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'Macon Money,' A Project to Connect Neighbors Online, Offline, and With Cash

BY Becky Kazansky | Tuesday, June 21 2011

Currencies aren't necessary known for bringing communities together, but in the case of a game called Macon Money, that was exactly the point: Game creators Area/Code, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation*, used an alternative currency to bring strangers together and stir the economy of Macon, Ga.

"We were able to engage directly 35,000 residents through an alternate form of currency and through a hybrid use of social media," Jessica Goldfin of the Knight Foundation explained Monday, when Knight and Area/Code, now part of Zynga, presented Macon Money in a session at the Games for Change conference in New York City.

The currency became a "shared pivot point," said Kati London, now at Zynga, who was the Executive Producer.

"The currency itself connects these disconnected communities and becomes the bridge," she added.

That, at least, is the idea: Macon Money asked participants to get their hands on "bonds," each of which had a set of symbols. When two participants got together and found their bonds had matching symbols, they could turn those bonds in for currency that was just as good as the dollar in many stores within the three-ZIP-code area of Macon's College Hill neighborhood, where Knight wanted to focus. Participants could find people with matching bonds at in-person events — but they also found other Macon Money players through social media like Twitter or Facebook.

Over the game's two-and-a-half year span from development to completion — June 15 was the last day to redeem any of the $65,000 worth of Macon Money bills that were put into circulation — the project went from a research proposal to a fully fledged meta-economy, complete with bill designs that incorporated touches of the South borrowed from Antebellum architecture and featured one of Macon's favorite sons, the late music great Otis Redding. Knight put up nearly $500,000 for the project, and Knight funding covered the cost of the Macon Money that residents spent in local businesses.

Of course, the legal side of setting up a local currency is no small thing: As they were starting Macon Money, Area/Code and the Knight team consulted a local lawyer, and found that the project counts as a contest under Georgia law — rather than a currency, or some other problematic, tax- or fine-inducing thing. Knight hopes that other cities will import the Macon Money idea as well, but cautions that copycats will have to check their own local laws before getting started.

Knight views the first run of Macon Money as a pilot project, and hopes to restart the game in Macon in the future.

(With Nick Judd)

* The Knight Foundation also funded Personal Democracy Forum's 10Questions project in 2010.