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October 28, 2009

Sounds like a whisper
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:47 PM * 68 comments

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.

The first public split occurred early last month, when the Brighton Freecycle group became GreenCycleSussex. They released this statement:

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.

“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.”
The personal is political

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.

Comments on Sounds like a whisper:
#1 ::: emilly m ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 06:43 PM:

The link in the third para is to this page.

#2 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 06:51 PM:

Recycling stuff rather than dumping it is a great idea - one I use when possible, although I have had some funny looks when "recycling" something out of a skip (including bookcases, insulating foam etc.), and the police once turned up when my mother-in-law and I were scavenging odd pieces of wood from outside a timber merchant's (with the firm's permission) late at night...

It's always a pity when protectionism or personality conflicts get in the way of carrying out good ideas.

#3 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 07:00 PM:

The Toronto freecycle group split and changed its name when the folk that 'own' freecycle decided that it wasn't okay for folk to offer pride flags or look for pride flags...

#4 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 07:17 PM:

Perhaps someone can correct me, but I always thought Freecycle was basically the sort of grass-roots community project that a small group of dedicated people started and encouraged to spread to other communities, hence the initially basic website and use of Yahoo Groups. If that's the case, then it makes no sense to me for there to even be a centralized organization, because that actually costs money (which they're getting from where?) and it lessens the local community aspect. It reminds me a bit of Teresa's description of the fruit punch czar.

#5 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 07:26 PM:

Trying to monetize and control something called freecycle is rich but that, sadly, has become the American way.

#6 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 08:00 PM:

I hear that in real estate, new developments are named after the thing that gets destroyed in order to build them.

#7 ::: Paul ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 08:37 PM:

I was an avid freecycler for awhile but the local group got far too big, volumewise, and the mods went to an all-moderated format, meaning they could score stuff without competition. How do I know this? When a TAKEN notice appears without an OFFERED.

And I had some run-in with a mod who banned me for an unspecified offense with two options: admit guilt and beg for reinstatement or deny my crime and be banned. The offense remains a mystery years later proving that those who have power will use it.

These groups are only as good as the members of the mods if they control it (the freecycle charter forbade moderation, preferring to let people manage their own relationships.). But the idea is wonderful: we got rid of so much stuff that we know is being used w/o the hassle of selling it.

#8 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 09:02 PM:

Craig's List has a "free stuff" listing that I and my roommates read (too) avidly. It's not listed on the front page, but it's a subcategory of "for sale." Works fine for us.

#9 ::: pixelfish ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 09:16 PM:

My freecycle group seems pretty okay so far. They're moderated but that was partly because we had a large volume of people posting things like "First one to my house can get the ironing board--it's on the curb" without following up on whether it had been TAKEN and ignoring the fact that it created a frantic race which might cut into people's time if they got there and discovered the free ironing board had already been taken.

But I can see how the moderation privileges could be abused....and if people were skimming from the list before hand, that's kinda shady.

#10 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 09:55 PM:

When I get a job, I'm probably going to Freecycle a fair amount of furniture. There's some stuff that really isn't worth moving across a state line.

It stinks that there's a disconnect between the individuals-as-group, the groups-as-group, the groups-as-organization, and the organization-as-organization. Fruit punch czar indeed.

#11 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 10:08 PM:

It's extremely annoying that my local Freecycle group tells people not to speak about "Freecycling" things (presumably because it would violate the trademark). Really? Really?

However, other than that, they're a good group. Well-moderated. I've had great experiences giving stuff away there -- one woman looked like she was going to cry or kiss me when I met up with her to hand off an old cell phone of mine barely worth $5, because it was the only means she had of speaking with her parents. Another woman, when I gave away a set of pillows and the denim I'd intended to cover them with for years, said "You really want to give this away? This is amazing, I'm recovering a couch in denim and this is completely perfect." Makes you feel good.

I can understand being wary of extending it to lending things, or trading things. But I agree that should be the decision of the local group. Centralized control just seems contrary to the whole ethos of Freecycle.

#12 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 10:53 PM:

I stopped Freecycling a while back because our moderator wouldn't kick people out of the group who repeatedly didn't show up. When I had a lot of furniture to give away, I just used the Craigslist Free part.

