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Buy Nothing blew up on Facebook. Can it keep growing without it?

More than 3 million people use the free Facebook groups globally, gifting and regifting thousands of tangible and intangible things every day.

All three of Jane's coffee pots have been sourced from her local Buy Nothing group.

All three of Jane's coffee pots have been sourced from her local Brooklyn Buy Nothing group.

Photo: Jane Seidel/Protocol

A lot of women have worn one particular pink flamingo swimsuit, thanks to Facebook. Not a style of suit, or part of a line from a particular seller. No: exactly one swimsuit, passed from young to old and back again in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. — the scanty neon pink swimwear slipped on, photographed, perhaps cannonballed in, cleaned and then passed along once more.

The women of Columbia Heights, if you know the right person, could get you, too, hooked up with this swimsuit. They'd be happy to. They'd extoll the virtues of this place they know — a bit like a cult, or perhaps an underground drug ring, the best-kept secret in town. Everything's FREE, can you believe it? It's not just the swimsuit they can get you! Perhaps you need some props for a pet photoshoot? There's a Christmas wreath made of paper ribbons that works great. Your blender just broke? Don't throw it out, what a waste! They know someone who'll fix that up so it's better than new.

That underground club is actually a Facebook group: Buy Nothing Columbia Heights/Mount Pleasant/Park View (full disclosure, I'm a member). It's got more than 3,000 members, about 80% of them women. Neighbors post and comment hundreds of times every day. It has a few very strict rules: You can post only to offer something for free, or to seek something for free. If you don't live within the boundaries of the neighborhood, you're not welcome. Seriously, get out.

The Buy Nothing Project is in some ways one of the internet's best-kept secrets. But it's also quite large, for a secret. There are nearly 4 million people using more than 6,000 private Facebook groups officially affiliated with BuyNothing in 44 different countries. It took the project's co-founders, Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark, more than five days to hand-count every one last month, with help from five volunteers.

The story of the Buy Nothing Project is inextricably tied to Facebook. One of the largest gift economies in the world developed naturally and spread quickly because Facebook made it easy. Groups formed of their own volition. Almost everyone has an account, or could make one. It's free. Everything about Facebook's structure is designed to encourage constant, obsessive engagement.

But Clark and Rockefeller were making a Facebook headcount last month because they're embarking on a project to change that. They don't want Buy Nothing to be dependent on a social network that they see as antithetical to their values. They're building an app of their own.

"Right now we are using a platform that is taking people's data and making money off of it. Some of the principles that need to be in place for functional gift economies are democratic in nature, so we really want to build a platform that is supportive of democratic ideals," Rockefeller said.

'You just show up and you give freely'

In 2008, before Facebook groups were invented, a website called Freecycle encouraged people to give away their secondhand goods to their neighbors (it still exists, its site design a time capsule of the mid-aughts). Rockefeller wanted to give away stuff that most would think of as trash — like a pile of sticks. Freecycle moderators protested: that was really taking the idea too far. But there was one woman happy to take them, and her name was Liesl Clark.

"I would give away things that no one else wanted except Liesl, and Liesl would give away things that no one else wanted. The moderator from our Freecycle groups wouldn't let me offer them, and then Liesl would come and get them," Rockefeller said.

The women became closer friends and "social experiment" partners when they both enrolled their children in a kind of home-schooling program in Bainbridge Island, Washington (where they still live).

Their first summer of Buy Nothing passed like something out of an '80s magazine. Every weekend, Clark and Rockefeller would gather before the farmers market with their friends and neighbors to give away what they could. All were welcome, and everyone would bring their excess. One woman owned a pasta shop and brought plump, fresh ravioli, Rockefeller and Clark brought leftovers from their garden, some people foraged chanterelles and other local mushrooms, a neighbor brought newly-harvested oysters. "We all felt that we would leave with more than we came with," Clark said. "That summer, that was how we fed our family. We ate so well, we met wonderful people, that's what we were trying to replicate."

They know that it could be bigger than them: "You just show up and you give freely."

The first official Buy Nothing Facebook group went live in 2013, just before Rockefeller went on a vacation with her family. Twenty people joined before Rockefeller could get online. A few hours later, it was thousands. "That moment of just being off of my phone for awhile, literally while we drove across the mountains, and seeing how much had happened while I was gone. All of these people were in there on their own, it just took this kernel to give them the framework," Rockefeller said. "I got a little bit of a chill, thinking, 'This does work.'"

More than a decade later, the project has grown into a tangled network far outside its founders' control. Clark and Rockefeller have helped it along, but the organic sprouting — Buy Nothing terminology for when a group gets too large and a new offshoot launches — happened within Facebook, through word of mouth, without any marketing fertilizer. The two women have since launched a site including guidelines for "official groups," a copyright and more, but they made it all open source and public license. They seem to struggle with the fact that in some way, this project is theirs; they want it to be everyone's, collectively, in a completely unironic, communist sense of the word.

"A gift economy is an ancient economic structure, and that's an open-source idea," Rockefeller said. "This is something that is so obviously a gift that all of us should be able to access. No one should own this in a controlling sense."

'My little fairy godmother'

Buy Nothing members all over the world have given and received an enormous litany of physical goods, and an even wider array of intangible things. Baby clothes. Typewriters. Bicycles. Moving boxes. Half-eaten cakes. Furniture galore — tables, chairs, desks, couches and beds. Old laptops, old cellphones, a tape player, a record player, a film camera. A roller-blading lesson. Friendship time. Free pottery lessons.

