As the web has exploded, so has generosity. I think there’s at least three kinds of generosity that we see today:

I can’t use it so you have it.
This is where the giver can’t benefit directly from what they own and therefore gives it freely, often to obtain an indirect or non-tangible benefit. Two examples might be the author who gives away part of a book to increase book sales, and the blogger who gives away small ideas in the hope of building a reputation or tribe.

I won’t miss it.
This is where the giver could directly benefit from what they own but it represents only a marginal benefit to them (and therefore only a marginal cost to give it away). The patronage of the wealthy, tipping and a $25 loan on might be good examples.

Your need is more important than mine.
This is the traditional view of generosity, where the giver gives in spite of incurring a significant personal cost to do so.

Proportionally speaking, the vast majority of generosity used to be either ‘I won’t miss it’ by the very wealthy or ‘your need is more important than mine’ because prior to the web the costs of facilitating gift-giving were very high, making the smaller transactions inefficient. Sharing an idea with the public required buying media so only the most important ideas were shared. The end-to-end cost of completing a gift transaction meant that only large gifts were efficient. And the cost of near-perfect information (will my intended recipient receive my gift?) meant that certainty was available only for the large foundations or large-scale charities who could afford to chase this information down. These inefficiencies prevented the smaller scale and ‘I can’t use it so you have it’ generosity that we see today.

Are all three kinds true generosity, however? I’m a traditionalist here – I think true generosity is ‘your need is more important than mine’, where the giver incurs a real cost in making their gift. Regardless, all three forms of generosity should be valued not as moral credit to the giver but as realised benefit to the recipient – even something useless to the giver can be another person’s treasure. Whatever the giver’s motivation or cost, we can all be thankful for the explosion in generosity that we enjoy today.

p.s. Clay Shirky has some good thoughts on designing for generosity which have no doubt inspired mine.