#13 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 11:31 PM:

I freecycled an old PC. First I had to spend over a week's worth of evenings to reinstall everything and burn install CDs for all the software: only because it seemed a waste to recycle a perfectly functional if outdated PC. Also, there are some values of 'recycle' for which it means 'shipped to China and broken down with hammers and pots of acid into toxic waste'. I was afraid no-one would want my elderly PC. In the event it was in high demand and went to a single mom who needed it for her evening classes, so it worked out well. That was a month or two ago, still through Yahoo Groups at that time.

Erik @6, I've noticed the same Rule of Condo Naming - Whispering Pines, when the trees were clearcut; The Corners at Crystal Lakes (I actually lived there) built over the old spring-fed swimming holes; und so depressingly weiter. Most peculiar.

#14 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2009, 11:45 PM:

In addition to the Ottawa Freecycle, there's another somewhat similar local website/organization. Unfortunately, on several occasions they've done heavy street spam: massive postering; plastic lawn signs on public and private property; advertising magnets stuck up on mailboxes, street signs, and other steel items. I assume they're getting their revenue from Google ads or other paid advertising on their website.

#15 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 12:04 AM:

My local Freecycle is still on YahooGroups, and is full of helpful people -- while I didn't get an iPod wall charger when I posted a "wanted," which I kind of expected and admitted it was a long shot, someone DID tell me where to buy one for $10 instead of the $25 I hadn't been able to afford.

I gave away a LOT of stuff when I moved, and my current (gorgeous! rolltop oak!) computer desk and my super-fancy printer are both Freecycle scores.

#16 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 12:35 AM:

Portland has a great options for old computer equipment -- Free Geek. They repair them, install Linux, and give them away to nonprofits. The work is mostly done by volunteers. The rule is something like "spend 24 hours building computers for other people, and you get one, too.". Wonderful place to learn computer skills, too.

#17 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 02:05 AM:

emilly m @1:
Fixed. Thanks.

Caroline @11:
It's extremely annoying that my local Freecycle group tells people not to speak about "Freecycling" things (presumably because it would violate the trademark). Really? *Really?*

Really really. TFN are very explicit about that here:

-o0o-

...the term "Freecycle" must be used as an adjective, never as a noun or verb. For example:

Do not say "I'm a freecycler."
Do say "I'm a Freecycle member."

Do not say "Keep on freecyclin!"
Do say "Keep on recyclin', my Freecycle friends!"

Do not say "Freecycling group."
Do say "Freecycle group"

Do not say "Please Freecycle."
Do say "Please join a Freecycle group."

Do not say "There are 10 freecycles in this state."
Do say "There are 10 Freecycle groups in this state."

Do not say "freecycle's membership."
Do say "The Freecycle Network's membership."

(Note: new groups may use the word Freecycle in their group name/title, but should not be approved with any variations of the word Freecycle in their name, title or description, like freecycler, freecycling, freecycles.)

- o0o -

It's not entirely clear what the trademark status is; TFN claims it is trademarked, but a number of other people claim otherwise, and there is, or has been, a case somewhere in the courts about it. (Amicus briefs by the EFF and a buncha people including Lawrence Lessig and Jimmy Wales, both pdfs) I'm unclear on the status of the matter at the moment.

#18 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 03:00 AM:

Abi @ 17... Do say "I'm a Freecycle member."

Just call me Dick.

#19 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 05:37 AM:

abi: I was in the Edinburgh freecycle list a few years ago but dropped out due to being unable to keep up with the volume of stuff. I may rejoin: freecycling has a certain appeal. But? The official Freecycle™ guys? Can kiss my goatse. Especially after that bunch of legalese-encrusted garbage they just horked up.

(I really don't approve of centralizing control freakery.)

#20 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 05:47 AM:

Charlie @19:

While the English Freecycle group was making all the noise, it looks like Scotland quietly flitted to Freegle, lock, stock and OFFERED: barrel.

Embra has certainly joined that code fork.

#21 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 07:13 AM:

abi@17: TFN are very explicit about that here:

"The term "Freecycle" in text must always be capitalized to set it off from the surrounding text. Example:
Freecycle groups are great!"

If I was going to get that motherlovingly anal, I'd at least try to come up with an example with "Freecycle" somewhere other than the first word of the sentence, eg "I think Freecycle moderators
sound like they've achieved a remarkable synthesis of authoritarianism and profound shiftiness."

#22 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 07:52 AM:

abi @ 17: Apparently the district court issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the defendant from "disparaging" the freecycle trademark (just as we're doing here), which is what got the attention of all those legal luminaries. Free speech trumps trademark law unless you're actually using the mark commercially.

