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The Napster of Human Kindness

When 34-year-old college professor Keith Taylor saw the latest statistics claiming that a quarter of a billion people are currently using the Internet, he had a flash: ”I thought, ’What if just 1 percent of the people who use the Web gave $1 away to someone who needed it?‘“ He reflected on the aftermath of September 11, when ”You watched people give so much that people had to say stop,“ and thought, ”One percent would generate $2.5 million. And just the interest on that would be $10,000.

“But I also knew,” Taylor admits, “that you can have ideas all you want, but it doesn’t mean anyone will do it.”

So Taylor did it himself. On March 21, he launched Modest Needs at www.modest needs.com, to offer 10 percent of his own income, $350 monthly, to people for whom a sudden financial obstacle -- a car repair, an unexpectedly high utility bill -- can mean disaster. At the end of the first day, he had 100 hits; on April 2, after a friend posted the link to the Web log Metafilter (www.metafilter.com), he had 1,500. Hundreds of people sent e-mails. “But only 5 percent were asking for help,” says Taylor. “The other 95 percent were asking me how they could donate.

”There are government programs and charities for people who are truly destitute,“ explains Taylor over the phone from his car in Tennessee. ”But sometimes paying someone‘s electric bill one day to keep the lights on stops them from getting to the point where they need that kind of assistance.“ He isn’t too worried about fraud: In some cases, he collects enough data to pay the bill on the person‘s behalf. ”But I just gave a guy $90 to pay his car insurance, and if he uses it for something else, well, it’s not such a great loss.“

Taylor‘s aware that, as his Web site gets publicity, he can fulfill only a tiny fraction of the requests, and fielding contributions would entail administrative costs (right now he pays only $20 for Web hosting). But, he says, ”People have written to say, ’If you run into something that you can‘t fund, forward it to me.’“ When a man from the central Asian state of Georgia asked for $400 to pay for his surgery, Taylor passed the appeal along, and now, he says, ”The bill is paid.“

Consider the way distributed file-sharing networks such as Gnutella work -- when one person searches for, say, a song, the request travels through the network until it gets fulfilled (or until the network runs out of servers). Conceivably, somebody could design an interface to process charitable exchanges the same way -- a sort of peer-to-peer network of good-deed doers.

”I paid a woman‘s phone bill today,“ Taylor says. ”And you would’ve thought I‘d given her a million dollars. We underestimate how much difference $100 can make in someone’s life.“

See Judith Lewis‘ peace and politics

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