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Buy Nothing Creates Community in a Digital Age

By Jeffrey Rindskopf

A neighbor whose children had recently moved from home once gifted Crescent Moegling a plastic playset designed to resemble a dragon’s fortress and, for years, Moegling’s son made good use of the toy and all its accompanying figurines. When he too had outgrown the playset, he suggested they give it away via the same platform through which they received it.

He told me ‘Mom, I think I’m done with this, so we can give it to Buy Nothing,’” says Moegling.

Buy Nothing is a grassroots project composed of hyper-local “gift economies” that allow neighbors to give and receive anything for free using a Facebook group devoted to their particular community. Since its founding a little more than two years ago, Buy Nothing has grown exponentially to include 1300 groups in 18 nations around the world, each one managed by volunteers.

I think that’s kind of the beauty of Buy Nothing. We’re relying on volunteers on a free platform, and that keeps it genuine because no one’s seeking anything,” says Moegling, who volunteers her own time for Buy Nothing as a regional administrator, overseeing the fifty-plus groups within the Seattle-Shoreline area.

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Buy Nothing started on Bainbridge Island in July 2014, when founders Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller expanded their blog on reducing plastic waste into an island-wide Facebook group wherein members could give away items they no longer needed without the expectation of receiving anything in return.

Originally there was more bartering involved,” Moegling explains. “Then, with the name, it evolved into strictly a gift economy, which would hopefully build community.”

Indeed, the original Buy Nothing community quickly ballooned from a few dozen members to more than a thousand on Bainbridge Island alone. Moegling heard of the movement through a friend living on the island and immediately reached out to the founders about starting the first Buy Nothing group in Seattle. Originally it encompassed the entire northeastern part of the city but has since been split, or “sprouted,” into seven separate groups.

We really need to start small,” Moegling says. “A large geographic footprint isn’t really conducive to walking to your neighbors’ house. As they get smaller, they get tighter-knit and closer to that community ideal we’re striving for.”

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The spread of Buy Nothing beyond its humble beginnings in Bainbridge has been driven entirely by enthusiastic volunteers like Moegling. Now anyone can found a Buy Nothing group for their own neighborhood simply by filling out a contact form on the official site.

One of the founding members has friends and family in Australia, so that’s how the Australian groups got started,” Moegling recalls. “Facebook is really borderless when you consider it.”

Regional admins assist the local volunteers in establishing the geographic boundaries, creating the Facebook page and appointing two local admins to oversee the day-to-day operations of the group. Often this entails vetting new members to be sure they live within the group’s borders or explaining the principles of a gift economy to those who don’t quite grasp the concept.

Some people think, ‘maybe the stuff is better in this other neighborhood’s group,’ but that’s really not the purpose of it,” explains Kristina Moravec, a local admin for a Buy Nothing in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. “It’s more about engaging with the community and meeting the people around you.”

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Other times, Moravec says, members will be uncomfortable requesting items and thus offer to give something in return, a violation of Buy Nothing’s strictly gift-centric approach.

We try to encourage them not to be in this transactional state of mind,” she says. “It’s okay to just ask.”

The health of a Buy Nothing group depends chiefly on the involvement of its members, and many of them around the world have taken to organizing their own events that facilitate more in-person giving. One such event that’s caught on in groups around the world is something called “Junk in the Trunk,” wherein community members fill the trunks of their cars with everything they want to gift and meet in an open space to browse through one another’s wares.

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Crescent Moegling.

Other members will volunteer space in their homes to host “lending libraries,” storing rarely-used household tools or kitchen appliances and listing them on the Buy Nothing page for others in the community to use whenever the need arises.

I know all my neighbors now because of Buy Nothing,” Moegling says.

If the organization continues to expand, Moegling speculates that Buy Nothing might one day become a non-profit organization with full-time employees or grow beyond Facebook into its own standalone website or smartphone app. Buy Nothing’s monumental growth makes it clear that the concept of a gift economy resonates around the world, offering a new way to build local community within our increasingly global digital age.

I think it’s a common cultural thing dating back thousands of years, where communities share,” Moegling says. “If they have extra produce they’re going to share it with their neighbors. It’s an easy concept for people to grasp.”

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