“I’m going to start calling it possible, it sounds so much better,” chuckles Lily Cole on her gift economy website and app Impossible.com.
In a capitalist culture where cash and consumerism are king, the doll-faced model’s objective of a gift exchange seems like the romantic notion of a naïve and innocent idealist. However, with the backing of Kwame Ferreira (founder of global innovation company Kwamecorp), Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee, it’s far from just being a concept that should be left percolating amongst the beanbags of a blue-sky think tank. It’s a platform for humanism and altruism where wishes are posted and granted by like-minded individuals.
The only currency is generosity and gratitude: “The whole point of Impossible is about value not money,” says Cole.
In that vein, the former Vogue cover girl, who graduated with a degree in history of art from Cambridge in 2011, doesn’t intend to take a salary from the social network, telling Metro, “This is my gift that I want to live outside of me.”
Metro: Did you create Impossible.com in response to the recession?
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Cole: It wasn’t a specific reaction to that. But the conversation back in 2010 that coined the idea with a friend [Kate Tomlinson], who now works on the project, was in relation to the recession and more philosophically about why it is that when there is any recession, society is paralyzed as a consequence of economic paralysis. Because if you think about it, everyone has skills, time, resources. There is no intuitive reason why society couldn’t continue to organize itself. We’ve become almost slaves to the structure we created, forgetting that we created it [laughs].
Do you believe that humans are innately good?
Yeah, I do and people have proven me right so far…
Are you trying to celebrate positive human actions with this platform?
There’s definitely a celebration element to it. I was interested in the analogy between current ideas of online social reputation that most social networks like eBay and Uber have with classical gift economies: the idea of social reputation being a big part of the equation. I’m not shy of that and I think that’s a great thing when we celebrate each other’s generosity. That said, it’s not the principle motivator. If anything, it’s a kind of currency of sorts to try and encourage the principle reason for the platform, which is the actual actions.
Why are you steering clear of a rating system?
I think it works very well with transactional relationships. But what we’re trying to do is so non-transactional and I just felt that a rating system would dehumanize it.
You’ve launched in the UK and Impossible.com will soon be available in the US, Canada and Australia. Are you keen to see which country is going to be the most big-hearted?
There will be inherent curiosity, but it’s not the point. It would be a waste of energy if it were one big social experiment to discover which country was kinder. I have my own inclinations but I’m not going to say… I would definitely be upsetting one country [giggles].
What’s the most altruistic action you’ve performed to-date?
I’m not a perfectly altruistic person at all. What I try to do is grow as a human. If I’m not kind or do something wrong I check myself. It’s the intention to work on myself continually.
Have you personally helped anyone on the site?
I’ve helped quite a few people. The one that I enjoyed most was with a boy who wanted to practice his English. I noticed that he was in Manchester, a place where I was soon visiting, so I said I could meet him in person rather than over the phone. Then I saw that on one of his other wishes, he’d wished that someone would help the homeless guy on the end of his street. We had a chat in English about this guy and I ended up getting a tent for the homeless man. I feel a bit self-conscious saying this but the situation was quite magical — it went round in a nice big circle.
Do you stay in touch with the people who you help or is it very much one action and then move on?
I’ve met quite a few that I’ve stayed in touch with. A big part of the gift economy is that when someone does something for you for free, a subtle relationship is made. I can feel a community growing around me.
It’s sounds a bit like an old-fashioned village community. Do you pine for those romanticized days where everybody used to help each other out?
I pine for human connection. I feel like in any big city, like London, we’re constantly surrounded by people and not actually connecting with any of them. I do really pine for that level of connection on such a subtle level that you don’t really know that it’s missing. It’s something that I only noticed when I started traveling to other countries.
Where else did you look to?
I think the most extreme version was actually on the way to a refugee camp to the Thailand-Burma border. The people there had no money, no durable infrastructure and their resources are shared through rationing. Without romanticising it, I don’t see that level of connection amongst communities in cities like London and New York. In the most developed countries, we’re all independent entities and I get the sense of interdependence in more extreme environments.
When did you realize that social media could be used for something other than promoting people’s egos or activities for personal gain?
Purely through this process. I wasn’t on any social networks before working on Impossible. There’s so much potential to implement quite dramatic change to what is essentially sociology and psychology through this medium, which hasn’t historically been possible before on a global scale.
Do you think that social media can bring people together rather than just acting as a medium to avoid direct face-to-face interaction?
Yes, I wonder if the popularity of social media — and how much of a craze it has been — in general does reflect in a way this longing we have for a greater connection.
You’re the face of this project but you’ve also fronted many different fashion brands over the years. Did you have concerns about what you were endorsing?
Yeah, that’s why I’ve taken a different path. I started in fashion when I was 14 and it gave me so many options than I’d ever had before, but I was always a little conflicted about it. I was always questioning how consumeristic our society can be and how advertising works. I was looking at all these paradigms and feeling very much a big part of this machine.
Are you greatly concerned about the ethical side of the fashion industry and consumer actions in general?
It worries me on a macro scale, not on a person scale — like the fact that we never really know the stories behind products. Take this bag, for instance, I have no idea what this came from, how the animal was treated or who sewed it up and what the dye did to the environment. I would love to see transparency across the board.