My impression is that TFN has jumped through whatever hoops are necessary to trademark "Freecycle", though the defendants are also arguing that the word "freecycle" is generic and thus shouldn't be available for trademark.

#23 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 08:10 AM:

OT, but... is the post title a Chris de Burgh reference?

#24 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 08:13 AM:

Tracy Chapman.

#25 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 09:55 AM:

Ah. (Hides her very square head in shame.)

#26 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 09:57 AM:

Some years back, I encountered the issue regarding trademarking a commonly used phrase. Anything not yet trademarked can be trademarked, but if it is a phrase in common usage, the trademark cannot be enforced.

Laws may have changed since then, and the definition of "in common usage" may be debatable.
~ AIANAL.

#27 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 09:59 AM:

Local-to-me Kanata Freecycle had a blow-up (same ol' same ol') with official Freecycle a while back and became "Kanata Freestore". The official people started a new Kanata group, I don't know how it's doing.

In Ottawa, we also have a Habitat for Humanity Re-Store for building supplies. It's conveniently close to my office, takes lots of stuff, and sells for very low prices.

#28 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 10:37 AM:

abi @ 17 and Adrian Smith @ 21:

That list looks an awful lot like the ones from large corporations telling their employees (and other people, although they never listen) how to properly use their trademark. This makes it easier to defend as a trademark, despite never taking natural English usage into account, so I wouldn't judge them too harshly on that account. If they're just starting to be obnoxious about it now, though, that's different.

According to the US Patent and Trademark office, a trademark application was filed in 2004 and it was "published for opposition" in 2006. According to the UK's Intellectual Property Office, the application was filed in 2005, referencing the 2004 application in the US, and it was registered in 2006.

I am not an expert in any way, shape, or form, but, judging by the USPTO's FAQ, registration just makes it easier to use the courts, it's not necessary for something to be a trademark. I don't know how it works in the UK.

#29 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 11:59 AM:

I can't imagine going to all this trouble to retain control of a distributed network that doesn't generate any money - though I can see how one might save $3-5000 a year by skimming the best stuff off the top. So why all the fuss? I can't help but feel I'm missing something and there is a money-making angle here. Can anyone enlighten me?

#30 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 12:17 PM:

Doug K @13:

Erik @6, I've noticed the same Rule of Condo Naming - Whispering Pines, when the trees were clearcut; The Corners at Crystal Lakes (I actually lived there) built over the old spring-fed swimming holes; und so depressingly weiter. Most peculiar.

I live in an area called Hawthorn Farms. Guess what it used to be. The Max line runs through there and in one spot, while riding the train, you can see an old derelict farmhouse. Past another stop is a narrow road where an old general store sits. It's like a ghost of the past slipping into the present.

#31 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 12:55 PM:

Alex @ 29: "I can't help but feel I'm missing something and there is a money-making angle here. Can anyone enlighten me?"

Yeah, it's hard to imagine ad revenue making up for operating expenses. I vaguely suspect it might be a misguided "It's Web 2.0! Of course it can be monetized! ...somehow! ...eventually!" sort of thing on the financial end, with fruit-punch-bowl-czarism providing psychological motivation.

#32 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 01:28 PM:

An analogy just came to my slower-sometimes-than-others mind.
One of the aspirations of the spacer movement which peaked in the Eighties was that out there, if you don't like it, you can leave. Unlike being stuck on this one limited planet. Yeah, cyberspace is the same. The most notorious example at the moment is the migration from MySpace to FaceBook.
Anarchistic voluntary organization is a norm online.

#33 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 02:39 PM:

Neil #32: And must like the space analogy, the "you can just leave" claim is misleading, when it isn't outright wrong. The reasons are slightly different, but in both cases, what creates the "place" is the collective work of a large community. In space, someone who "just leaves" won't have the infrastructure for life support; in cyberspace, the group is the reason for being there. The difference in cyberspace is that breakaway groups can find other places to gather, but the newly-centralized Freecycle is trying to "unname" its dissidents.

#34 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 03:08 PM:

Alex @ 29: They bring in about $140,000 a year "from corporate underwriting, on-site advertising (in the form of a Google sponsor bar), grants and individual donations" (and are perfectly up-front about that -- see http://www.freecycle.org/about/funds).