Joelle Simeu moved to Chevy Chase, Maryland after graduating college. If the pink flamingo swimsuit epitomizes the young and flamboyant users in Columbia Heights, a mountain of unwanted, expensive furniture perhaps best reflects the older, wealthy women of the Chevy Chase Facebook community.

"It's kind of magical," she said. "Ask, and the women of Chevy Chase will provide. I kind of love seeing it as my little fairy godmother." Her apartment is loaded with furniture, pots, plants, fruits and vegetables, and a typewriter, all from the group. When she gave away a bicycle to her neighbor, they bonded; now that the vaccine is making social interaction possible again, she's thinking about asking her to lunch.

The Nashville, Tennessee, Buy Nothing group is "unofficial." It can't formally affiliate with the Buy Nothing Project because it allows people to post from across the greater region, and the small geographic range of the "official" groups is one of the few strict limitations Rockefeller and Clark push groups to follow. Lisa Tullis Williams, the administrator, founded the group with a handful of local mothers, and it has grown to nearly 9,000 members. Rockefeller and Clark consider groups like Williams's to be just as much a part of the gift economy community as any other, but don't count them in the "official" headcount.

The size of the Nashville group means members aren't just passing things from person to person. Sometimes a handful of people get together to collect items and food for the rapidly-growing homeless population in the city. Occasionally, the unhoused will make an appearance on the group to make requests, and others will volunteer time and their cars to help drive things.

"I think the economy and the current world situation has made people reassess how they are using their money, and what their needs are," Tullis Williams said.

'I've always been averse to Facebook'

Buy Nothing's rising star is on a collision course with Facebook's falling one. After the 2016 election, the public started to reckon with Facebook's addictive tendencies, the way the site was structured to encourage viral engagement and the use of Facebook groups as closed forums for conspiracy theories, all of which began to reshape how Buy Nothing users, and its founders, thought about the platform.

The discomfort had been a long time coming for Lucas Rix. His wife loved the Buy Nothing community in Del Ray, Virginia, but he felt that Facebook's ethos was contradictory to the group's communal expression of neighborly good will.

"I really just wanted to be a part of it in some way. I know they are using Facebook, and I've always been kind of averse to Facebook. I had so much reticence in joining on my own outside my wife's account," he said.

Unlike Clark and Rockefeller, Rix comes from the startup world and has ties to the tech community. He wanted to help them build an app. "I reached out because I wanted to steward their vision and technology that supports it. At this point in my career, I want to work on things that I care about," he said.

The two founders had been thinking about moving away from Facebook for a long time on their own. Over the years, the single most common question Clark and Rockefeller receive from users has been whether the project can make BuyNothing accessible for people without Facebook accounts. They also never wanted groups to have arbitrary geographic lines or people required to moderate them; in an ideal world, there would be no leaders, and people would always exchange goods with their reasonably-nearby neighbors.

To Rix, Clark, Rockefeller, and Tunji Williams — another serial startup founder who reached out independently to the project with his own ideas for Buy Nothing's future — the idea that Buy Nothing could move beyond Facebook seemed like not only a good one, but actually doable. The four formed a new company, a registered B-corporation called ShareThing, and fundraised the initial capital from their friends and family.

The barebones beta of the app launched in April, pushing Buy Nothing — its app is stylized as BuyNothing — to the first real precipice of change since its launch. A few existing group administrators have volunteered themselves and their neighborhoods to test the beta, but users all over the world have been sending each other and the official website panicked questions about the future of their beloved Facebook pages.

The app is not intended to replace Facebook entirely, Clark and Rockefeller said. They see it as an alternative offering for people who want to get off Facebook, and an option that will allow them to fully realize the vision they've had since the beginning. Its design should mean the end of moderators and formal groups; each person's neighborhood will be determined based on their specific location and the range of distance they customize.

'What are we afraid of?'

Each individual group will have to come to its own decision about its future. The users I talked to worried about infighting: What if some people decided to use the app, and others the Facebook group? Would it mean a splintering of the community? What if all the best stuff is still posted on Facebook? What if it doesn't feel as meaningful when everyone's "neighborhood" is different?

Simeu worried about her group in Chevy Chase. "Moving it away from the Facebook group would take away from the personality of the group. The essence of it being Facebook and being accessible to people who are a bit older, for women who grew up with Facebook, I think taking it away would definitely change the vibe and the atmosphere," she said. "It could also be a problem for older folks who are also on the app. It would imply having a cellphone that you can download things. I think it would probably isolate some users of the group."

I posed those same questions to Clark and Rockefeller. "Let's look at ourselves and see why we're asking that," Clark said. "Maybe you're afraid you're going to lose your connection with your neighbor. Maybe you're afraid you won't receive as much. What are the fears? And let's just give it a try."

"We've been asking ourselves those questions, what are we afraid of? And we just got over our egos," Rockefeller said.

The Buy Nothing Project is just another tool in the creation of a gift economy ethos, they said. The app, in the grand scheme of things, is not nearly as important as the social structure they feel they've helped boost.

"The idea that it needs to only exist in one thing is an example of the scarcity mindset," Rockefeller said. "There is true strength in diversity of access. Some people will find a way to make both work for them. There is real strength in that. You don't need that many people to have a really functional gift economy."

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