freecycling is one of the best ideas to hit the internet in recent years. unfortunately, it’s become a victim of its own success.
- freecycle’s future
- how it could be
freecycle was created last year by deron beal as part of his work for a recycling program of a tucson-based non-profit organization. it was made very simply: he created a mailing list on which the members could offer items they owned but didn’t need or want. anyone who wanted them could contact the posters privately to make an exchange. for a small, local program, this was perfectly adequate.
now, the freecycle idea has been copied all over the world. there are 1,297 official freecycle mailing lists as i write. they’re all based on the tucson model, but each has its own rules. some of them cover huge metropolitan areas and regularly split into smaller spinoff groups for specific neighborhoods or suburbs. because they’re simply free-form mailing lists, it’s impossible to keep everyone using the prescribed format for messages. discussions frequently erupt, wander off topic, and go down in flames. those on the losing side of the argument leave and create their own splinter group.
people trying to reach as wide an audience as possible join all the groups they can find in their area and crosspost to them all. the same message goes to six groups with different guidelines; it’s acceptable on four of them, spurs 17 flames of indignation on the other two. three of the lists are moderated, and by the time the message is approved and reaches the members of the moderated lists, the item has already gone to someone on the unmoderated one. someone gets tired of this and creates freecycletopekaksnomods. the original poster remembers to tell two of the lists that the item has been taken. members of the other four lists continue to write him for days, getting no reply.
it’s a trainwreck.
i don’t mean to say that freecycling isn’t doing good. even with all its problems, i see it doing great things every day. i just want to say that it could be so much easier and better.
before i make my suggestions, i want to point out that i’m very much on the fringe of the freecycle community. i’ve been a moderator of freecyclebaltimore and a member of various area groups for a month. there are many people who have been involved in the project and working as moderators for much longer. my opinions don’t have the authority of a long-time moderator behind them. i’ve just been bothered for several days by thinking about the wasted potential of freecycling, and wanted to write down my thoughts.
my suggestion is just this: freecycle has long outgrown the mailing list model. it should be centralized and web-based.
i’ll explain why i think this is so by describing how it could address the problems freecycle faces.
freecycle is getting a lot of press these days. someone who reads about it in a newspaper is sent to freecycle.org. she finds the clean, nicely-organized list of groups. let’s say that, like many people, she lives outside baltimore, maryland, and works in washington, d.c. she joins the lists for her town, glen burnie, her metropolitan area, baltimore, the area where she works, washington, and the town she passes through on her way to work, bowie. she spends weekends with her boyfriend in annapolis, so she joins that list, too. she starts getting messages which tell her about two smaller groups near her. she joins them.
she now has to manage subscriptions to seven mailing lists. she has to learn and try to follow the conflicting rules for what is acceptable on each of them. she receives the same messages over and over and over as people post what they want to one list, then another and another.
what i think should happen instead is that she should go to freecycle.org, register an account, give her address, and specify that she would like to be informed of offers and/or requests within 5, 10, 15, 20, or 25 miles of her home. that’s it. nothing more complicated.
as it is now, members of a freecycle list have to receive whatever messages the other members want to send them. if the list is moderated, there’s at least some quality control, but everyone still has to receive:
- requests for items.
- notices that an item has been taken (whether or not the item was of any interest to the reader).
- messages from bob saying he lost joe’s phone number and asking him to send it again.
- clarifications of earlier offers and requests.
- any discussions the moderators allow.
