Recently I’ve been thinking about communities, and how to build them. Communities are in some sense defined by the flow of gifts, rather than market-based transactions. Perhaps the kinds of behaviour encouraged by the market is one of the reasons communities have been in decline in recent history. As one person put it to me recently, “community building is a truly 21st century problem.”
If gifts define community, it might be because they encourage feelings of generosity and gratitude, and hence bonds of kinship. It may also have something to do with the fact that the informal gift economy presupposes an ongoing relationship. If I give you a sack of potatoes, I have a vested interest in our continued relationship, while I wait for you to reciprocate. According to anthropologist David Graeber, this explains why, historically, many communities deliberately avoid reciprocating with gifts of precisely equal value. 
After experimenting with #PunkMoney, a promise currency based on Twitter, I’ve been exploring how Twitter can be adapted and repurposed to do new, unexpected things. Recently the two ideas of community building through gifts, and the simplicity of defining conventions on top of the Twitter API, came together in the shape of GiftPunk – a simple tool for communities to broadcast needs and offers.
How it works
A community sets up a central account, for example @OccupyLondonGifts. The account can be private or public. Whoever follows it has the right to post needs and offers to it, which then appear in the main stream of the account.
For example, if Alice wanted to offer legal advice, she could tweet:
@OccupyLondonGifts I offer an hour of legal advice.
GiftPunk can find Alice’s tweet, interpret it and tweet through the community account:
[Offer] @Alice offers one hour of legal advice
Everyone who follows @OccupyLondonGifts can see Alice’s offer, and take advantage of it if they want to. In the same way, you could tweet your needs. Say Bob needs some help:
@OccupyLondonGifts I need help cleaning the kitchen tent.
GiftPunk then finds and re tweets this as:
[Need] @Bob needs help cleaning the kitchen tent.
You can also easily take down offers and needs from the community stream, by replying to the tweet with “@OccupyLondonGifts close.” Otherwise, they expire on their own within a week.
The nice thing about using Twitter to do this is that it’s very accessible and simple to use. You can use Twitter from a mobile phone. Since it’s easy to add and remove messages, GiftPunk becomes a live stream of your communities needs and offers. This makes it easier to identify where gifts can flow, and to make it happen.
The next step for GiftPunk is to add in a gratitude currency, which can be used to help people build a reputation around their capacities. If you are a good legal counsellor, or a good baker, it would be useful if others could record their gratitude to you for those things in a way which helped you to build lasting social capital within and beyond the community.
Twitter makes doing this very easy. Like many other Twitter based gratitude currencies , we can easily define a ‘thanks’ syntax, like this:
@OccupyLondonGifts thanks @Harry for the marmalade
GiftPunk will find and record the thank you messages, and the action they relate to if one is given. This data can be aggregated, so I can see how many times different members have been thanked, by whom and for what. It would be useful for all members of the community, as well as the people it describes. If I want to find someone who is good at legal counselling, it will tell me that Alice is probably a safer bet than Harry, even though he makes good marmalade.
The data collected in this way could in turn be displayed on a web page for the community to see, or be made available through an API so that other services can use it. Alternatively, I’ve been pondering how it might be possible to automatically spawn Twitter lists with different ranks, and move users through them as they accumulate gratitude, subject to some kind of time decay.
Try it out
I’ve set up a version of GiftPunk under the Twitter name @GiftPunk. It uses all the conventions described in this post. There have already been a few offers (programming lessons, beta testing and guitar lessons.) To try it out first follow the account and then tweet. It takes on average 30 seconds for your tweet to be found and processed.
If you’re curious, the code is also on GitHub, here.
 “The Myth of Barter” in Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber
 See Twollars as an example of a Twitter-based gratitude currency