Seattle’s 56 Buy Nothing Facebook groups are bringing neighborliness back one free thing at a time

By: Sara Gentzler

It isn’t my neighbors, it’s me. The couple I pass going in and out of my Fremont apartment complex, the man who walks his corgi at the same time I leave for work – I’m sure they’re lovely. So why do our interactions always feel so awkward and hurried?

When an acquaintance recommended that my boyfriend and I join our local Buy Nothing Facebook group, where my neighbors give and receive free food, furniture, and tickets to events, I was skeptical. Did I really want to let those awkward, hurried exchanges extend into my online life?

Then our thrift store kitchen chair broke. At the top of my Facebook feed was a post from Buy Nothing, alerting me to two free kitchen chairs sitting curbside up the street. Two hours later, those chairs were ours.

Sometime between then and last week, when I gave away a calculator I hadn’t used since high school, Buy Nothing became my most frequented Facebook group. And one of my favorite ways to actually interact with my neighbors.

The Buy Nothing Project

Buy Nothing was born on Bainbridge Island in 2013 when resident Liesl Clark approached her friend Rebecca Rockefeller. Inspired by the egalitarian gift economies of remote Himalayan villages, the pair decided to create a Facebook page where neighbors could give, lend, share, and request items and talents — an imitation of the villages’ culture within their own Bainbridge community. They called the page “Buy Nothing.”

Since then, the Buy Nothing Project has grown to 1,718 active online groups spanning 20 countries and all 50 U.S. states, with about six new requests to start groups every day, according to Lissa Jagodnik, one of the project’s local, regional, and global administrators. A hierarchy of administrators works to help the grass-roots, entirely volunteer-run organization stay consistent with the original cornerstone of “giving where you live.”

A current map of how our region’s 56 Buy Nothing groups are divided, courtesy of Lissa Jagodnik (Note: This will change in the next two months due to “sprouting.”)

How it works

Buy Nothing group members write posts offering and requesting free goods and services. Neighbors comment on those posts, hoping to get the gift or fulfill the request. Members then coordinate pickups and meetups over Facebook messages.

The groups are guided by principles best summed up by this language on the project’s website:
“Give Freely. Share Creatively.” There’s no buying, selling, or trading. It’s a straight-up giveaway, or it doesn’t belong on a Buy Nothing group.

Local administrators like Oonagh Mahnke, who works with the Crown Hill/Carkeek group, enforce more specific guidelines for participation that help preserve the Buy Nothing Project culture.

“Little things, like not using acronyms, encourage members to speak to each other like neighbors,” Oonagh said. “You wouldn’t go to a neighbor and say ‘I.S.O. [an online abbreviation for ‘In Search Of’] a cup of sugar.’”

Instead, you might say something like, “I have this half-eaten pizza that I’m not going to finish – do you guys want it?” or “I’m in need of a kidney.” No, really.

The possibilities for giving and receiving in the groups are nearly limitless. But while Oonagh has heard of members requesting kidneys and giving away old vehicles, her favorite exchanges are more subtle.

“Last year, I made my daughter’s birthday cake and the first one flopped, so I made another,” Oonagh said. “I had a bunch of extra frosting, so I frosted the botched cake and posted it. Somebody was like, ‘It was my birthday yesterday and I didn’t get a cake. I would love this!’”

Buy Nothing Fremont/Wallingford West member Ame Esterline has used both Buy Nothing and local shelters to give her belongings new life since she moved here from Southern California in July 2014.

“I like that [Buy Nothing] is community-based,” Ame said. “You’re directly giving back to the people around you.”

Last week, my boyfriend offered the PlayStation 3 we almost never use to our Buy Nothing neighbors.

Warm interactions are the norm, but the communities are not immune to dysfunction. Some common issues tend to center on messages getting lost in Facebook’s filtering system or other technological quirks, but others get more personal.

Ame pointed out that members who don’t follow through on promises to pick up items can “damage the community spirit,” but Oonagh reassured me that flakiness and other member-based issues are resolved by karma within groups. According to Oonagh, members notice when people don’t show up to pickups or post their name on every gift, and will take that into account when giving items.

A more contentious issue, cited by both Oonagh and Lissa, is “sprouts.” That’s when one overgrown group splits into several smaller ones.

“People become very attached to their Buy Nothing Project group, and they get very upset when we make changes,” Lissa said.

Some members even choose to leave altogether during a sprout. But Oonagh thinks there is a positive and meaningful statement underneath change-related conflict.

“That angst taught me how much this resource is valued by this community,” she said.

How to join your Buy Nothing group

Want to be one of the 46,200 or so Buy Nothing group members in the Seattle/Shoreline region? There is already a group that exists in your neighborhood. The 56 groups in the area were formed by consulting maps available on the Seattle City Clerk’s Office website, population density information, and transportation maps.

“The makeup of each group is a balance of population, geography, and trying to be mindful of our carbon footprint,” Lissa said.

Making the groups as walkable as possible serves at least two purposes: It reduces the need for members to drive, thereby making the groups more environmentally conscious, and it helps to connect people who are truly neighbors. One group in Capitol Hill epitomizes that goal, spanning less than one-third of a mile.

If you don’t belong to a Buy Nothing group yet and you fit the most restrictive definition of an “adult” (21 years or older in Washington), here’s how you can join:

  • Find the right group for your address. Message any listed administrator of any group or go to the “Find a Group” page on the project’s website.
  • Join the group. Once you find the best group for you, click “Join Group,” send a message to an administrator of the group, and keep an eye on your messages for a request to verify your age and cross streets (psst, don’t forget to check your Message Requests and Filtered Message Requests folders).
  • Get generous. Once you’re in, Oonagh says, it’s tempting to impulsively put your name up for consideration on every shiny freebie that’s up for grabs. Now that she’s a veteran Buy Nothing member and an administrator, Oonagh advises a different strategy: Start by gifting.“

Jump in with both feet and just start posting,” Oonagh said. “It’s amazing how much it comes back around.”

Email Evergrey contributor Sara Gentzler at [email protected]