If we follow your train of thought it is not enough to deal in multiple currencies you should be able to invest in multiple currencies. So do we see fund managers operating in these alternative currencies? For the fund managers this would only happen when there is sense of where the multiple returns from multiple currencies lie and how they can be realised. You have pointed to two visibilities and also a sense of community and these can somehow turn into food for this I read money. Do you or any know if anybody is doing any research in this area?

  2. Mark – Roland here. The post was actually by Rohan Gunatillake, but I’ll gladly take the credit for his insights 😉
    Your comment raises an interesting question about how far we can draw the currency analogy. Re, reserach in this area I think Microsoft are doing some, and we are developing a project with them, and Cancer Research UK, and a Cambridge based start-up called on a project in this space. More on that shortly.

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