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Building the "Social Internet" From the Outside In 130

What initially struck me about Freecycle was that it was the first useful thing on the Internet I learned about by reading a newspaper instead of through the leading-edge online news sources I follow. The next thing I noticed about Freecycle was that, unlike Craigslist, Flickr, and other "Social Internet" phenomena, it wasn't centered on major cities but had local groups all over the place, even in towns like Apache Junction, Arizona, and Bradenton, Florida. And then, when I actually used my local Freecycle group, I discovered something else: A high percentage of users were over 50, female, or both.
Note that Freecycle was not started in or near San Francisco or New York, and that it's a non-profit. It's decentralized, so anyone who wants to start a local Freecycle community, anywhere in the world, can go ahead and do it. Since it's essentially a collection of Yahoo! Groups, no technical knowledge is required, just time and patience.

Freecycle scales easily. If one group gets too crowded -- and many get hundreds of OFFERED and WANTED posts every day -- it's no big deal to split that group into two or more smaller sub-regional ones. And if more moderators are needed, training them is no problem, at least on the technical side. This is an ideal volunteer job for a retiree with a computer and Internet connection. There are plenty of retirees on my local Freecycle, and I'm sure there are many on other local Freecycles, too.

Support Your Local Blogfinder

TampaBLAB is meaningless to you unless you live in or near Tampa, Florida. It aggregates local blogs, and only local blogs. Founder/maintainer Brett Glisson put it online in September, 2005, and says it now gets "about 1000 to 1500 pageviews per day," and that it has "been picking up a lot of steam" in the past few weeks.

Brett got the idea from ORblogs, which calls itself "Oregon's Independent Weblog Community." He decided to do it as a regional thing rather than statewide because he liked the idea of it being intensely local.

Brett says, "This kind of site is something anyone with a bit of web-savvy could do."

TampaBLAB isn't as fancy as Dan Gillmor's Bayosphere or many of the other professionally-run regional blogs and "citizen journalism" sites out there, but it's not supposed to be a professional operation. It's something put together by one guy who has a day job in IT with a local financial service company, using "tweaked versions" of WordPress, FeedWordPress, the OZH Click Counter and "some custom graphics."

Brett has his own blog, My Addled Brain, but it is just one of 60+ blogs that now belong to TampaBLAB. A cabbie writes about the cab business. RANTING RIGHT WING HOWLER is exactly what you'd expect. Bitch | Lab ("because lefties and feminists have dirty mids too") is in a category of its own. Several "professional" bloggers from the St. Petersburg Times are listed. There's no set political agenda. There are neighborhood activism blogs, sports blogs, news blogs, opinion blogs, and silly random musings. It's a mix of pretty much everything and anything that anyone in the Tampa area might want to write about on the Internet.

At some point Brett hopes to interview some of the bloggers and perhaps try to have a get-together now and then in order to make it more of a community. And he may look for some local business sponsors, but has no expectation of ever earning a living either from his blog or by aggregating others' blogs.

The main thing here is that Brett has put together an easy way for locals to find what other locals are writing. It is an idea that can be duplicated anywhere the Internet reaches for next to no money, without a national company or big name behind it.

What Else is Out There?

Freecycle and TampaBLOG use existing software. They aren't hot Web 2.0 properties that have venture capitalists sniffing after them and get lots of buzz. But they are at least as important to the people who use them -- who are, remember, not necessarily computer sophisticates -- as Gmail or LinkedIn.

I'm sure there are plenty of other unheralded Web communities out there, quietly growing and attracting non-technical users. Most will never amount to much. But a few will become popular and influential, or at least will inspire imitators that might end up changing the way millions of people use the Internet.


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Building the "Social Internet" From the Outside In

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  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Monday January 16, 2006 @04:28PM (#14484855) Journal
    And then, when I actually used my local Freecycle group, I discovered something else: A high percentage of users were over 50, female, or both.
    And on Monday, the 16th of January in the year 2006 at 3:28 PM, that statement was instantly overturned in a mad slashdotting ...
  • A 50 yr old local blogger chick. Cool.

