Monday, March 5, 2018

Capitalism Alternatives: Simbi

Around Christmas last year, I stumbled on the website Simbi. The idea is simple: connecting people around the world to trade and exchange via bartering instead of money. Users list the services they can provide and the help that they need, and the rest is self-explanatory.

I'm not naive enough to believe that we can build a complex and thriving society based purely on trade and bartering. We live in a global economy and you can't PayPal an order of groceries across the globe; much as I love freshly-baked bread, it would get pretty tiring to cart bags of it on the bus and then subway on my way home from a lesson every week. Thus, the utility of money.

At the same time, there's still plenty that can be traded or bartered for, as money is a way to value things, not a value in and of itself. (Though I'm sure most minor and mid-level bloggers and YouTubers reach a point where they'd rather get paid money than get a free monthly subscription box or bag of cat food or whatever.) Enter Simbi.

I joined as a favor to a friend of a friend, part of a holiday wishlist granting event. If you join Simbi through someone's affiliate-ish link, they get site credits ("simbis"). That's why I did it, originally; it was a free and easy thing to do, and it got someone else something that they valued. But then I stumbled on to a huge community of people with a variety of skills, services, and sometimes even goods to trade. Before the calendar rolled over to 2018 I'd already completed my first major deal—critiquing someone's sci-fi novella. Good practice for me as an editor, and while I wasn't paid in fungible government-backed currency, I still got something out of it. (In this case, the simbis I earned through novella critiquing were enough to cover the cost of social media promotion for my Etsy.)

Full disclosure: The links to Simbi I use throughout this post are my own affiliate-ish link, so if you join by clicking one of them, I'll get 25 simbis. I'll get another 25 if or when you complete your first deal. But it's not a pyramid scheme setup, so I don't take any cut of your deals.

When I first signed up, I was ambivalent about it; I will fully admit that it was the gamification aspect they added, with badges and completion percentages, that got me to set up my profile as thoroughly as I did and to offer as many initial services as I did. But then I was surprised when people immediately flagged interest in what I had to offer, including people who had knowledge that could really benefit me!

I can see how Simbi would be a really valuable platform for artists. Anyone trying to sell art or other indulgences (like, I don't know, STEM-inspired jewelry...?) knows that it's really hard to navigate the shark-infested reefs of consumer capitalism. Too much money and you price yourself out of the market; too little money and you're working for less than minimum wage. Psychology also means that sometimes things sell better when they're more expensive, because people perceive it as being of high quality (but not too much more expensive, or you have the problem of pricing yourself out of the market), but somehow you're still always trying to convince people that your art is "worth" the price you've put on it, whatever "worth" means.

But trading on Simbi can simplify that process. There are quite a few tax specialists on the site; maybe one of them could help settle your accounts with the tax man in exchange for a painting, sculpture, or photograph? Maybe you can find someone local to fix that creaky porch step in exchange for a custom portrait? One of my favorite Simbi deals was a custom piece of high-res digital art (which will shortly be professionally printed, framed, and up on my wall) in exchange for a few simbis, some Swedish candy, and one of my gel electrophoresis bracelets. I was able to work with an incredible artist and scratch an art itch that I've had for years.

Is it a substitute for being paid (like, actually paid) for your work? No, definitely not. But I've found it to be a meaningful supplement. Not the least because Simbi provides an environment for anxiety-free, meaningful social interaction. There are two factors at play here, I think. One is that because so much of the interaction around Simbi is based on negotiating deals and transactions, conversations with people are goal-oriented rather than open-ended. For me, that removes like 95% of the anxiety I have around talking to people. Smalltalk is hell, but transactions are easy. The other is that people on the site, by and large, have a healthy balance of idealism and practicality.* I'm an idealist at heart and at the end of the day that's where my inner compass points, but I won't deny that frou-frou hippie types can be (willfully?) ignorant and frustrating to work with.

*There definitely some weirdos, though. But there are always weirdos, and the Internet means you can just choose not to engage with the weirdos.

Real talk: sometimes I get tired of the Kokoba Etsy. Like, really super ultra tired. (And I realize it's the height of melodrama to say this when I haven't listed anything new in, uh, a long-ass time. It's still true. Peep my pretty high-key inactivity here.) But I've always been more interested in sending my jewelry to appreciative nerds than making this a 24/7 job. Hobby artists and crafters who sell their stuff will spend 90% of their hobby time creating and 10% of it marketing; pros will spend 90% of their time marketing and 10% creating to be able to sustain themselves. That doesn't sound like an awesome work-life balance to me, and frankly I'm not cut out for that.

Simbi, for me, represents an alternative. I can keep cranking out pi bracelets and DNA necklaces to keep my hands busy, but now my only option to offload them isn't to market myself. If I can trade them for cool things (like custom digital map art, recipes, ASL lessons, help with my complicated expat taxes, or houseplant caretaking tips), why not?

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