- all the malformed messages from people who can’t remember to use appropriate subject lines.
it’s too much. people should be able to just check off whether they want to receive offers, requests, or both. they could then choose whether to receive an email message each time an appropriate item appears or just log in to freecycle.org whenever they want to see what’s new.
centralization would also make it possible to offer announcements by other means, such as rss.
someone who makes an offer now has to post a message offering it, then post another to say it’s been taken. those following the transaction have to see the offer message, then look for a “taken” message in the list’s archive to see whether or not they should bother the offerer about it. hopefully, the subject lines will be clear. even if they are, this is too much work.
what should happen is that an item appears in the list of offers. once someone has replied and been picked as the recipient, it’s removed from the offers. if someone gets a message about it too late and goes to freecycle.org to reply, she’ll be told it’s no longer available. if the transaction falls through, the offerer can just mark it as canceled, and the item will appear in the list of offers again. there’s no need to post a message offering the item again, as is done now.
requests can work the same way. an item appears as wanted until it’s fulfilled. there’s no need for anyone to keep posting her list of wants once or twice a week to be sure people see it.
once an item has been offered or requested and someone has replied wanting or offering it, the offerer has two jobs to do:
currently, the offerer has to manage all the email from people who reply, try to organize it, pick someone to give the item to, backtrack and try to find the mail from the other people who replied when that exchange falls through, etc. this is unnecessary.
the offerer should just get a page with a list of everyone who’s interested. this page could
offer several ways of helping the offerer decide who gets it:
- it could be sorted by time, so the first responders are at the top.
- a note from each responder could be included to say something about why the person wants it.
- each username could have a link to the responder’s public profile for more information about her.
- there could be an indication of the distance from the responder’s home address to the offerer’s (without giving the addresses).
- there could be a marker showing the responder’s freecycle rating.
by “freecycle rating”, i mean that there could be a rating system in place like those people are used to using on ebay or amazon. a week after an item was promised to someone, freecycle could remind the offerer to mark the transaction as either canceled (reopening the item) or completed. if it were marked completed, both the offerer and receiver would be asked to rate the exchange on a scale of 1 to 5 and give a brief comment about it.
this would solve the problem of people worrying about complete strangers coming to their homes; they could look at the responders’ ratings and the comments other freecyclers have made about their interactions with them.
another common problem is that items just go to the first person who replies because offerers don’t want to be bothered with sifting all the mail. those who don’t sit in front of their computers all day never have a chance. this could be solved by making the list of replies unavailable to the offerer until 24 hours after the offer is made. this would also solve the problem of moderators abusing their privileges to take items first. even if all posts were moderated, the moderator’s reply to an offer would reach the offerer at the same time as the others. contacting offerers privately before the replies are made available would have to be forbidden.
once someone has been picked as the recipient, a web-based freecycle could offer tools to facilitate the exchange. the offerer could have the option of having her address and/or phone number automatically given to the recipient. the address could come with a link to a map site showing directions from the recipient’s address to the offerer’s.
if the offerer didn’t like giving recipients her home address, she could specify another address (such as her work address or a public place) as the one which should be given. if the offerer were worried about spam, she could choose not to give her email address to the recipient, and make all communication through freecycle.org.
once an item was marked as promised but not yet completed, the list of responders could be greyed out. if the exchange were canceled, it could become available again, and the offerer could pick another recipient from the list.
moderating a freecycle list can be a very time-consuming process. it can also involve a lot of thinking about whether certain offers and requests are acceptable, and (sometimes unpleasant) discussion with list members and moderators of other lists to get their opinions.
a centralized freecycle would remove this duplicated effort. sitewide policies could be decided, and that would be that. the rules could be posted, and posts which violated them would be removed. the burden of reviewing posts for violations could be distributed to all of the site’s users, removing the burden from the moderators. each offer and request could have a “report violation” link like those on craigslist. it could lead to a list of the rules with a link next to each. clicking the link would report the item as in violation of that rule. if more than one user reported a problem with an item, it would be flagged for review by a moderator.
many moderators are exasperated by list members who can’t or won’t follow the guidelines for how to write their messages. each message is supposed to have a subject line which begins with “offer:”, “taken:”, “wanted:”, or “admin:”. some members can’t or won’t do this, and everyone has to open their messages to see what they’re about. when submitting their items through the web, the only mistake people could make is to mark an offer as a request, or vice-versa. everything would be formatted in a consistent way because people would be filling in forms.