    • 50 year old biker chick? She told me she was a 18 year old Taiwanese College freshman with a lot of time on her hands. Man, talk about looking through Internet goggles!

      • "50 year old biker chick"

        Dude, she's spent a majority of her life squeezing something between her legs and building up her Kegel muscles (it's not like you can stop to pee every 5 minutes.

        She'd fuck you to death.
  • UMM... (Score:2, Funny)

    by settledown ( 823288 )
    what is this female you speak of?
  • an internet where no one wants to ask a/s/l
  • by Anonymous Coward
    "...They aren't hot Web 2.0 properties that have venture capitalists sniffing after them and get lots of buzz..."

    Not yet anyway...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    1. Find item on Freecycle located within a 10-minute drive of your house
    2. Agree to pick up item in 5 days
    3. Post a 4-day auction for the item on EBay
    4. If no bids, cancel the pickup
    5. If successful bid, go get item and send it to bidder
    6. Profit!
    • Close (Score:3, Funny)

      by MarkGriz ( 520778 )
      1. Find item on Freecycle located within a 10-minute drive of your house
      2. Agree to pick up item in 5 days
      3. Post a 4-day auction for the item on EBay
      4. If no bids, don't bother to cancel the pickup. Just be an ass and leave the offerer hanging. Don't respond to any emails
      5. If successful bid, go get item and send it to bidder
      6. Profit!

      No, I'm not bitter.
      • I can't wait until the bids start flying in on the truckload of gravel I just put up for auction on ebay. I won't even need a truck to go pick it up; I figure I can just shovel it straight into boxes and leave them on his curb for the postman to pick up.
      • You are the best! Will start tomorrow! Darn it, a shop already claimed it.
      • I would have out a flame here, only im too tired. Please Slashdot, Reduce Reuse Recycle this guy!
      • 5. If successful bid, go get item and send it to bidder

        5. If successful bid, go to "get" the item with a box, tape, packing material and mailing label. Package the item in the owner's living room and ask them to drop it in the mail for you. Go home.

    • by GRW ( 63655 )
      In my experience, most items offered on Freecycle tend to go very quickly. I had three or four responses to my first offer and it was picked up about one hour after posting it. Most things that I see offered would not be worth putting on EBay. Usually it is things too good to throw out, but not valuable enough to sell for more than a couple of bucks at a garage sale.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        That is seriously underestimating human greed (maybe because you're Canadian?) When I lived in Ann Arbor, I knew people who made lots of money off of other people's generosity - by buying $1 books at library sales; taking items from dumpsters near student housing; or getting free items from freecycle - and then selling them on an on-line auction. One local paper even had an article about a student who paid his University of Michigan tuition doing it!

        Although this is greedy behavior, I'm not saying I entir

        • Well, if somebody manages to make money from it, more power to them. As long as it keeps stuff out of the landfills. I see lots of stuff put at the curb as trash that only requires some minor repairs to be useful. Some people give away stuff because they havn't the time or energy for a garage sale.
        • Heh... Those were the days. The best was going dumpster diving at Property Dispo(sition), and then eBaying/keeping that stuff. They'd get mad as hell if they caught you, but I once made several hundred bucks selling old NeXT equipment they'd tossed.

          That aside, true greed (perhaps "stupidity" is a better word) shows itself on the Freecycle lists too. All sorts of "WANTED" messages asking for things like XBoxes, flat-panel monitors, cars, and other things that you'd have to be an idiot to throw away and compl
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 16, 2006 @04:38PM (#14484956)
    "And then, when I actually used my local Freecycle group, I discovered something else: A high percentage of users were over 50, female, or both"

    I discovered this too when I went to and got redirected to
  • Oh, you (Score:2, Insightful)

    by chivo243 ( 808298 )
    I heard about it a while back at my bridge club.... but then again you insensitive clods never get out from behind your computers and socialize!...
    • but then again you insensitive clods never get out from behind your computers and socialize!...

