The internet is fantastic at getting distant people together. Here I type in Amsterdam, and my words are read in Japan and New Zealand, California and New York. But the net turns out to be a powerful lubricant for local cooperation as well.
Case in point: Freecycle, a clearinghouse for people looking to give things away and people looking for free stuff. It started in America, running on Yahoo! groups. A volunteer in a local area would start a group (and own that group, under Yahoo’s terms) following the set Freecycle rules, then be added to a searchable list of Freecycle groups.
Freecycling took off in the UK with the support of local councils seeking to reduce landfill usage. According to this article, “The UK is probably the most enthusiastic Freecycling country in the world, hosting just 10% of all the branches but handling 27% of all Freecycling activities.”
I believe it. I used to be a member of the Edinburgh group, and we got rid of a lot of things before our big move that way. The people we gave things to ranged from very keen to slightly unhinged with delight about it. I found it mildly addictive, myself, and had to use some discipline not to acquire as well as dispose.In the course of human events…
But there’s an eternal tension between central control and local independence. Over time, the American founders have centralized and standardized the Freecycle Network (TFN), applied to trademark the term “Freecycle”, and sued at least one person who contested their application. They’ve also sent takedown notices to others, according to Chilling Effects.
TFN has also been moving toward a hosted system under their control, My Freecycle, rather than Yahoo! groups. People who want to start a new Freecycle group (“apply for one” is the phrasing used) are now required to have a My Freecycle ID to even begin the process.
British Freecycle groups haven’t been universally comfortable with this kind of control, which has blocked local initiatives such as locum moderation from neighboring groups, a representative at the local tip (dump) with a laptop, and a proposal to add the ability to lend things out as well as give them away.
The relationship between the American founders and many of the British groups has gone badly sour this year. The British moderators formed a negotiating team to try to resolve the matter, but were not satisfied with the results. Andy Swarbrick, a former Freecycle moderator, has been running a fairly emphatic activist blog about the matter, which has been a useful source of their side of the story. He accuses TFN of inserting ersatz moderators to take over groups from rebellious owners, telling moderators who complain to quit, and forcibly migrating groups from Yahoo! to My Freecycle.
Earlier this summer four leading members of the National UK Freecycle team resigned, including the director, in protest at the lack of change. Moderators around the country then formed an Independent Association of Moderators and again tried talking with The Freecycle Network [in the US]. Hoping to negotiate and find a positive way to continue under the banner of Freecycle. This has not been possible.
We acknowledge that what Freecycle does in the community is great. We just don’t agree that we should be dictated to from across the Atlantic and adopt inappropriate policies. We think the members and moderators make Freecycle great.
There has [sic] now been multiple summary expulsions of moderators who have asked for change from Freecycle. All UK moderators have lost their freedom of speech within the organisation. So here in Brighton we have decided to go our own way along with the majority of other Freecycle UK groups.
Then, on September 11 “hundreds of local Freecycle branches across the UK…declare[d] an orchestrated independence from their American parents.” Something like 170 out of the UK’s 509 Freecycle groups left at once, creating a new umbrella group called Freegle to serve as an index and clearinghouse.
TFN has taken a “more in sorrow than in anger” official line to this, though it does accuse the departing moderators of being undemocratic and seeking to profit from Freecycling:
“They simply took over and renamed local Freecycle groups in autocratic fashion and sought to manipulate the media into believing there was some US v UK split,” [Freecycle founder Deron Beal] said.The personal is political
“Freegle members did not choose to be Freegle members, and Freegle moderators and volunteers do not democratically vote on communal rules. They used Freecycle to build up membership, and then took the members for their own personal gain.”
I’m sure it’s no surprise that my sympathy lies more with the British mods than with TFN. I know and love the sort of people who volunteer to run these things, particularly in the UK, and they’re not very keen on marching in step. It’s part of their charm and their effectiveness, and it’s certainly true to the founding spirit of Freecycling.
(And, of course, I’m irresistibly attracted to the idea that the plucky and independent British rebels are breaking away from distant, rigid and unsympathetic American control.)
But it is, of course, important for mods to remember that “You own the space. You host the conversation. You don’t own the community. Respect their needs.” This goes for the local mods who moved their communities to Freegle without consultation as well as for TFN.
I guess that in the end, my support really goes to the ordinary members, like the folks I met in Scotland who took my leather scraps and gave me some of their seaweed as a gift, or the couple down our road who got our crib just in time for the birth of their first child, or the guy in Amsterdam who’s trying to find a home for his daughter’s rats.
That’s the real revolution, the turning of that cycle, and it’s going on every day.