At Berkman Center, Lily Cole and the father of the Internet team up to try the Impossible

Berkman Center Impossible Launch

If it were easier to help the stranger next door, both by finding out what they need and helping break down social barriers to offer and accept that help, could it help bring communities together?That’s the question driving Impossible, a U.K.-based website that just launched in North America last night at Harvard’s Berkman Center, with a kickoff boosted by Internet heavyweights Tim Berners-Lee, father of the web, and Jonathan Zittrain, a leading open Internet advocate and law professor at Harvard University.

Impossible was founded by model/actress/social entrepreneur Lily Cole. The startup offers a social web and iOS “gift economy” network based on people around you and the skills you have.

Impossible lets users to post ‘wishes’: “I wish I knew how to grow tomatoes” or “I wish someone could help me shovel my driveway.”

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The site makes it easy for other users to respond with skill sharing or an in-person gift, or even to offer something before others ask, with the intention being that the giver expects nothing in return.

This reciprocity works differently than a typical exchange economy. In the exchange economy, A gives to B and A gets something in return.

In a gift economy, she said, A gives to B, B to C, C to D, and maybe someday D gives back to A.

The platform relies heavily on altruism. It will only work if social connections become a part of Impossible’s economy, Cole said. After Cole introduced the concept, Zittrain, Berners-Lee, and other panelists from Berkman discussed the sharing economy in general and thoughts on Impossible’s opportunities and challenges in particular.

Zittrain said Wikipedia, with relatively few barriers to an entry and and few technical restrictions, was a great example of the sharing economy at work, but that time and again it seems to be one of very few canonical examples anyone can site when digital gifting cultures are studied or questioned.

Berners-Lee said he hoped Impossible would lead to a flow of giving from those who are able to those who are in need.

But while the site has lofty ambitions, its reality, like many online spaces, often relishes in the mundane. One user’s wish from the evening: “I wish for my leg not to fall asleep during the launch of impossible.”

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at george.levines@gmail.com.
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