      But I have a webserver running!
  • by PostItNote ( 630567 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @04:45PM (#14485012) Homepage
    I joined my local Freecycle and it was was great, but, as Craig found out with his list, it doesn't scale and I've been forced to unsubscribe because of the sheel volume of postings. The reason that Craigslist is a website for larger (and even smaller []) cities is that sending everything to everyone is not a long term solution. But for tiny communities Freecycle is just right.

    It's all about the size of the group you are expecting to build. If it is a small community, then everyone chatting to everyone fosters a sense of belonging, but if you are expecting hundreds of people to join, then everyone chatting to everyone makes for too much noise and not enough signal.
    • I am a member of Manchester Freecycle, we have 2 million residents in the city and a Green friendly Council promoting this service to most tenants. It scales - individual groups have their own solution - for example, we use Yahoo Groups, which can send convenient digests. By using standard words like offer and taken, and copying and pasting item names, one can track a wanted item quickly. I can personally vouch for some of the great stuff that is given away and that I have given away!!
      • They were trying that, but the preponderance of people who were new to this whole internet thing meant that very few people followed the guidelines. When I finally unsubscribed there were hundreds of messages every day, 99.95% of which I didn't care about. And it's hard to say whether there was really a problem. People were posting OFFERS and WANTED and TAKEN and all that, but there was just too much stuff and I didn't want anything to do with any of it, except for that aforementioned .05%.

        1 of 2,000 mes
    • I agree fully that Freecycle doesn't scale well for getting stuff off of it, as it takes huge swaths of time to look through everything, find something you actually want, and be fast and lucky enough to actually get the item.

      So I don't do that. It's not worth it.

      But, when I had six cases [] and a couple of bags full of old, mostly worthless, computer crap that would have been an absolute pain to eBay, I freecycled it, got four or five offers, and a day later I had freed up 10+ square feet of floor space.
    • Here in Dublin, Ireland, the local authorities are starting to charge for all waste disposal (I pay € 6 for a 240 Litre (thats 200 Kg for you americans) wheeliebin every 3 weeks), and offer free disposal of recycled waste [] (I load up the car with glass, paper, plastic bottles, cans every month or two), and slapping additional disposal charges on household electrical goods (e.g.€ 5 for a TV -- it's the EU WEEE [] regulation), and there's composting bins too (not collected). All free for the unwaged. Is
    • I started a localized sale and give-away site []. All of the functionality is there - list items, post pictures, print a flier, search by zipcode & range, get automatic emails when new items matching a search appear, etc.

      I emailed the owners of Freecycle looking for a partnership, and got no response. My guess is that they thought a site that allowed local search would steal their thunder, and didn't want to pitch it to their users, but I think their ability for people to give people a local community of
      • I emailed the owners of Freecycle looking for a partnership, and got no response. My guess is that they thought a site that allowed local search would steal their thunder, and didn't want to pitch it to their users...

        I think that freecycle is too decenteralized to even have anyone to "pitch to" - aren't each local mailing list almost completely self-organized?

        Additionally, one of the big freecycle things is that the items need to be free, so since your website also lists "for sale" items, that might no

        • Well, the site does support free items, and in fact I point out that it's always going to be free to give things away on Frimp. My plan was to create pages that were oriented towards Freecycle in language that was clearly in sync with the freecycle philosophy.

          Obviously, though, I have a marketing problem in that it wasn't obvious that Frimp will always be free to give things away... I will likely create a link from the front page to a blurb about giving things away on Frimp.

          I'm not sure about Freecycle's o
          • I have been thinking about sending a brief email about Frimp to each of the freecycle lists, but I don't want to spam. Sometimes it's hard to see the line between telling people about something that they want to know about and annoying spam.

