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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Battle for the Soul of Buy Nothing

When my son was little, my mom started collecting his outgrown clothes to give to strangers on the internet. She would meet these people through Buy Nothing, a project that had been created by two women from Bainbridge Island, Washington, not far from her home in Seattle. The mission of Buy Nothing, which had a local cult following, was to revive old-fashioned sharing among neighbors. People were organized by town or neighborhood into Facebook groups, where they could post what they needed, or no longer needed, and their neighbors would respond accordingly.

What made this different from Goodwill, Craigslist, or other freebie groups was that the people in your group always lived close by, and—because Buy Nothing was hosted on Facebook—everyone’s names and photos were visible, and messaging other members was as easy as texting. Pickups tended to happen at the front door, prompting face-to-face conversation. After a while, strangers became friendly acquaintances, their stoops integrated into your mental map of your town. Through my mom, random people came to own the forgotten detritus of my motherhood: unused diapers, a nursing cover (“that you threw in bathroom trash,” my mom accused in an email). My mom had been living frugally and sustainably long before it was fashionable—diluting her dish soap, cutting her sponges into quarters—and on Buy Nothing, she’d found her people.

When my son was 6, my mom retired. She packed her life into used cardboard boxes procured on Buy Nothing and moved down the street from me in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she joined a new Buy Nothing group. With her freed-up time, she acquired empty kombucha bottles on Buy Nothing, filled them with home-brewed kombucha, then regifted those. I used the group by proxy—once, to get rid of a box of half-full toiletries, another time to find a clip-on leopard tail for my son’s summer theater production—and eventually joined it myself.

Our group, one of several in Fort Collins, included more than 1,000 members. Buy Nothing had grown a lot in the years since my mom had been an early adopter, especially during the worst of the pandemic, when people were avoiding stores. By summer 2022, there were thousands of groups in more than 60 countries, with about 6 million members. The founders, Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, had published a book about buying less in which they described a grand vision of strengthening individuals, communities, and the environment. People told apocryphal stories about diehards who never bought anything, like, ever.

Facebook was a big part of what made Buy Nothing so effective. But it was also the reason I was far less active there than my mom. Like a lot of people I knew, I’d fallen off using Facebook much. Given Buy Nothing’s mission of commerce-free community building, there seemed something dissonant to me about its existence on a platform that mined people’s personal information and stoked invidious “engagement” for ad dollars. 

It turned out that Clark and Rockefeller, the Buy Nothing founders, also considered Facebook an uncomfortable fit. When I talked to them both on a Zoom call last summer, Rockefeller, 53, was on her parents’ porch in glasses, a delicate blouse, and a shaggy silverish bob, while Clark, 56, sat at her dining table wearing a ponytail and a fuzzy cardigan. “We used Facebook because it was a free tool, and it had a lot of reach. There were a lot of reasons that we picked it,” Rockefeller explained. “But we realized very early on that it also came with some things that conflicted with our mission.”

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She and Clark had a wearied, beleaguered air. A year earlier they had decided to move Buy Nothing away from Facebook, turning their attention to launching a stand-alone Buy Nothing app. This kind of undertaking was, of course, one of those many things in life that do not come free. They registered a business, The Buy Nothing Project Inc., and pitched venture capitalists on investing in them. Clark had taken to punctuating her tweets with hashtags such as #futureofwork and #MakerEconomy.

So far, though, Buy Nothing Inc. was a flop. Even more upsetting, Clark and Rockefeller were getting blasted from within their own community. Some Buy Nothing members accused them, in blistering Facebook comments, of selling out. This reaction might have been expected, in retrospect, from a commerce-free collective, but the intensity of it shook Rockefeller and Clark. They had built a thriving and generous community on the most corporate of internet platforms. But now that they were trying to become independent—a move that they saw as committing further to their principles—they were met with furious disbelief that the founders of a movement premised on strings-free gifting now appeared to be trying to make a buck. “You have to fund it. There’s no shame in that,” Clark said. “But we are shamed nonstop for having named it the Buy Nothing Project.”

