Posts tagged “freecycle”

Unconsumption – Pecha Kucha

Last night was San Francisco’s Pecha Kucha night. I showed 20 slides, at 20 seconds per slide, on Unconsumption.

The slides are below.

And this widget will play the audio.

There were some problems with the projection at the beginning so it’s not immediately obvious where we go from slide 1 to slide 2, but hopefully by slide 3 you’ll have figured it and can follow along.

And for better visual quality, I’ve put the slides up on flickr..

Update: the slides are also on the Pecha Kucha site

Portigal in the New York Times Magazine!

I was interviewed by Rob Walker for his most recent Consumed column, about unconsumption (in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine).

In a sense, what Freecycle has done is channel the same blend of utility and pleasure that motivates consumption itself. Steve Portigal, a business-strategy consultant based in Montara, Calif., founded a Freecycle group for the San Francisco area’s coastal communities in 2004. “Getting something you need and getting rid of something you don’t need are both satisfying as problems solved,” he points out. But while we’re all well trained in the former, the latter often exceeds our patience and know-how.

I’ve written here before about Freecycle. Also, Walker has a good thread on unconsumption on his blog. I think it’s a fascinating area that is ripe for more exploration and solution development.

The nature of communities

A couple of years ago I started a local Freecycle group for my community. The basic concept of freecycle is a local email list to offer unwanted items. There’s no discussion, very few rules (keep it free, keep it legal, keep it local). We set up some basic formatting rules for postings and eventually most people would follow those rules most of the time.

But Freecycle quickly became like some high school club, more focused on its own operations than its original goals. Special mailing lists for moderators (those who run local lists) were formed, and then regional lists for moderators in a certain area appeared. Strong personalities emerged (as with any online forum) and they began to dictate more rules, many of which percolated up to freecycle central.

  • How many OFFERED postings qualified you to make a WANTED posting?
  • How did you determine who was local? (and what forms do you send them to collect their location for first and second notice, and how do you decline them)
  • Did you moderate posts, or all posts, or some posts, or some members?
  • What type of off-topic content was permitted?
  • How many “strikes” before you were out?
  • What items (or garage sales) were allowed (and what form was used to notify someone that their item was not allowed
  • Could one be a member of multiple freecycles? Could one post an item to multiple freecycles?
  • And on (I’ve blocked much of it)

I managed to ignore most of this; I interacted only with the local list. Whenever I would check in with the various moderation forums, I was stunned at the complexity and drama that had emerged. Various scandals within certain regions around breakaway groups, rogue moderators, scammers, people posting under multiple identities.

A few months ago I learned that Freecycle was trying to establish a trademark, in order to maintain some sort of organizational status. I received a vaguely threatening note urging me to comply with a variety of new policies. The logo on my Yahoogroups page had to be revised, and I was to encourage (somehow) various uses of the term Freecycle. We were not to refer to Freecycling or Freecyclers but “using Freecycle (TM)” and “members of the Freecycle (TM) Network.” There was a lot of ridiculous and barn-door-too-late instructions. I made a few changes, but decided not to make this the problem of the list members.

After a slow start, however, the list at this point was thriving. Plenty of activity, plenty of members, no conflict. All the usual list-admin problems of people needing extra help or not understanding rules, etc. But that was par for the course.

When I got back from vacation recently I got an officious message from a member who urged me to clarify various policies and passed along the FAQ from a San Francisco Freecycle. This wasn’t so terrible, but it was really the tipping point for me, personally.

I built the community, and now it’s time for someone else to run it. Last week I turned the operations over to a small committee who will deal with whatever they want, however they want. I did some full disclosure on the drama that swirls around us, and they went for it. I’m sure it will be fine, but my time was up.

I’ve started a number of online communities over the years, but this was the first one I’ve let go of responsibility for. It feels good, not to walk away from it, but to leave it in a healthy and stable position.

Anyway, this recent New Yorker article about Wikipedia reminded me of the Freecycle stuff and human nature around forums such as this.

Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda B. Viégas, two researchers at I.B.M. who have studied the site using computerized visual models called “history flows,” found that the talk pages and “meta pages”-those dealing with co??rdination and administration-have experienced the greatest growth. Whereas articles once made up about eighty-five per cent of the site’s content, as of last October they represented seventy per cent. As Wattenberg put it, “People are talking about governance, not working on content.”

For more on the bitter silliness that threatens to overwhelm if not wreck Freecycling, check out this article from Grist.

Renting Possessions has a story [via Techdirt] about all the different services where people can exchange or “flip” their products, in essence you buy something and then resell it, so you’re only owning it for a short time for a small cost. This it the Netflix model (packaged differently). I guess that’s the gold standard now, Netflix-for-X.

But one model they mention is eBay – where the exchange is between individuals, rather than a controlled top-down facilitated exchange via a Netflix. As Dirk pointed out in email, there’s a too-much-stuff semi-conservation thing at root here as well, we can’t deal with any more stuff. That led me to consider a few other services that are out there as part of the “access-not-ownership” trend.

Freecycle is a grassroots organization that sets up local email groups (I run the Coastside group where I live) for people to get rid of stuff they’d otherwise throw out by offering it free (and only free) to somebody nearby. We got rid of an old shed yesterday – someone came and disassembled it and hauled it away. For free. I got service for free; they got a shed for free.

BookCrossing is all about sharing free books.

I think these peer-to-peer models for exchange of extra stuff (whether free, or commercial, like eBay) are equally valid and hold great potential. Instead of trying to be the next Netflix, maybe more companies should try to be the next Napster?!

Food Rescue Me

Here’s what I’ve seen outside an Au Bon Pain store in Manhattan on two separate nights – a huge amount of food being discarded. Easily noticeable is dozens of bagels; no doubt other stuff as well.

Does Manhattan no longer have a hunger or homeless problem? Where is the food rescue organizations to pick this up and deliver it to someone who can use it? I’m not picking on Au Bon Pain specifically, it’s just what I’ve seen casually walking about. No doubt the problem/opportunity is more widespread than simply one store that I observed personally.

I ate dinner in Chinatown last night (despite picking a Chowhound etc. fave, I wasn’t that impressed, I’ve had better in SF and environs easily), and had quite a bit left over. I took it to go, even though being in a hotel there was no way to eat it. But the homeless dude I saw on the way in had packed up, and I couldn’t find anyone in Midtown either. But there are these buildings with atrium (atria? I dunno – they each only have one) that are designated public space (is this a tax thing or what?) and open til 10pm. I walked by one and there were many people playing chess. It wasn’t clear to me if these people had homes or money or were just chess enthusiasts, or if it was a mixture. I saw a lot of backpacks that seemed fairly full. I walked in nonchalantly past the security guard, and just left my food on an empty table. It’ll probably get thrown out, but if those people are in need, maybe someone will take it.

And just for some extra context – I don’t give money to people on the street. Ever. I rarely look or acknowledge, etc. I’m not boasting about what I did yesterday, or defending what I do normally, it’s just who I am and how I’ve chosen for now to handle these things.

What does motivate me more than any sense of “charity” or “giving” as an abhorrence of waste. My leftovers and the Au Bon Pain bounty are waste that could be leveraged. That appeals to something in me. One thing I’ve done is start a local freecycle group that allows people to exchange unwanted goods instead of tossing ’em out.


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