#35 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 03:42 PM:

From Freecycle's own funds page:

Our expenses of about $130,000 are mainly in the paying of four individuals and the maintenance of our current website and design of the new community. These individuals include the executive director, two contractors responsible for the current web community and one contractor for the new website design project. We have several servers to this end, coding expense and related site-design expenses. We also are incurring substantial legal expense, primarily in defending our trademark.

Their Form 990 for 2008 breaks this out in more detail. Some interesting bits:

Paying of four individuals:
The main individual whose pay is described in the Form 990 is Deron Beal (the executive director). According to page 2 of the form, he received $42,591 in compensation and a further $10,171 in benefit payments.

Very little is shown of others' pay, but since page 2 reveals that the total compensation was $51,681, that's only $9,090 left for others as direct compensation.

Let's be clear. There's nothing wrong with being paid for one's work. I suspect that running TFN is a full-time job and then some.

The concern is, when one person is paid while others volunteer, whether the paid person's priorities undergo a subtle shift, so that he prefers a structure that allows him to keep getting paid to one that is chancier but more in keeping with the ad hoc nature of the system.

maintenance of the website and design of the new community
I presume that comes out on page 19, where costs of $6,640 for computer services and $5,855 for outside computer expenses are listed.

The whole set of forms is useful reading if you want to get a scale of things. Even with $50,000 in government grants, $69k in service revenue and $96 grand in public donations, TFN is not an enormous money pot.

(I note that they are building up a substantial capital reserve; they pretty much doubled their assets in 2008 to $190 grand. But both that and the defensible trademark could well be simply planning for long-term survival.)

#36 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 03:54 PM:

The official Freecycle Folks' usage guidelines make me want to xerox my googled offer to freecycle kleenex.

#37 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 04:13 PM:

Can I use your kleenex to clean my linoleum with some kerosene (after I take the escalator upstairs and do yo-yo tricks while jumping on the trampoline)?

#38 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 04:16 PM:

You'll hurt yourself and need a band-aid. And if you leave a mess, I'll have to hoover it up, won't I?

(Yes, that last bit was British. So?)

#39 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 06:25 PM:

abi @ 35: Huh. It's being run as a non-profit, and then suing its supporters? That seems a bit off.

(Internet ad revenue amounts to $9,275; legal fees are $11,394.)

#40 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 07:13 PM:

Yarrow @ 37... You have strange hankerings.

#41 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 07:15 PM:

Alex #29 - I've seen one or two arguments in voluntary organisations and heard/ read of others, but don't claim great expertise in this area...
So that said, people do act like this when something they think is their toy/ baby/ game/ etc is in danger of being changed the way they don't want it to change, or someone wants to play a different game, or escapes from their power. Money is not needed at all, just think personal ego investment over the years.

#42 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 07:16 PM:

Alex #29 - I've seen one or two arguments in voluntary organisations and heard/ read of others, but don't claim great expertise in this area...
So that said, people do act like this when something they think is their toy/ baby/ game/ etc is in danger of being changed the way they don't want it to change, or someone wants to play a different game, or escapes from their power. Money is not needed at all, just think personal ego investment over the years.

#43 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 07:19 PM:

This seems in line with the idea that "no matter what the original purpose of an organization, before long the purpose will have shifted to 'preserve the organization's existence'".

Does that have an actual name (like "Overton Window" or "Whoozit's Law")?

#44 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 07:56 PM:

36/37/38: If you wind up with a headache after all that, I'll give you some aspirin.

#45 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 08:25 PM:

guthrie @ 41 -- Oh, goodness, yes, and the cry of "I'll sue!" is as common and (usually) as empty in fandom as on the net. A few years back, after some reprehensible shenanigans involving a change of hands for the central mailer job of the APA I belonged to, one of the members was blathering about how he was going to sue because the actions -- which didn't violate the actual rules for the group, such as they were -- violated "natural law". (Even after having looked up the term, I couldn't figure out how one might take legal action over it.) Though I (mostly) agreed with him about what had happened -- it pushed me into quitting the group -- I spent some time arguing with him about the inappropriateness of trying to use the courts to resolve social disagreements (and not the first time I'd argued that point with him).

#46 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 08:31 PM:

Lexica, I believe I've heard that referred to as the Iron Law of Organizations.

#47 ::: whyfreegle ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 09:29 PM:

Why didn't the groups who became Freegle ask their members beforehand whether that would be ok with them?