            Start small and just join your local freecycle group and make a few postings there - you know, give a way a few things, or maybe get your system to post a few local freebies to the freecycle group. That would also allow you to work out the bugs of the system. Once the

    • Unsubscribe? You just adjust your options so it's not sending to your inbox, then you peruse new postings at your leisure, and if you're not interested, maybe you miss out on something, but oh well.
  • by AEther141 ( 585834 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @04:47PM (#14485022)
    Amazingly enough, many of the really interesting developments in online communities are being driven by people who couldn't give a chuff about Web 2.0 and the blogosphere and are using existing (and in many cases decades old) technologies to do things that weren't envisioned by the designers. 'Democratisation of the hacker ethic', if you need a buzzword. Us insiders get wrapped up in the idea that the net is all about creating a parallel reality but the really interesting stuff that's happening now is non-geeks using old tech in new ways.
    • I happen to agree. The best way to buy and sell used stuff in my area is a good ol' newsgroup: It's been around forever, it's used heavily, and there are no stupid blogs or "Web 2.0" crap involved. Post what you want to sell. Contact a seller if you're buying, and drive over and pick it up. I don't understand the needs to make everything online so goddamned complicated.
  • by standards ( 461431 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @04:51PM (#14485053)
    It's funny when people think that it's interesting that the internet can cater to both women and those over 50 years old. I can see that being odd some 15 years ago, when the internet wasn't readily available to the public, and when PCs were just for the wealthy geeks in town.

    But these days EVERYone has a PC. People do things like shop, bank, and communicate using PCs. 66% of American women go on-line [according to Pew, 2005] []. My elderly mother and all her friends use the internet every day.

    So what's the big deal about a let's-share-our-shit forum that appears to attract woman over 50? I bet the on-line barbie forum attracts a lot of pre-teen girls, and the knitting forums have a surprising number of women. I even know women that use eBay.

    Welcome to the new world, where women and older people use the internet too.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @04:51PM (#14485054) Homepage
    Freecycle is about trading physical items. That's why it has such demographics. Like eBay, it's people with too much time, too much stuff, and too much storage space. Yes, Freecycle is about free stuff, but the same finding and shipping issues apply.
    • by Red Flayer ( 890720 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @05:00PM (#14485112) Journal
      The Recycling Center in Redding, CT has free item dropoff/pickup (BTW, this is where people take their cans/bottles etc). My sister-in-law has gotten some real finds there, and also left valuable items that she no longer has use for (Baby furniture, etc).

      So, this exists in meatspace as well as online.

      My point is that savvy people with a real need for stuff can do really well on Freecycle, it's not just for "people with too much time, too much stuff, and too much storage space.

    • Yes, Freecycle is about free stuff, but the same finding and shipping issues apply.

      But that's the advantage of a local emphasis: "shipping" just becomes a matter of deciding who can drive to the other guy's house to pick up or deliver the item.

      Example: My wife's a subscriber to the Peoria, Illinois freecycle group. Lots of traffic, but it's managable, on the order of a large rec.arts.* newsgroup back in the heyday of Usenet, and like those newsgroups members use descriptive subject lines to others don't hav
    • That's not at all what I encountered.

      My wife and I had to get rid of an old washer/dryer that we got with our house. The previous owner said it needed parts, but it ran fine. Since we just wanted the damn thing gone, and we didn't want to put up the money for a newspaper ad, and it still worked and we didn't want to throw away something that was perfectly serviceable, I listed it at our local Freecycle group.

      We got about 25 offers in the first hour of it being listed. Most of them were from the people who

  • full disclosure (Score:5, Interesting)

    by outcast36 ( 696132 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @04:54PM (#14485070) Homepage
    so I've been a "freecycler" for about two years now. I generally give away way more stuff then I pick up due to the SO wanting a "clean house" (ie no more random wires). In addition to that, I fancy myself a bit of a "tree-hugger", and these groups do fit right into the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra.

    However, as these groups break away from the fringe and become more mainstream you wouldn't believe some of the pompous posts I've read. stuff like, I'm looking for a 24 foot black leather sectional gently used, nothing tacky. OR wanted PS2 new games only. Like these services were created to help people fulfill their material desires with no cash outlay. That is the real reason these groups don't scale, it's not that an email list is difficult to manage. The problem is that people view thses lists as their internet Santa Claus.
    • Agreed, that's why I got out of it. Too many WANTS. I think WANTS need to go and OFFERED needs to be the only thing there.
    • One of the more amusing FreeCycle beg posts I've seen was a woman who wanted to know if anyone had the McDonalds Monopoly piece for "Boardwalk" as she had "Park Place" and was willing to share the $1,000,00 with whoever had "Boardwalk"...

