"Buy Nothing" groups blur the line between trash and treasure

Originally published at: "Buy Nothing" groups blur the line between trash and treasure | Boing Boing


Other than keeping up with the non-crazy members of my extended family that I haven’t unfollowed yet, this is the only thing I still use Facebook for. I’ve been able to get some pretty decent stuff from that site, including a surfboard, and given away plenty of kid clothes and toys. But the “hyperlocal” aspect is annoying. My town is relatively small but the group administrators recently split the site into separate East and West groups because they said that items were getting claimed too quickly, not giving some users a “fair chance” to get stuff. The fact that I could give away stuff quickly was a major draw for me to use the group. So splitting the city in half means I have to wait twice as long for people who want to haul my junk away.

The administrators also insist on a game-like aspect to the listing like “pick a number from 1 to 20 and I’ll announce the winner tomorrow” and don’t allow for first-come, first serve or curb alerts, so that’s pretty annoying.


When I tried to join my local Buy Nothing group I was informed they weren’t accepting any more members and that I shouldn’t try to join the other group in my city because they didn’t include my neighborhood. It’s like some people are intentionally trying to make sure the movement doesn’t work as well as it ought to.


Maybe the issue is that the type of people who want to give their junk away are generally trying to simplify their lives, but the people who choose to become administrators for Facebook groups are, pretty much by definition, looking for extra complications in their lives. Fundamental mismatch there.


The range of stuff given away is pretty impressive. I’ve seen computers, video games, CPAP machines, flat screen TVs, but I’ve also seen really small things, like partially eaten jars of peanut butter and half used tubes of Monistat. :-/

Moving boxes are a staple given away and asked for frequently. Baby and kids’ stuff, too.


Each group is independent, following the guidance of the original Buy Nothing Project, which set up a training/inculcation program and rules and other resources licensed by Creative Commons.

Back in 2013 when Buy Nothing was first created from an existing Facebook group, the founders wanted to create community through giving, and wanted the communities to be hyperlocal, telling groups that they should cap membership at 700-1000 and/or split in to smaller groups if they got too large, called “sprouting”. They countered the idea that keeping the groups super local re-enforced the racist geography of the past by saying getting stuff wasn’t the point, and that people should give of their “own abundance”.

Over the years the founders were challenged on their support of keeping the groups hyperlocal and eventually the founders had an epiphany and decided that keeping the groups small and local is bad and anti-egalitarian. They started memory holing their own Creative Commons licensed training materials, even having them removed from The Wayback Machine. They copy protected their current website (you can’t cut and paste from the text), including pages with CC licensed content, and now require you to click on an additional user agreement before you can download their creative commons licensed “starter pack”.

The founders have now formed a public benefit corporation to create and market an app-based version of Buy Nothing so that they will control and be able to monetize the millions of Buy Nothing Group members, with the explicit goal of taking away members from local Facebook groups. With the app, you can set the size of the area you wish to interact with to 3 sizes (which are only vaguely described to you) instead of fixed borders like Facebook groups have. The Buy Nothing App is now available as what the founders call a “minimum viable product” on Android and iOS, which they hope to use to raise additional funding from investors.

Also, they are trying to trademark the term “Buy Nothing” years after freely giving it to the community - all groups, including “unofficial” groups with rules that were different from the official rules, were allowed to use the name since 2013, without restriction. That is, the founders “abandoned” the mark from a trademark law perspective years ago, from the very get go. Now that they are making an app and want to raise money (VC’s love exclusive IP), they want exclusive legal control of the name, which they say won’t affect current users of the mark - which is false because they will have to enforce the mark, if they get it, including restricting it to being on brand and rejecting Buy Nothing groups that differ from the ethos of the current Buy Nothing Project, otherwise the dilution of excessive licensing will lose them the mark.


And that’s why I’ve gone back to giving stuff away through the “free stuff” section of Craigslist even though that’s also kind of awful for different reasons.


Co-op groups like this are great but they always seem to attract petty tyrants. I really like the ideas but the politics sound too exhausting for me.



“Empty the dish drainer”
“Grocery List and Grocery List Addenda”

Or maybe not that hyperlocal?


Many BNP’s seem like HOAs. But I think on average they are fine. The problem being that the hyperlocalism means that you are SOL if the group in your area sucks. But because the groups are all independent, you are 100% free to start your own Buy Nothing group, even using the name and the “official” header graphic in the exact same area. Unlike franchises, the founding organization does not grant exclusive territories to groups - a fact that will surprise many given how the individual group’s typically enforce mutually exclusive membership and don’t allow membership in multiple BN groups.


Our local freecycle group worked really well for a few years, then Yahoo was sold and Yahoo groups (where it was located) made it nearly impossible to join (or re-join, when “the server kicked you out”). Then Yahoo was sold again, and the group went into a black hole a decade ago.
I haven’t even tried to find out where it is now; I just pile up stuff to give away in a corner until someone mentions they know someone who needs it. It works sometimes, but I’m mostly starting to look like a hoarder in that room. I have an aversion to throwing out perfectly good stuff just because we don’t need it anymore, but I’m lazy and paranoid so I’m not posting pictures on FB Marketplace or even Craigslist and dealing with all that.


Me, every time I try to just post some free stuff online so anyone who might want it can come by to take it away as soon as possible:



Yeah, it is sometimes surprising what people do and don’t want.

It seems easier to give away women’s clothing than men’s clothing (according to my totally non-scientific confirmation bias). Even expensive stuff in perfect condition can be a tough sell. Not sure if that’s because my taste is supper different, or if men just don’t swap clothes as often as women do? Dunno.


The part that always frustrates me is when the process goes something like this…

Me: [Posts free stuff online]
Respondent: Very interested in that thing you posted!!! When can I come by to pick it up?
Me: I’m free all afternoon today, any time between 9am and 7pm tomorrow and most of the weekend.
Respondent: OK great
Respondent: Oooooh I actually can’t come then because I only have access to a car on alternating Thursdays from 2:15 to 3:45pm can you please hold it for me until then??
10 More Respondents: Very interested in that thing you posted!!! When can I come by to pick it up?


Sometimes objects deserve greater separation in a sentence, so I don’t think of terrible sandwiches


Or the opposite, when they decide to come over without any warning to give me time to set it out for them:

“I sent my kid to pick it up and it wasn’t there! You totally wasted my child’s time. Now I don’t even want it because of you.”


What I learned was to use an old Jedi Mind Trick and not post anything for free…instead I ask for a nominal amount - say $10 bucks - then just decline the paymebnt when they come to pick it up.

Those who are serious will make the effort and those who are just wasting your time will move on.


This is why I use Craigslist (free) to get rid of extra, but still useful stuff. Pretty much immediate responses. Fair number of flakes, but enough takers, that if initial person flakes, there are backups. Have gotten some great stuff too. Broken treadmills for their dc motors with control panels, a bunch of boxes of new LED fluorescent bulb replacements, etc…


Ish. Their use of the word “Hyperlocal” sounds like a way to make sure they aren’t giving free stuff to people who don’t “deserve” it. You know, those people on the other side of the tracks who aren’t “hyperlocal”.