The answer is very simple: any group who gets caught doing something like that gets kicked out of Freecycle and loses their support network. TFN has some very cult-like features, and "shunning" of group owners/moderators who show disillusionment with Freecycle is one of them.
Once a group has been removed/kicked out of Freecycle, they are no longer allowed to use the name Freecycle on their group or in their web address. So time is of the essence, because the trademark agent comes after the group owner. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult (or impossible) to democratically ask the members of a group to vote on the issue.

Besides, the group owners are allowed, under Yahoo!s terms of service, to rename their groups. Members who have joined a Yahoo group, rather than Freecycle's own platform MyFreecycle, are members of the Yahoo group - not of Freecycle. If people have joined a group hosted on the MyFreecycle platform, then they have indeed joined Freecycle. If they've joined a Freecycle group hosted on Yahoo!, then they've joined a Yahoo! group (which can be renamed at the owner's discretion).

Hope this clears up some of the confusion :-)

#48 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 09:41 PM:

Lexica @ 43: "Does that have an actual name (like "Overton Window" or "Whoozit's Law")?"

I've heard it called The Iron Law of Institutions. I think that post is where it comes from, but who knows, really.

Mary Aileen @ 44: "If you wind up with a headache after all that, I'll give you some aspirin."

If they need it right away will you fed-ex it?

#49 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 10:36 PM:

I'll bring a pressie – have a handy thermos, will wrap in cellophane & bring card enscribed with biro.

#50 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2009, 11:45 PM:

Doug K., #13, when I first looked at these condos, Rolling Oaks, I asked if there were oaks here and the salesman said he didn't know, but it was hilly. As it happens, the development is surrounded by oaks and is indeed hilly.

#51 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 12:04 AM:

So, I'm a member of Yahoo groups freecycle. Is Freecyle Inc suing them? Or going to? I'm also a member of another Yahoo group that operates more or less exactly like Freecycle. Is Freecycle going to sue them? Will it be like McDonald's suing all things Mc? Will no one dare to mention the word "free" above a whisper?

Or maybe it will be like kleenex.

#52 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 01:51 AM:

Erik Nelson @ #6 et. seq., I'll offer a counterpoint. We moved into a brand new subdivision in Northern Virgina called Tall Oaks, and there were actual tall trees all around us. My backyard neighbor had a small grove of 40-50 foot trees in her back yard. We had a 30-foot oak right at the curve of our steeply-graded driveway.

That one stopped our car from sliding down the yard into the street when my toddler-sister inadvertently bumped the gear level out of park one day.

#53 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 02:34 AM:

whyfreegle @47:

I understand the reasoning, but unconsented moderator behavior runs through this entire story like secrecy through a dysfunctional family. I mean this in all seriousness. Consider:

* From what I read, TFN ran a Freecycle moderators' forum, and comments on that were moderated (before publishing? Accounts are not clear). People tell of asking awkward questions or complaining and then finding their comments suppressed and themselves banned.

* There are allegations that moves to My Freecycle were said to be reversible until the moderator actually moved; then they proved to be final. I've also read allegations that such moves have been done without the consent of the Yahoo! group owner.

* The story about the ErsatzFriend co-moderator role (I linked to it in the main article), which was claimed to allow TFN to take over Freecycle groups if a rebellious list owner did not agree to step down.

* The sort of thing that Paul @7 mentions, when moderation of offers leads to "dibs".

* And yes, the groups who moved to Freegle. I acknowledge that this may have been a necessary evil, but that doesn't make it good.


The underlying theme to this problem is the question of who owns the community?

TFN clearly wants to. In addition to the more overt moves, note the fact that the form for people who want to start a Freecycle group talks of "applying" for one. TFN is clearly placing itself in the position of grantor, as though it's a franchise.

I think the UK mods who moved their communities away are closer to the truth of the matter, and that's why I'm more on their side. They did not want group ownership (in the real sense, not the Yahoo! internal terminology) to rest with the layer above them.

But that begs the next question. Do those mods think that they own the group? Do they act like they do? Or do they think that the list members own it? I don't know of a litmus test for that, but I see on the Freegle moderator resources page that there are fora (eg Freegle Structure) for discussing that.

Unfortunately, those fora are for moderators only.

See a problem?