      (For those who don't know "Boardwalk" is the winning piece in the game. They make about 1 of them, and about a million "Park Places"... you could get a "Park Place" if you bought you and your closest buddies all a value meal...)

      Another post was someone asking if anyone

      • Another post was someone asking if anyone out there had a "spare iPod" they wanted to give away...

        Yeah... right... I got spare iPods just floating in my shit...

        Funny, I have a spare iPod mini, still in its unopened box, that I have no plans to use. Admittedly, it's more likely to end up in the hands of my g/f's nephews or nieces than being given to a random stranger on freecycle or Slashdot. Still, you never know what people might have that they're willing to give away.

    • I'm group founder and moderator for my local freecycle, and I have NO problem with people who post wanting stuff, even frivolous stuff. Get this: every exchange must have a source and a sink. If it's not available they won't find it, but if it is available and they had never asked, maybe somebody would be stuck storing it or throwing it away. Whatever - an exchange is set up, both parties go away happy, and the total joy in the world rises a small amount. Not a negligible improvement!

      However I have posted a
    • I am the owner of my local group. Started it back in November of 2003 when the movement was still young. We've come a long way since then, and have seen our share of crazy requests. My favorite (and I am in Missouri) was a SESNA!!! LOL
  • caveat Freecycle (Score:5, Informative)

    by fdrebin ( 846000 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @05:01PM (#14485121)
    I've used Freecycle extensively, mostly to get rid of what I had thought was "junk nobody could possibly want" and to get a few things. Frequently this was stuff I figured I couldn't sell on ebay.

    The hard part is that of the maybe 30 Freecyclers I met up with, about 1/2 are unable to show up when they say they will, or say that they won't be showing up after all, etc. So there are a few possible downsides. Some folk just want to get stuff for free, etc. Often (20% of the time) you see items reposted because the recipient couldn't be bothered to show up.
    Another way to put this - you'll meet a different social stratum than you might be used to. I met some might fine folks... and a few I hope I never meet again. You don't have to meet folks personally, though - often you just put stuff on the porch and people come pick it up.
    I always felt creepy walking up to peoples houses and taking stuff... but that's the way some folks want it.
    It does take some time to wade through the postings/emails. Much of it is baby clothes, stuff that doesn't work, etc.
    Generally the approaches of the "giver-awayers" is "first one to pick it up gets it", "first email gets it", or "best sob story" gets it. It's up to the person doing the giving.

    On the plus side - there really is one - a lot of stuff that might otherwise go into a landfill goes to some useful purpose.

    Someone asked for a scanner - I had one that only worked under Win95. Turns out - that's what the lady had. Perfect fit.
    I had some old PCs and boxes and boxes of old PC parts, VL bus, ISA, etc. This guy who teaches kids how to work on computers took it all. What better way for them to learn when it doesn't matter if you blow the whole thing up.

    I got this nice 7x7 L-shaped desk I use. I had to go to the donors house and disassemble it. It was like $1000 new, it cost me nothing.

    Of course, you might be in a different kind of area than I am (St. Louis County)

    • I have had the same experience of flakey people when using Craig's List to get rid of things. I feel bad when someone wants to claim it and so I turn away 50 other people asking about the same thing. Then I get angry when the person I was saving it for either doesn't show or tries to make me do a bunch of work to get them the item ("Oh, you live all the way over there, why don't you come to my neighborhood to drop it off...")

      I've found it best to just say "I'll be leaving it on the street near this address,
  • I am looking for alpha testers for a new DVD trading site ( []) which I hope to establish similar social coperation. It's meant to help people setup trades for used DVDs with people in their local communities. It's still in development, but I am a stronger believer in the "release early and release often" mantra, so have at it. :)
    • I'd help but the MPAA will have shut before Easter
      • Hardly...

