Buy Nothing exploded on Facebook — now it wants a platform of its own
In the same week, Katylin has seen a banana and a boat given away between neighbors, no strings attached. In her local Buy Nothing group in Seattle, neighbors share what they have to give — vacations, gift wrap, symphony tickets, Airbnb accommodations — up for grabs to whoever wants or needs it.
This is the essence of a Buy Nothing group: instead of tossing what you don’t need or buying something you do, try offering it up or asking your neighbors first. Bartering and trading are prohibited, and users are required to give and receive freely. Everything given is worth the same, no matter the perceived value. Bikes and boats are listed next to dryer lint and chicken feces.
“The banana and the boat are both just gifts — they’re a way to connect with your neighbors,” Katylin says. “They’re actually equal.”
The Buy Nothing Project is a rare success story of digital community-building on Facebook that blossoms offline. Founded in 2013, the project grew organically, primarily through closed Facebook groups, and then exploded in popularity during the pandemic, now counting more than 5 million members. There are 7,000 individual Buy Nothing communities across 44 countries, from a group for New York’s Chinatown to a suburb of Reykjavík in Iceland.
After so much success, Buy Nothing is now facing a dilemma: whether to leave Facebook behind. The platform allowed Buy Nothing groups to spread across the globe and easily connect neighbors with surplus goods. But it’s also posed an increasing number of problems, from moderating sprawling, disconnected communities to reaching people beyond the walls of the highly contentious social network.
To solve those problems, the Buy Nothing Project launched a mobile app of their own in November, which they’re hoping will be a more sustainable option long term as it continues to grow. Project co-founders Liesl Clark, Rebecca Rockefeller, and new business partners Tunji Williams and Lucas Rix formed a public benefit corporation, ShareThing, in 2021 and raised money from friends and family to fund the app’s development. After years of being approached by potential investors, Clark and Rockefeller finally felt ready to begin building their own platform.
The app attempts to solve headaches and hiccups that moderators and leaders have dealt with while using Facebook. Because most of the groups exist on Facebook, even knowing how many Buy Nothing community members there are is a herculean task. Volunteers like Katylin must hand count membership numbers using a spreadsheet, logging member count for each of the thousands of groups. Admins of groups must go through the steps of creating groups, manually adding new members, and coming up with geographic boundaries before people can start gifting and receiving items.
But asking 7,000 groups to try a new platform presents its own issues. Though the thousands of Buy Nothing groups follow the same manual and guiding principles, in practice each is responsible for itself. Different administrators have different rules of engagement. For example, Facebook groups will lay out the exact boundaries of where you must live to join the community, but some moderators allow people who work or go to school in the area to join, or who are slightly outside of the neighborhood limits. Some admins have developed regular community events in the neighborhood that might not exist in a nearby area.
The app dissolves those clearly defined communities, creating a somewhat borderless experience with the individual user at the center. Instead of being in a network for your town or neighborhood, the app uses a person’s location and distance preferences to create a radius with other users nearby. The role of admins, too, is redefined — on Facebook, they are responsible for even the most tedious of tasks, like troubleshooting tech issues. On the app, anyone who takes a training course can become a “community builder,” whose job it is to model best practices and facilitate activity.
This in-between period, Clark admits, is a little bittersweet and awkward. Thriving communities might feel threatened by yet another space with the same mission.
“At times, people will feel that there’s only room for one group,” Clark says. “But I think that if we do this over and over and over again, and practice it, then we won’t even need an app, we won’t even need Facebook groups. We’ll just be doing it in real life.”
So far, most Buy Nothing users seem to be staying where they are: the app only has 166,000 downloads as of late December, though Clark says it is growing by 5 percent week to week.
Eddie Chang, a moderator of a Buy Nothing group on the Upper East Side in New York, says some administrators feel the addition of the app might unnecessarily complicate a system that was already working well. Expanding the project requires the money to cover increasing costs, potentially putting it in a tough spot if funding dries up.
“You already have a very rich product that you created, and you have people who have skin in the game as owners of their own individual communities within this umbrella organization,” he says. “If [donations] dry up, and you get paid through another outlet, how does that change the philosophy?”
Even though buying and selling aren’t allowed in the Buy Nothing universe, money is a key question in this new chapter. Though it’s free to participate, Clark says any costs associated with the project — from creating resources for the public, to hiring developers — have been covered since day one by herself and co-founder Rebecca Rockefeller. (In December, the Buy Nothing website for the first time featured a banner asking for supporters to consider chipping in.)
The fine print currently allows for admins to have a “gratitude jar,” and Clark says she would like to see volunteers compensated for the time and skills they’ve already devoted to keeping groups afloat. But the topic of compensation has at times been contentious, with many administrators deeply against it.
“I think there are the purists who believe that an endeavor like this should all be free,” Clark says. “Managing this is full time and then some … We can’t earn a living and just give away all our time. We do need to feed our families.”
Chang, the administrator of the Upper East Side group, doesn’t believe he should be paid for the work he does. As opposed to similar community groups that allow sponsored content, Chang believes that without money changing hands, Buy Nothing can remain a safe, influence-free space. The reward, he says, is meeting and building relationships with the people around you.
“Do I need to spend 40 hours a week on this thing? No, I don’t,” he says. “But it’s a labor of love.”
The middle ground for communities has been to attempt to keep both the Facebook group and the app active, an option that Clark and other project co-founders encourage if it makes sense for the group. Admins like Chang suggest members try out the app or crosspost items and asks. From what he’s seen, most admins either say nothing about the app, or facilitate activity on both platforms.
“We’re trying to embrace it,” Chang says. “We’re not getting out of it yet what we’re getting out of the group, so it’s not fully adopted. It’s still in early days.”
Other admins like Katylin are thrilled to begin the transition away from Facebook toward something custom built for the Buy Nothing mission. The move has helped her prepare to leave Facebook, a platform she’s spent countless hours on while building a community she believes in.
“On the app, I will have to teach people the water is fine,” Katylin says. “You don’t know all your neighbors yet. But within time, you probably are going to be comfortable enough to show all the sides of yourself you showed in your Facebook group.”
A fresh platform owned and operated by people dedicated to Buy Nothing feels like a blank slate to build on, Clark says. For instance, she says the borderlessness is an attempt at correcting a phenomenon of Facebook group boundaries that recreated historic redlined maps. Leadership is considering what it might look like to have participants have equity in the project or how Buy Nothing could partner with municipalities and states on educational programs around reuse and recycling efforts.
Even though Clark has high hopes for how the app can evolve in the future, she says the less social media platforms are needed to do this work, the better. And though she hears the trepidation from people who worry having another platform could dilute the existing communities, Clark believes both can thrive — the point is that people are exposed to the ethos of a gift economy.
“What we want to do is bring about behavioral change,” Clark says. “That is our number one agenda.”