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Funny money

Members of student-founded group lose (and earn and trade) their marbles

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Illustration by Josh Nichols
  • Published: Aug. 7, 2009
Marble illustration

Members of the student-founded online bartering group Columbia Exchange Circle swap virtual "marbles" instead of money to exchange services and goods.

Call them optimists. Call them innovators. Faced with a gloomy economy and increasingly impersonal personal interactions, some MU students have found a way to both save money and revive the old-fashioned idea of neighborliness, using — perhaps paradoxically — modern online social networking media.

Through Columbia Exchange Circle, the community-wide bartering network a group of Mizzou students founded in February, Columbians can get stuff they need without spending a dime. To participate, area residents sign up at www.comoexchange.org, a Web site developed by MU computer-science graduate student and founding member Vince Foley. They create online profiles listing their skills, offers and requests and then connect with other members whose services or needs match up.

Bumblebee anyone?

Need a dog sitter? Find an animal lover to help out. Made too much stew? Offer up some leftovers. Each transaction results in an increase or decrease in virtual “marbles,” points used to assess the value of the service or item.

Though the marble’s worth is not set in stone, members use the guideline that 10 marbles equals approximately one hour of invested time. Credit works more like karma than like a favor, with reciprocity extending to the whole network instead of just one friend. The member for whom you knit a sweater, for example, might not be the same person who helps move your couch.

Exchange categories run the gamut from car pools and music lessons to bike parts and tech support. A sizable chunk of activity revolves around gardening and food, with those categories frequently overlapping. Members swap meals, seeds, herbs, veggies, advice and manual labor.

Some requests and offers venture off the beaten garden path. One member asked for her old dance leotards to be sewn into a quilt. Another offered a dead bumblebee.

“What I loved was that the dried bumblebee actually got consumed pretty rapidly,” says Elliot Reed, a Mizzou senior and founding member of CEC. A networker whose kid had a new a microscope snatched up the insect right away.

Very little goes to waste in this group. Items that otherwise might end up in landfills — appliances, pet supplies, boxes — find homes. Active participants don’t waste much of their time either. Instead of spending a day engulfed in dreaded chores, they can earn marbles performing tasks they enjoy and use the credit to outsource those they don’t.

The people in your neighborhood

Modeled after similar setups in towns such as Austin, Texas, Ithaca, N.Y., and Asheville, N.C., CEC differs from both traditional and modern means of currency-free exchange. In a small town or close-knit neighborhood, connections are ongoing but can be restricted to acquaintances within a stone’s throw. On Web sites such as Craigslist, options are plentiful, but the exchange experience may be limited to a single transaction between one donor/seller and one recipient. CEC essentially expands everyone’s neighborhood.

“With CoMo Exchange, you do the exchange, and then you have these marbles or the debt or the commitment, and you’re motivated to be involved in a new transaction later on,” founding member and Mizzou senior Maggy Rhein says about the community-building effects. “It encourages people to have more neighborly interactions.”

To further build support, the group has held workshops in which networkers meet in person to trade items and discuss ways to improve the system. The face-to-face contact boosts camaraderie and comfort levels in a group that has grown to about 200 members.

So far, Reed and Rhein say, no one has abused the system by racking up a big marble deficit, attempting illicit exchanges or otherwise trying to pull a fast one. The group created a loose set of guidelines so all participants know what to expect. Overall, though, they say, the market takes care of itself.

“It just works,” Reed says. “It’s totally self-regulated. There’s no one setting down rules or ideologies or philosophies. It’s a big experiment that we hope to integrate into a broad section of the community. We want it to be a help for anyone who could use it in any way.”

Read more in:  Beyond CampusAgriculture & the EnvironmentFamily & Community

Reader feedback

  • The article on the Columbia Exchange Circle was well done. Nicely reported and elegantly written.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012