Freecycle and On-Line Local Community Software

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On Friday, Jon Udell came to visit Yahoo and give a longer version of the presentation he delivered at this year’s ETech conference.

Jon Udell at Lynn Canyon
Originally uploaded by caterina.

While it was thought provoking and something I’ll likely write more about later, we had some fun discussion later that day around on-line software that helps real-world local communities–those who are physically close to each other in the real world.

I talked a bit about my neighborhood mailing list, which is primarily a vehicle for sharing and soliciting recommendations for contractors, places to eat, and so on. Jon talked about chats with the editor of his hometown newspaper and its role in local citizen journalism. Chad talked about trying to get a good plumber in Berkeley. The example I never thought to bring up is freecycle, which is a sort of on-line giving and receiving network.

The Freecycle Network is made up of many individual groups across the globe. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. Each local group is moderated by a local volunteer (them’s good people). Membership is free.

That’s the high-level view. How does it work?

When you want to find a new home for something — whether it’s a chair, a fax machine, piano, or an old door — you simply send an e-mail offering it to members of the local Freecycle group.

Or, maybe you’re looking to acquire something yourself. Simply respond to a member’s offer, and you just might get it. After that, it’s up to the giver to decide who receives the gift and to set up a pickup time for passing on the treasure.

In other words, this is the simplest thing that could possibly work. My local freecycle group, sanjosefreecycle is just a lightly moderated Yahoo! Group that anyone can sign up for and then offer or request items. So far I’ve given away and old computer and an ironing board.

People are asking for all kinds of things: shoes, microwaves, chairs, you name it. There’s absolutely no money involved. And it works amazingly well. With nearly 5,000 members, one can see why.

Simple Lessons

I think there are many lessons in Freecycle for those trying to build services used by “normal people” in local communities. The first is simplicity. A mailing list is the simplest thing that could possibly work. No web site that hosts photos of offered goods, no bidding process, etc. It’s simply email.

Moderation is also important. That is, giving someone the flexibility and control necessary to exercise their own judgment and enforcing rules and customs that can’t be baked into the software. In this case it comes in the form of a group moderator who can edit, revise, approve, or reject messages crossing the list. The result is that there’s no spam, self-promotion, or commercial interests devaluing the list.

Jeremy Zawodny is the author of the popular Jeremy Zawodny’s blog. Jeremy is part of the Yahoo search team and frequently posts in the Yahoo! Search blog as well.

Visit Jeremy’s blog: Jeremy Zawodny’s blog.

Freecycle and On-Line Local Community Software
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  • AdaRam

    Freecycle works really well for swapping used stuff but my friends and I use a site called www.HelpingHero.com to share time and odd jobs.


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