Giffgaff – an experiment in community enterprise

A few weeks ago I switched my mobile phone supplier.  The  main reason was that the previous one, while cheap, had low signal levels in my home area; but I wasn’t in a big rush to change, and so had time to look at several alternatives.

One stood out from the others – not just on price (which is very good; arguably you can get as good a deal elsewhere, but you have to be very careful to do so), but far more because of the way it works.

Because it works as a community, even if it has a dependency on a commercial provider.

People may be aware that I’m a critic of the way in which the ethos of modern capitalism has led to damaging changes in society to create a ‘client class’ – people who will work for relatively little – certainly not a family living wage – and use that relatively little to buy what is thrown at them by aggressive marketing.  I prefer models like distributism, which empower and humanise the individual rather than treating people as cogs in machines.   But is must be accepted that there are some aspects of life – and communications networks are one of them – where the capital costs involved in  the development of the network, and the scale of its maintenance, makes the human scale difficult to achieve.

Enter Giffgaff.   Giffgaff is part of the O2/Telefonica group; so far so bad, or at least so much the same as everyone else.   But what makes it different is this: for the bulk of its support and development, it uses the community of its users.

There’s no call centre; no warehouse where people are underpaid to resolve the same basic question time after time (and often to fail to resolve anything more complex), people treated as machines as an excuse for not having good enough machines in the first place.  Instead you can search the community forums, and find your answer; or if you can’t find it, you can ask.

The community of existing users will respond, in an average of about 3 minutes, with advice and guidance – and usually the answer you need.  For doing so, they gain payback – think of it as something like the Co-op ‘divvy’ – points which are converted to cash or phone credit six-monthly.

If it’s something which really can’t be resolved without enterprise-level intervention, you can email an agent; if something from the community needs intervention with the agents, there are ‘educators’ (hmm, unfortunately that sounds a bit Orwellian) who will do that.

Users don’t have to get involved – they still get a good deal, in exchange for not having the supposed convenience of a call centre – but there is an incentive to do so.    Recruiting new users also gains payback.

This approach is an enormous strength in terms of service provision; but more, it’s an approach to a major-infrastructure based system which could be applied in other cases; and an approach which has a tendency to empower users, rather than to depersonalise them.

And at the end of the day, it delivers a service which actually costs less than its traditional rivals, scotching the suggestion that any human-centred business approach has to be more costly.

It may be the part of the jigsaw which has not been fully resolved in much distributist debate.

Take a look at giffgaff.com.  Oh, and if you’d like to try it, use this link to order your SIM – that way you use the system to give me something for pointing you that way.   It’s all part of the philosophy of rewarding community.

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Chairs and Persons

I was a student union activist at University many years ago; involved in committees and things. One late evening, with the Union Council had been discussing a new constitution for many hours, and people wanted to wrap it up and get to the bar before its late licence ran out..

And we came to the last proposed amendment; the chair was taken over by a Steering Committee member, for no amendment could be debated from the chair. And Rob, the chairman had serious views on this one.

February 15: first teddy bear.

The new proposed constitution had replaced the word ‘chairman/woman’ with the word ‘chairperson’.

Rob rose to his feet; in his hand he held a large stuffed teddy bear. He introduced the bear. This, as he pointed out, was a toy, but some people got attached to their toys and thought of them as real, so let’s call this a person. But now let’s look closer: it’s a teddy bear. It’s an ‘it’. It’s not a male or a female. It’s got something important missing – no, perhaps not what you’re thinking.

What’s missing is a major part of its identity, the part that, if it had it, would make it he or she; or even allow it to be uncertain about which. The part that applies to living, thinking, reasoning, being humans.

I haven’t got that bit missing, he said. I’m a man, not just a person. My predecessor in the chair of this Union was a woman, not just a person. Mr Acting Chairman, he said, I oppose this change on the grounds that it is a lie and a belittling of humanity.

Perhaps because it was late; perhaps the various-tasting smoke drifting over the meeting; perhaps because of the teddy bear, but just perhaps because his words hit a sense of identity in those listening, the word ‘chairperson’ was struck out and replaced by ‘chairman/woman’; the majority for doing so was massive.

I have little doubt that now the constitution of that union has a place for a ‘chairperson’, genderless, identity-impaired, inhuman. For that’s what we now expect, and how a society has grown away from valuing people as complete people.

It may seem an abstruse point of language, but it’s fundamental. Every time a man or woman is used as a ‘person’, his or her identity is devalued, and part of his or her humanity ground in the dust.

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