Norwich resident Jeff Doyle is not really anti-capitalism, he assures. He doesn't want to bring down Civilization As We Know It. He just wants to create a conscientious, post-consumer community - a "gift ecology, rather than economy," he suggests.
That might sound like a tall order, but it's the hopeful idea behind www.Handmeon.com. The site's homepage offers the heretical opinion "that giving should be about sharing, not about shopping," and further explains, "a Handmeon is a physical gift that travels from person to person and has a shared online history that grows over time." Call it social networking with presents.
The venture is run by Doyle, 50, and his partners Dwight Aspinwall, 46, and Michael Yacavone, 45, who live in Hanover and Cornish, New Hampshire, respectively. All three have computer backgrounds - Doyle is the programmer - and together they compose Toliwaga LLC, which developed Handmeon.
That strange word "Toliwaga" is a helpful clue to the nature of this gift-ecology service. Helpful, that is, if you happen to be familiar with the ancient gifting culture of the Trobriand Islanders. Doyle learned about it while studying sociology in college. He explains that the indigenous people living on this ring of coral atolls (now called Kiriwina Islands) off the coast of Papua New Guinea have a tradition of exchanging two kinds of jewelry made only for this purpose. The vessel they build to carry these ritual gifts from one island to the next is called a toliwaga.
"I think of Jeff as our toliwaga for the company," says Aspinwall. "He had the faith that there was something meaningful here, and his enthusiasm brought me and Michael into the fold . . . Why not celebrate the act of giving gifts and open it up, as the Trobriand Islanders do?" he continues. "These ideas got me greatly excited. I find it lots of fun, and rewarding."
While acknowledging poverty and want in the world, Doyle suggests that many of us have too much stuff. "We're faced with this embarrassment of riches; nobody needs anything," he declares. And yet, we're compelled - obligated - to buy, buy, buy, especially at holiday time. Furthermore, Doyle adds, "We have this idea that you can't give any old thing - it has to be new. This is important to the economy, but it's not necessary or good for the Earth."
The sensibility of Handmeon is "more Buddhist, or the earlier, true Christian notion of just giving - agape," Doyle says. "You're freed from the economy of 'what did you give me, what did I give you.'"
On the website, the idea is not for two people to exchange presents with each other, end of story. Rather, it's about gifts that keep on giving . . . to other people. How does it work? First, you choose something you have bought, have made or already own that you'd like to pass on. You choose a recipient you think would really like it. You take a picture of the item, perhaps write a little anecdote about what it is, where it came from, and so on, and upload these to Handmeon.com. Meanwhile, you actually give the physical item to the chosen person, along with instructions for registering his or her own pictures and reflections on the site.
Doyle gives the example of his wife, Maureen, who posted a photograph of a speckled tinware dish piled with Scottish oatcakes. She wrote about a friend who had given her the recipe for the cakes. Then Maureen sent the dish, and the recipe, along to another friend, with a gift tag telling her how to go to Handmeon and "claim" the object. "She types in the ID number of the object and does her own posts about it," says Doyle, noting participants can add more photos, write poems, or say whatever they feel about the item while it is in their possession. "The only obligation is to eventually give it to someone else," he says. Anyone can do it, and can register unlimited items.
While the objects go on a physical journey, those who have touched them create an online history. Anyone in a given chain is notified via email or RSS when another individual posts about an object, and thus further exchanges unfold. "Ultimately it's a gift of community," says Doyle. "What do we have to share in our brief sojourn here on Earth but our experience of being here? . . . When gifts have a heart, you appreciate it."
Since participating in Handmeon is free, it's not immediately apparent how the site will be sustained financially. Doyle, who admits he and his wife are living on savings for the time being, suggests, "You can ask people to help you if they don't think your goal is to get rich." The partners were originally going to sell the tags for the gifts, then decided to give them away. "But if people want to support this," Doyle says cheerfully, "they'll give us some money."
Handmeon launched over the summer in beta form, accessible only to families and friends of the founders. In September, it "emerged in the real world," says Doyle. At last count, more than 100 people were registered - "about five people signed up yesterday!" he enthuses.
Though excited by the possibilities, Doyle and partners are realistic about the scope of Handmeon. "Why does a bunch of middle-class people exchanging gifts make the world a better place?" Doyle asks rhetorically. "It just makes us more conscious. The social mission is, to some degree, to encourage detachment from acquisitions, and to experience aesthetic and spiritual dimensions . . . Making a little chink in what was acceptable as gifts in the holiday would be a nice bonus."