"Microfinance meets Match.com."

This is how Kiva‘s president Premal Shah describes his non-profit organization in a recent NPR story, "Young Donors Turn to Micro Loans."

Kiva combines micro-lending, the notion that earned Muhammad Yunus a Nobel Peace Prize, and social networking technology, connecting small-business entrepreneurs in developing countries with thousands of socially-conscious personal lenders via the web. In lieu of the traditional holiday gift-giving, we decided to give Kiva gift certificates to our nieces and nephews this year. Our decision to go this route was intensely strategized and analyzed (Will they get the concept? Will they embrace the chance to connect with someone halfway around the world? Will they be fired with idealism? Will they lament not getting the Sims Home Alone XVIIgame that was on their wishlist?). But what strikes me as most important about dipping our family’s toes into Kiva’s microlending experience is that we’re getting another healthy splash of Web 2.0. The read/write web becomes the read/write/lend web, to be followed by whatever is next. If we begin to break down the distinctions between consuming and creating on the web, everyone can now be writers as well as readers—bloggers, diarists, musicians, etc.—and begin shaping the world in all sorts of profound and twisted ways. TIME Magazine’s recent selection of their Person of the Year as “you” suggests that Web 2.0 has hit the mainstream. So does this notion extend to other domains—microlending, perhaps? Kiva’s example suggests that it does.

The Match.com end of the analogy is apt if you’re thinking about p2p connections. But it also makes me think of another slightly more out-there model: the SETI@home project run by UC Berkeley. For those of you not up on your Sagan-speak, SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI@home uses a distributed computing model to analyze radio telescope data. Thousands of SF enthusiasts, scientists, Linux geeks, and every other kind of person in the cosmos download a small application that runs in the background on their system to process data. The completed data packet is returned to SETI@home to be stitched into the big picture, the user downloads another packet for analysis, and the cycle begins again. Brilliant: together, we can find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence by collectively running our screensavers. Kind of like changing the world by collectively doing something with our spare pocket change. There’s a lesson here about the surprising power of many small influences joined together.