Buy Nothing’s much-repeated origin tale starts with Clark, a documentarian from Bainbridge Island, spending time in a remote mountain community in Nepal with her husband, the elite mountaineer Pete Athans. There she noticed that people reused their belongings and shared, rather than bought, what they needed. Back home, Clark and Rockefeller, a friend, would often take walks with their children along the water and inventory the trash that had washed ashore. They wondered whether they could reduce waste by bringing the sort of gifting Clark had seen in Nepal into their own town, and Buy Nothing was born.

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None of this is exactly inaccurate. Clark is a filmmaker; she did observe gift economies in Nepal; she and Rockefeller did audit the Bainbridge shoreline. But the full story of Buy Nothing starts when they met, in 2009, through an online gifting forum called Freecycle. 

Earlier that year, Rockefeller had gotten divorced and ended up as a single mother. While married she had been working-class, but suddenly she was poor, living on food stamps and Medicaid. She joined Freecycle expecting to take things she needed while simultaneously giving back. She kept getting in trouble with the group’s local moderator, though, for offerings that he deemed unacceptable. “I had these twigs that I’d pruned,” she told me. “The guy was like, ‘Your old shrubbery is not a gift.’”

He was wrong. The twigs did attract interest—from Clark, it turned out. When she came by to pick them up, the women commiserated over Freecycle’s strict rules and found they had a lot in common.

Both women had unconventional lives. Clark’s academic parents raised their kids partly in Nigeria and Chile and spent their spare time on DIY projects. At one point they bought land in New Hampshire, and the whole family built a house on it by hand. Later, her work as a documentarian took her all over the world, with her children often tagging along. When Rockefeller was 3 years old, meanwhile, her mother joined a cult and left the family. Rockefeller’s father remarried, and he and Rockefeller’s adoptive mother, both government workers, instilled the family with a strong ethic of public service. As she grew up, an iconoclastic streak kept Rockefeller from settling into one particular career; she worked as a kayak guide and a craftsperson, among other gigs. 

Both women homeschooled their children—for Clark, to accommodate work and volunteerism, and for Rockefeller, to provide a more personalized education for her daughter, who is on the autism spectrum—and they started getting together for school projects. They found they shared a mutual devotion to environmentalism and frugal living. Whenever they saw each other, they’d come up with ideas for idealistic ventures: a local bartering club, a lending library for household tools. None ever took off. 

In July 2013, Rockefeller posted on Facebook, “If I started a local free/trade/borrow listserve, like Freecycle but with a different attitude re: moderation of posts, would you join?” There was a chorus of positive responses—yes!yup!prolly. Clark jumped in: “But how can each member post? Do you submit to a moderator who then posts your item for you? Do you have to have a photo?” Rockefeller replied, and in the thread—then later, in person—the women hashed out the details. 

The initial premise was to make people feel good about whatever they had to offer. “Literally, we want people to come in and offer their onion skins and their chunks of concrete,” Rockefeller told me. And unlike Freecycle, which focuses on giving and dissuades requests, they would encourage people to ask for anything. But maybe more consequential than any of those differences in sensibility was that Rockefeller and Clark decided to host Buy Nothing on Facebook, with its built-in social tools.

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On July 6, Rockefeller created a Facebook group called Buy Nothing Bainbridge and added Clark as a co-administrator. By the end of the day it had more than 100 members. Within weeks the group had added hundreds more members, and strangers in nearby towns were asking how they could start their own. Rockefeller and Clark helped them, and by the end of December they had created 78 Buy Nothing groups, with more than 12,000 members in all.

The day before New Year’s Eve, Clark, Rockefeller, and a group of friends and Buy Nothing members got together to plan for the future. They had tea and muffins, then did an exercise. On multicolored index cards, they each wrote down their wildest dreams for Buy Nothing. One woman hoped that it would become a nonprofit and publish a magazine; another imagined it would spawn a virtual currency.

The group made a list of Buy Nothing’s positives (dedicated admins, free, connects virtual world to the real world) and negatives (24/7 time commitment, funding, problems managing Facebook). They wrote down the opportunities ahead, and also the risks. In the latter column they listed the challenge of replicating their original vision across dozens of groups, the limitations of the Facebook platform, the chance of egos getting in the way of the group’s principles, and the possibility of being “unable to fund core expenses.” Years later, the list would turn out to be prescient. But at that time, almost a decade ago, all the excitement made Rockefeller and Clark feel like anything was possible.

