The art of freecycling

Last year I sprang a breadmaker from the loft of a friend.  I also let a neighbour have an old computer desk that I’d condemned to bulk refuse collection.  This all happened spontaneously without the aid of technology or even any organisation which suggests there’s clearly a lot of this stuff lying around ready for a new home.  Imperfect, disused or incomplete it represents vast latent potential.  Aside from the ecological or increasing economic imperatives, it’s just a damn waste.

The established way of doing this online would be freecycling, i.e. via the Freecycle network facilitated by Yahoo! Groups.  The Birmingham Freecycling group works off a mailing list which comfortably tops 4000 posts a month.  Even with a daily digest mode that’s a hefty load to your inbox when most mails will be of not interest to the recipient.  Going to the group page and searching is clunky and doesn’t really cut it.  Also missing is any way to dodge collectors to regularly fail to show.

A better solution is a dedicated web service, as any good blogger will be able to tell you.  There are already some excellent examples out there such as: Reyooz, Freebootr, SnaffleUp , Free2Collect, Gigoit and Freemesa.  However, starting from scratch is a long, rocky road.  People often gravitate towards the crowd irrespective of technically superior alternatives.  I think Reyooz rocks but I’m the only one who’s posted anything in Brum so far.  It’s a shame since all these implementations have the same general goal as Freecycle: to get stuff re-used.  They shouldn’t be competing.

Some lateral thinking produces the obvious transition for improving Freecycle: scrape the Freecycle data (e.g. by parsing the constant flow of emails) to maintain a database which can then be exported, filtered and viewed in all sorts of ways.  I spent a few spare hours over the odd Sunday afternoon hacking up a proof-of-concept.  Before putting it out there I need to check I’m not indulging in some kind of Edison voting machine.

So, I did some belated research and turned up possible non-technical issues.

The Freecycle trademark is fairly vigorously protected with a established association with Yahoo Groups.  There’s some controversy in the history of The Freecycle Network which you can read and assess for yourself.  Although there are general goals to wean Freecycle off Yahoo Groups, the beta serves only as a simple control panel for this.  They may not be completely laid back about their name and data being used outside their control.

Whilst the actual work is carried out at a grassroots level, the self-named Modsquad don’t do the hugely tedious work for money.  I guess the reward is similar to that of wikipedians in making a small but discernible positive difference with recognition in the form of responsibility.  They are naturally going to be cautious about endorsing any change to the current model.

Despite these caveats, there’s some fascinating insights to be mined from the growing database about large-scale freecycling.  There’s a whole blog post there but here’s a taster:

  • The most common postcodes map to Northfield, Woodgate, Erdington, Tamworth and Kings Heath (thanks, wikipedia!).
  • Of 481 freecyclers, 10 have posted 10 times or more.  Over 40% have posted only once with a fairly even split between ‘wanted’ and ‘offered’ posts.
  • 10 pianos have been offered (1 taken).
Categories: Uncategorized

5 thoughts on “The art of freecycling

  1. At first glance I thought this post would be a paean to Freecycle, and that a rebuttal would be needed. But I am pleasantly surprised to find another local who has some of the same concerns I do, and has coding chops besides! You’re rapidly becoming a hero in my book. So I’m interested to see what you come up with.

    My own ideas about the wrongs and rights of Freecycleâ„¢ are possibly outdated now, and I’ll have to make my way through the links you’ve posted to see, but it might be useful to make a list of useful/desired features. Especially if it hasn’t been done elsewhere.

  2. As one of the developers of Reyooz I’d like to say great article and thanks for the shout out!

    Currently we’re undertaking a grassroots campaign to make people aware of the site and increase usage. We’re hoping that by reaching a critical mass we can make an application that’s not only useful to everyone, but that benefits the environment and fosters a greater sense of community.

    If you have any ideas or suggestions for us, we’d love to hear them!

  3. Wish I could do something to improve Freecycle!

    I’m a UI designer / usability person by trade (Masters degree, 8+ years experience, blah blah) and would happily volunteer some of my time to help improve it. I was an avid Freecycler but stopped because so many people don’t show up to take things, and it’s so hard to get anything you need because a few people snap up everything. A simple reputation system would do so much to improve the whole experience.The number of Freecycle members keeps growing, but I think if you looked at active members, it might tell a different story.

    If anyone out there is working on some viable improvements, email me at Sara dot G dot Goldstein at and I’ll gladly help!

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