        I know that the MPAA and RIAA have blurred the waters so much that people think that everything they do is illegal, but trading your own DVDs for someone else's DVDs is still legal in most countries, even the USA. ;)

        This is not fileswapping, but real physical disc exchanges.
  • Freecycle is such a great idea.. i too have been using it for some time now.. its great for my infatuation with obsolete/vintage computers.. and I even gave a home to a kitty from a lady who was giving them away.. my girlfriend gave away tons of boxes full of clothes to another lady who had some kids and was poor.. i think its wonderful, and more people should be introduced to it.. especially lower income people..
  • And then, when I actually used my local Freecycle group, I discovered something else: A high percentage of users were over 50, female, or both.

    Can you say "regifting"?
  • That place is just like 10 miles east of here... it's a dump.
  • Recycle unwanted stuff instead of putting it in landfills?

    Old pr0n magazines, send 'em right here!
  • I used to work for the evil The thing they knew the best was that when women got on the internet 'free' was one of their favorite words to search for. Free coupons, free screensavers, free recipes you name it.
  • Was that it was full of "I WANTS" instead of "I HAVE'S". And the "I HAVE'S" were generally of no value. If I need something, I'll buy it instead of hunting through hundres of thousands of messages. The 50+ female crowd makes since to me though. My GF's grandmother goes to garage sales every week and brings back all kinds of crap and then brags about how she only paid a dollar for it. Se's quite the bargain hunter. She occassionally comes back with nice stuff. An antique table $15. A P4 PC (with monito
  • All the rest aside.. I've now found a place to find hot over 50 housewives with lots of goodies they want to give me

    Hmm, I think all this spam I get may be brainwashing me!

  • This looks like a pretty useful service. We tend to give away the stuff we don't use anymore to Goodwill. While we like that from a tax perspective, something like Freecycle might be better in the sense that the recipient might appreciate the donation more. If I give a $60 pair of children jeans (which lasted 6 months... never again!) to Goodwill and they sell them for $0.25, would the jeans be as appreciated as if we gave them to somebody who knew just how much our daughter loved those jeans until she g
    • Keith, If you blog, set up a community blog aggregator like TampaBLAB, which Rob mentions in the article. It's poifect for what you're talking about. Everyone's local, the variety of talent, skills, knowledge is incredible. You put out a call for info like that and, voila!, problem solved or, at least, you're well on your way there. You get to know people from reading them, so it's not as anonymous.
  • Hey Rob -- again. I'd been intending to write an aritcle for Sticks of Fire [], another community blog, about the success of TampaBLAB, focusing specifically on the community-building: the way it connects people both globally and locally. Aside from the major geographically-based community aggregator blogs that Rob mentioned, and the big ones in DC, NY. LA, and SF, if you are aware of any other community-based blog aggregator that's found similar success (or not), I'd love to hear about them for the story. I
  • by rueger ( 210566 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @08:16PM (#14486890) Homepage
    What can I say, I wanted a Commodore 64 [] so that I could rescue some old files. Arrived and was given 18 C-64s, a handful of C-128s, 7 Vic-20s, 2 monitors, a pile if Floppy Drives, 3 cassette drives, software, and a Timex Sinclair.

    When I asked the owner how she came to have so many Commodores she replied "Oh, I just sort of collected them one by one."
  • by miracle ( 115019 )
    "Local" seems to be big everywhere now. Craigslist, Google Base and Local, Yahoo Local, ebay local, are all the big guys targetting the local market. Rumors of local news aggregates are growing hot as well....

    I'm in Houston, and I'm a fan of the popular Kingwood Yard Sales [], which is site targetted at a specific community (there are several others around Houston and in other parts of the US). Judy's Book [] is the "big metropolitan" model, like Craigslist []. Some big newspapers I know are aiming at the loc
  • Tell me, how much does it cost to get an advertorial on /.? I'm being serious. I have a site I want to promote and this seems like a keen way. $50 is about as much as I can afford, though. Does anyone have a link to the rate card?

"The pathology is to want control, not that you ever get it, because of course you never do." -- Gregory Bateson