Jon Udell at Lynn Canyon
Originally uploaded by caterina.

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

Posted by jzawodn at March 19, 2006 10:54 AM

Reader Comments
# Cynthia Armistead said:

The local lists can be absolutely wonderful. We've given away appliances, clothing, books, videotapes, old software, computer components, enough household goods to set up one - a sewing machine, you name it. I like it much better than hauling all the stuff to a place that's going to sell the items.

on March 19, 2006 01:09 PM
# HAshim said:

Both of my brothers use Freecycle and they love it. I think some developers forget how social email is, and forget to build on top of that instead of the web.

on March 19, 2006 01:22 PM
# Mellissa said:

I've come to hate Freecycle. I don't think it's just my community as I've asked around, but every encounter I've had is negative. People don't read the emails, other people do nothing but post about high-ticket items that they 'need', and unless you are in a particular clique you'll never get the things you request for because only a select few seem to be able to post requests in the split second before the poster decides whom to choose.

on March 19, 2006 02:01 PM
# Grant Hutchins said:

My mother tried it out in Oklahoma City a while back and she only got emails from people asking for stuff. Maybe it should have been moderated out, but it seems that the group she joined was mostly people begging.

on March 19, 2006 02:53 PM
# Hooda_Thunkit said:

So, is that where your ironing board is going to show up?


on March 19, 2006 03:01 PM
# Bill Humphries said:

I've had good luck with Freecycle so far, but I've been using it on the decluttering end most of the time. (I did score a bunch of 'blue ice' packs, great for throwing in an ice chest, or putting on a sprain.)

There are a number of people on the Mountain View list asking for things, but it's not really worth stressing over unless you're Charles Murray. :)

on March 19, 2006 10:08 PM
# rux said:

Yes, this is a wonderful service indeed, so far I've managed "to get rid" of my perfectly usable brand new accoustic guitar for novice, Casio Cassiopea PDA, used HP 695C Deskjet printer and one unit of Pentium II - 400. This is just, perfect. I couldn't sell those stuff, no matter how cheap I offered, yet I didn't want to throw them away.

on March 20, 2006 01:54 AM
# Joel Rowbottom said:

Freecycle is excellent - aside from picking up and redistributing more common items such as baby clothes and furniture, I've ended up with parts of Compaq Proliants, some older Cisco kit, and desks to put it all on.

What winds me up is the people who don't say 'Please' or 'Thankyou', which tends to result in the email going in the trash!

Oh, and receiving 'Taken' emails before you've received the 'Offered' ones.

on March 20, 2006 05:14 AM
# grumpY! said:

what would be great, although perhaps unrealistic, would be for freecycles to get together to obtain 501c(3) status so donated goods can be deducted on taxes. i have entered nontrivial tax deductions in the past for large quantities of donated clothes, furniture, etc.

on March 20, 2006 09:41 AM
# Craig Hughes said:

It's all fun and games until the IRS finds out and calls this a Barter Exchange. Now admitedly, there's no quid-pro-quo here, but the socialist-communist angle is unlikely to hold the IRS up for very long.

on March 20, 2006 10:41 AM
# Cynthia Armistead said:

grumpY, there is an attempt to get non-profit status, but not to benefit the actual people who make Freecycle work. It's just an attempt by some people to make money off the local groups and volunteers, and to control those local groups. I was a volunteer at one time, at the local and then the international level. I left because of the brouhaha over the way things were being run.

I'd rather focus, though, on the fact that the local groups can be great resources. The best ones, though, often get in trouble with the big guys because of how they run their local groups. It can be very, very political, and being noticed is unwise.

There are some extremely dedicated people running those local groups, though. They are keeping a LOT of useful stuff out of landfills, and building relationships at the same time. When I was growing up, kids' clothes were passed around our extended family 'til they were relegaetd to the rag bag - then they were used for patchwork quilts. Now I can give them to someone via Freecycle.

on March 20, 2006 11:43 AM
# nearlY! said:

Have you looked at Favorville? Same core concept except it isn't necessarily goods-for-goods. Could be service->goods. Yes it has its share of "desperately need a laptop" posts!

on March 20, 2006 06:25 PM
# Cynthia Armistead said:

Thank you, nearlY! I signed up for Favorville and immediately found an opportunity to help someone doing something I love to do!

This kind of thing is what I keep loving about the 'net, 15 years after I got my first modem. People keep making it great, no matter what technology is getting the headlines.

on March 21, 2006 07:00 AM
# Lena Boucher said:

If you've subscribed to an active Freecycle group for any period of time, you find yourself drowning in "TAKEN" messages and frustrated that you're reading "OFFERED" messages about things that already been claimed.

These were two of the reasons that we started

You can see only the current items on the web (on a map, of course!) or receive new postings via email or RSS feed. "TAKEN" messages are only sent to the people who expressed interest in a item, so the message volume is cut in half!

Unlike craigslist, we're in every location nationwide (both US and Canada) and, unlike Freecycle, are free of internal politics. We also have a more generic site ( for non-free items or services.

We're very interested in your feedback, and hope you'll check out the site for local recycling:



on March 21, 2006 06:11 PM
# Kilroy said:

"The Freecycle Rag"

"The Freecycle Rag" a great song which explains what Freecycling is all about. This is poor mans copy and is free to distribute but not change. It is a registered and copyrighted song by BMI. Singer Songwriter Bob Neace, aka 'Pizza Bob', who is a local singer in Brevard County, Florida and an aspiring Country Western performer, wrote and also performs the song.

on May 7, 2006 07:15 PM
# Kilroy said:

Updated link re: "The Freecycle Rag"


"The Freecycle Rag" a great song which explains what Freecycling is all about. This is poor mans copy and is free to distribute but not change. It is a registered and copyrighted song by BMI. Singer Songwriter Bob Neace, aka 'Pizza Bob', who is a local singer in Brevard County, Florida and an aspiring Country Western performer, wrote and also performs the song.

on May 7, 2006 08:17 PM
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