also, many lists ask their members to include certain information, but people ofter forget to do so. we ask people to give their location, for example. this would be handled automatically, because the offerer’s zip code would be displayed. we ask people to describe the item’s condition, but this often isn’t done. offerers could be required to choose from a list such as “like new”, “good”, “well-loved”, “needs repair”, etc. a web-based system would also allow people to upload photos of their items.
one of the biggest headaches for moderators is trying to keep discussions under control. someone offers a puppy, someone complains about offering animals, ten people jump on each side of the issue, a dozen more jump in to complain about the discussion, and the moderators heave a sigh. some spam gets through, and it starts all over again. removing the possibility of public discussions from the method of exchanging items will put an end to this.
i can think of several objections to this plan.
someone will probably offer the most basic objection:
“it’s not worth the trouble.”
i think it is. freecycling is a terrific idea, but the system established for a single community has not scaled well to an international movement. the problems i’ve described have nearly torn several freecycle lists apart, have led to flamewars both on the local lists and on the international moderators discussion list, and have caused many good participants to unsubscribe.
yes, it would be a lot of work. the system i’ve described is not trivial, but it’s not rocket science or anything very original, either. any competent web programmer could do it, and it doesn’t all have to be done all at once. i’ve just brainstormed many features here; they could be added a bit at a time once the basic mechanism is in place.
“it would cost too much to make it.”
there are lots of ways to get it done. the simplest is just to ask for volunteers. it’s a worthy cause and has a high enough profile that people may be interested in giving their time to it. if volunteers can’t be found, we could try schools. college students might be found who could work on it for credit, or a professor willing to assign it as a project. the non-profit could take a student as an intern.
if someone has to be hired for the job, there are plenty of capable, underemployed programmers these days. there are said to be 420,982 people in the official freecycle groups today. there should be no problem getting enough in donations to pay for the work and the ongoing cost of maintenance and server fees.
if worst came to worst, advertising space could be sold.
“it’s too late for this now. the mailing lists are already established, and no one’s going to want to change.”
i think the advantages i’ve described are enough to make both users and moderators want to switch. nothing would stop those who prefer the mailing lists from continuing to use them, and they may eventually decide to join. in the meantime, momentum will grow from new people coming to freecycle.org for the first time and opening accounts.
“centralizing freecycle will ruin the local community we’ve established.”
there’s no reason this has to be the case. discussion can still go on, it just has to be kept separate from the day-to-day business of transferring items so that those who aren’t interested don’t have to read
it. there could be discussions organized by zip code or state so local conversation can continue. it could be as simple as adding a third item to the subscriptions: “offers”, “requests”, and “comments”. by checking “comments”, the user would receive any public comments posted by anyone within the area she’s chosen (her home address plus [x] miles). again, she could choose to receive comments by email or just read them on the site.
moderation could continue to be done locally; people could volunteer to moderate items posted in their own zip codes. the difference would be that moderators would be more accountable to the members. the system-wide rules would provide the parameters within which the local moderators could operate. if the members felt the moderators were overstepping their authority, they could appeal to the freecycle administration. if the moderators were found to be at fault, the administration could replace them.
a centralized, web-based freecycle could offer many more means of fostering community, both locally and globally. in addition to local discussion, sitewide discussion lists could offer the opportunity for anyone to share her ideas and help shape freecycle’s policies and direction. each member would have a public profile page on which she could reveal as much or as little about herself as she liked. user ratings and feedback would minimize the interference of spammers and scammers. the administration would have the ability to send messages to all users announcing site and policy changes, etc.
i believe that, paradoxically, moving freecycle from many small, scattered groups to one site will bring the community together in the cities, not just as a whole.
freecycle and its many members have a lot to give. i believe it’s reached a critical point at which it can either continue to suffer from trends it’s developed or, with a bit of elbow grease, greatly increase its ability to do good.
i’ll welcome your thoughts and comments about this.