#54 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 09:58 AM:

Lexica #43:

I've seen this referred to as Pournelle's Iron Law. (I have no idea what the precedence is on this, and it has probably been noted many times.) From Jerry Pournelle's weblog:

Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

Related ideas are Teresa's Punchbowl Czar, and the Peter Principle.

#55 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 11:50 AM:

While I don't like Pournelle's specific example[*], his iron law of bureaucracy seems to be an emergent truth of management: once you hit the upper limit of the number of people who can be managed by a single manager, the organisation responds by installing multiple managers, who then need to spend a chunk of their time coordinating between them rather than organizing the primary productive workers ... and the scope for empire-building emerges, which is easier than trying to manage yourself out of a job.

[*] Why go after union reps when there's non-teaching management, for example? Grinding political axes[**] in public is seldom pretty ...

[**] Yes, yes, bad pun. So bite me.

#56 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 12:33 PM:

Charlie, Pournelle's political axes are notoriously tilted.

#57 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 02:17 PM:

Towards windmills?

#58 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 02:47 PM:

Depending on the season, yes.

#59 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 02:58 PM:

Charlie, I think a better example might be 'police protective leagues' (aka police unions), which actually have kept the bad cops from being fired. (Or, in some cases, gotten the fired bad cops reinstated.)

#60 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 03:25 PM:

@59: I think any example contrasting workers and union reps is a bad one for the iron law of bureaucracy. Because the union reps aren't there to build an empire within the institution (the police force); they're there to represent the interests of their constituency, and as such, politicking is part of the package.

Now, the US healthcare insurance bureaucracy would be a classic example of the iron law in progress. Especially as there's enough money sloshing around the host organism to keep them well-fed.

#61 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 03:31 PM:

Why go after union reps when there's non-teaching management, for example?

He's a Republican?

#62 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 07:44 PM:

Speaking of Pournelle, he's backing up a local scientist/traitor.

#63 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 08:21 PM:

Volunteer Organizations Cracking

Here I sit in Amsterdam and watch world tensions grow
Here I sit in Amsterdam and see a tale of woe
Here I sit in Amsterdam as good ideas go lame
And politics gone sweet to sour in transatlantic game.

The ways that grew from high ideals
And implemented well,
And spread across a continent
And oceans in their swell--
But ways that work across the sea
When spread to other lands,
Meet values, culture, local trends,
And conflict starts and stands.

Whose ways are the better ones
And bitter strife ensues,
And legal fights and broken bonds
Opposing now the views,
The good ideas and ideals rip'd
To shred and lost good will,
And those who try to stay the course,
Whose efforts are there still.

#64 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 08:40 PM:

Marilee @ 62:

The Pournelle quote sounds like the classic "How can I have been wrong about someone I knew?!" that is almost de rigueur for articles about "respectable" people being arrested. I'm not sure why the newspapers always include those quotes. The shocked parent, spouse, or child, okay--the random neighbor, well, who is well known to all their neighbors?

It seems especially odd in this case, given that it's almost definitional of actual and would-be spies that their neighbors don't know they're spies. It's not like selling drugs or running numbers, where it can be advantageous to have one's neighbors aware of the business. It's not like a past conviction for car theft, because the cars parked on the street won't know about your record. Being known--or thought--to be a spy makes espionage, and especially that sort of espionage for profit, much more difficult if not impossible.

#65 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 10:30 PM:

Marilee #50:
Rolling Oaks, eh?

#66 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2009, 11:40 PM:

Charlie #60:

That's a good point. The Iron Law applied to a union suggests that a union will, over time, transition from an organization focused on protecting the interests of its members to an organization focused on protecting its own continued position and importance. That seems plausible, but I don't have much experience with unions, so I have no idea how accurate it is.

A union representing the interests of its members in a way that has bad social effects is a problem, but it's not the Iron Law. (Obvious examples of this are things like the prison guard's union campaigning for three-strikes laws, or the policemens' union fighting to keep a corrupt or brutal cop from losing his job.)

It certainly seems to be true of most large organizations to some extent. It may even be necessary to some extent--if your federal agency is focused entirely on doing its job, and all the other agencies are focused mainly on getting a bigger budget and more responsibilities, your agency is liable to shrink in power and importance.

#67 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2009, 12:20 AM:

John Houghton @65, that is a fun video. I added it to my YouTube music collection. Thanks!

#68 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2009, 06:44 PM:

John Houghton, #65, not quite the same thing!

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