Saturday, February 10, 2007

QotW4: Pay It Forward


A simple sentence spurred Trevor, the 12-year-old hero of “Pay It Forward,” who thought of quite an idea. He described it to his mother and teacher this way: "You see, I do something real good for three people. And then when they ask how they can pay it back, I say they have to Pay It Forward. To three more people. Each. So nine people get helped. Then those people have to do twenty-seven." He turned on the calculator, punched in a few numbers. "Then it sort of spreads out, see. To eighty-one. Then two hundred forty-three. Then seven hundred twenty-nine. Then two thousand, one hundred eighty-seven. See how big it gets?" (Hyde,1999)

What initially began as a work of fiction by Catherine Ryan Hyde has since evolved into a real-life social movement not just in the U.S but also worldwide. The Pay It Forward Foundation was established in September 2000 by the author and others to educate and inspire students to realize that they can change the world, and provide them with opportunities to do so. It has even spawned a movie of the same name starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment as the hero. Trevor completes the assignment by helping three people. In return, he asks only that each individual help three more people, and request that they do the same. Likewise, the gift economy works the same way. A gift economy is an economic system in which help and information is offered without the expectation of any direct, immediate quid-pro-quo. A gift transaction involves a diffuse and usually unstated obligation to repay the gift at some future time. Gift exchanges should not involve explicit bargaining or demands that the gift be reciprocated, but a relationship in which there is only giving and no receiving is unlikely to last. (Kollock, 1999) For instance, free help and information are given out often to complete strangers whom one may never meet again. This is in contrast with the market economy where individuals in commodity transactions are self-interested, independent actors. No obligation exists after each exchange is consummated – the bottle of water purchased at a convenience store does not create an obligation to buy something there again. Commodities are not unique and derive no special value having been acquired from person X rather than person Y – a pound of flour is a pound of flour is a pound of flour when purchased at a supermarket. (Kollock, 1999)

Gift giving has come a long way since historic times. Lewis Hyde locates the origin of gift economies in the sharing of food, citing for example the Trobriand Islander protocol of referring to a gift in the Kula exchange as "some food we could not eat," when it is not food at all, but an armband or shell necklace made for the explicit purpose of passing as a gift. Today, the modern world has its own variations of the gift economy in the form of organ donations, blood banks, freeware communities, and free education, etc. (Gift economy, 2007) The Internet itself has developed several gift economies. A virtual community is one such economy that engages in open information exchange. I have been a proud member of one of them since the year 2005. Soompi Forums at is a Korean community that invites members to talk about anything and everything under the sun. Although gift giving in online communities are often in the form of opinions and information, the main draw of this community is the exclusive downloads of drama and music files. Drama and music lovers are able to get their hands on the latest in lighting speed. I for one am an avid fan of weepy Korean melodramas. Thanks to a team of dedicated members, it is possible to catch each drama episode just 24 hours after it has been broadcasted in Korea. Not only are they in high-definition quality, but also contain Chinese subtitles painstakingly translated and embedded. However no matter much effort is put in, the forum moderators and administrators do not require any fee to be paid to them, unlike some other forum boards that request “donations” for up-keeping. Other types of dramas (Chinese, Japanese, English) and music are also freely shared. While users are expected to be contributors of any kind and pay the favor forward, it is really their own free will whether they want to volunteer or not. Simple to say, once something is freely posted online it benefits recipients but generates no obvious reward to the providers of the information, beyond the intrinsic satisfaction that comes with contributing to the common good. (Lampel & Bhalla, 2007)

Nevertheless, giving is always easier than taking. Giving gives joy. And that may be the reason as to why many are so driven by their passion in investing so much time and effort on something that ultimately does not benefit them. As Trevor says, “Pay it forward!”


Gift economy. (2007). Retrieved from February 8, 2007, from

Hyde, C. R. (1999). Pay It Forward. Retrieved from February 8, 2007, from

Lampel, J., and Bhalla, A. (2007). The role of status seeking in online communities: Giving the gift of experience. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(2), article 5.

Kollock, P. (1999). The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace. Retrieved from February 8, 2007, from

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Nicely done Dionne! This is perhaps the most intriguing form of gift economy, where it take a lot of effort to subtitle and share video content, but members still do it. Full grade awarded.