Lily Cole is an unlikely Don Quixote for the 21st century. The 26-year-old English model and actor has appeared in big budget films and on the cover of magazines such as Vo gue and Playboy, and made millions along the way. But like the 16th-century Spanish gentleman, she has an impossible dream and is trying to bring the world together through her "gift economy".
The what now? We live in a hard and cynical world, so the notion that a successful social network could be built almost entirely on altruism seems improbable – but Cole's website impossible.com might just pull it off.
But what is impossible.com? It is “a platform we have built trying to connect people to get them to do things for each other for free. You can post things that you want help with or that you want to offer the community,” says Cole.
The big idea is to "encourage people to do things for each other for non-monetary reasons". Her altruistic start-up has attracted some significant funding, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales serve as impossible.com consultants.
If Cole is Quixote, maybe Donegal man Mark Boyle is her Sancho Panza. He is a pioneer of the "freeconomy" movement, which seeks to encourage a more sustainable lifestyle. For more than three years, Boyle has been trying to get by without any money, and he says he has "never been happier and never been healthier".
He has two books – The Moneyless Man and The Moneyless Manifesto – and has spent years hitching lifts, growing his own food and foraging. He is currently living in Co Galway, where he is starting to build a community that intends to thrive without cash.
The pair connected through the impossible.com website after Cole posted a wish to meet him after hearing a talk he gave on the freeconomy concept. “When I saw a video of what Mark was doing, calling to question our dependence on money and actually applying that to his own life, it really spoke to me and touched me,” she says.
Their meeting takes place – incongruously – in a swanky five-star hotel in Dublin, and Pricewatch gatecrashes it. After establishing that someone else is paying for the fancy soup and sandwiches, we ask her what on Earth she is doing. And how did she acquire the address impossible.com? That she picked it up for a song after discovering it lying around in some dark corner of the web seems, well, impossible. It is.
She got the idea for a social network based on giving while on a field trip to a Burmese refugee camp. She found that the name impossible.com was owned by a man on the US west coast, but it had never been used for anything crass or commercial. So she contacted him and asked if it was for sale. It was, but the price was high – she won’t put a figure on it other than to say “it cost a whole lot of money”. But she also thinks she was fated to buy it.
What motivated her to start up this business (of sorts)? “I have seen very different environments. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, yet I have come into contact with a lot of people and industries where there is a lot of money. I have travelled the world and seen very poor communities and very rich communities, and I began to question this assumption that money and happiness are connected, because I don’t think they are at all. I have seen real wealth in poorer communities that is not financial but is really valuable,” she says.
The Moneyless Man looks on, nodding. Boyle describes her site as “empowering and inspiring”, and, while he accepts that his lifestyle is not for everyone, he defends its validity. “Sometimes you have to live on the margins and take things to extremes to show people that there are alternatives to money,” he says. “When you live without money you get a deeper sense of connection with the soil under your feet.”
He has been immersed in the freeconomy for a decade. While he was living in rural England living on nothing, she was strutting catwalks across the world. Their backgrounds could scarcely be different but Cole believes working in fashion "actually really opened my eyes to thinking about economics as a vehicle for change. Unless we look at supply chains and we look at business and we look at production, we are always going to have conservation and environmental issues that we then try to remedy with charity," she says.
“What impossible.com is trying to do is to ask if, as economics has such a huge impact on our planet and our social relations, can we offer alternatives to the way we do it?”
So can people just post a wish list of things they like and expect to get them for nothing? Seems like it could attract freeloaders and scam artists. Cole accepts this point is not without merit, but says that the site is self-regulating, and chancers will be weeded out by altruistic users. There is a record of what people ask for and what they offer in return, so if someone is clearly on the make, she says they are easy to spot and will be ignored.
A trawl of impossible.com
Last week there weren't many Irish wishes on the site – although it is in its infancy in most countries where it is being used. Those that did appear on the site ranged from the fairly straightforward to the wildly ambitious. "I would be glad to learn Chinese with a native in Dublin. In response I can give free French classes," reads one post from Dublin. Directly underneath it, there is another wishing that "the persecution of the Falun Gong in China stops". Good luck with that.
Moving away from Ireland, some of the wishes are annoying. “I wish to find a creative job in New York City. Possibly styling or assisting a designer or photographer. Anything.” Really? It’s not going to happen by posting wistful messages on social networks. Directly under that someone is wishing for a “Canon EOS 5d Mark 3 camera with a ring LED flash for this project”. Hmmmm.
Cole recognises that some posts seem monetary, but she makes no judgments.” “Maybe someone who posts a wish looking for a television genuinely can’t afford one. And who am I to judge them for that?”
She says “the most impactful thing is the fact that someone is doing something not for the obvious reasons. We are so used to people doing things for transactional reasons, and that to me is the magic and where the value lies.
What is her game plan? Make the site a huge success and then have an IPO or flog it to Facebook for billions?
“Oh yes, that’s the plan,” she says, before laughing. “If I did that I think it would kill part of my soul. And the point of this is to make my soul better. I would never do that. Never.”