Test the limits of what can be gotten or discarded on Buy Nothing, and you will be confounded. You can proffer a medium-size rock, and someone will want it for their garden. You can post dryer lint, and a neighbor will convert it into hamster bedding. In their book, Rockefeller and Clark write about a childless couple who, after multiple miscarriages, finally gave away their unused baby items. The recipient, collecting this on behalf of a pregnant friend, mentioned that the friend was thinking about putting her child up for adoption. One thing led to another, and soon the couple became the infant’s adoptive parents. 

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This was a particularly unusual case, but over the months I spent talking to Buy Nothing members, it wasn’t even the wildest anecdote I heard. In my group in Fort Collins, recent offers have included a used stick of upmarket deodorant, a half-eaten artichoke pizza, and the fluff from inside a couch. All found new life. The couch fluff, actually, went to at least three people—one of whom, a friend of mine, was sewing tiny stuffed gnomes as Christmas presents.

A woman in Seattle named Katylin (she doesn’t use a last name) told me that Buy Nothing has allowed her to live well in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Katylin describes herself as blue-collar; she’s had various jobs including practicing cosmetology and working at a grocery store. Seattle has gotten wealthier and more economically stratified over the years, but on Buy Nothing, she told me, relations feel equalized.

Katylin has given away chicken droppings (for fertilizer), stale aquarium water (a nutrient-rich plant food), and crushed egg shells (a natural calcium source). She has received a stove, a dishwasher, toys for her children, concert tickets, and a wooden boat, which she rows out onto the lake at night to stargaze. For two years during the pandemic, Katylin told me, she bought almost nothing except food. “I feel great after a day of Buy Nothing,” she said. “You don’t go to a Walmart, come home, and feel happy about your purchases.”

Rockefeller and Clark decided early on that they didn’t want to codify Buy Nothing’s principles into a business or a nonprofit, with all the unwieldy administration that would entail. They did, however, want to supervise how the Buy Nothing groups functioned, so they built a makeshift management structure using the tools already embedded in Facebook. On Facebook, groups have to be operated by one or more administrators, so Rockefeller and Clark decided to have local volunteers run each group. They disseminated information to these people through another Facebook group called the Admin Hub. They appointed regional admins to oversee the local ones, and finally a small circle of about 20 global admins to handle project-wide tasks and weigh in on big decisions. Rockefeller and Clark had the final word. 

Almost all of the admins were women, and their labor was entirely volunteer. As Rockefeller and Clark sank their lives into Buy Nothing, sometimes at the expense of their families and careers, so too did thousands of others. Local administrators said they spent seven or eight hours a week, and in some cases as many as 40, reviewing requests to join their groups, making sure their communities felt welcoming, and keeping the giving spirit active by, for example, posting messages of gratitude.

Another part of an admin’s job was to enforce the 10 rules of Buy Nothing. One core rule concerned each group’s borders, which were limited to small geographical zones. The idea was that this would foster a more intimate community and reduce a group’s carbon footprint. A member could belong to only the group where they lived, and once a group reached 1,000 people, it was supposed to split into smaller communities, a process called “sprouting.”

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Rockefeller and Clark imagined Buy Nothing sprouting into groups covering ever-smaller geographies until, eventually, so many people were on Buy Nothing that it would be rendered obsolete. “We know our immediate neighbors so well that we can just walk over there and say, ‘Hey,’” Clark said.

It was a romantic vision for what the internet could facilitate. But as Buy Nothing expanded, people started to chafe against this stricture and others. While Rockefeller and Clark regularly received notes of gratitude, they also got messages of irritation, and even hate mail, that blamed them for mishaps and infighting in the local groups or accused them of heavy-handedness with all the rules.

In 2018, some of these localized complaints started to bubble up to the movement’s surface. When a Buy Nothing group in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood was approaching 5,000 people and still hadn’t subdivided, regional admins started pushing for a sprout, a local admin at the time told me. (Regional admins couldn’t be reached for comment.) She said that when the sprout was announced to the group, members were furious: They protested that they didn’t want to split up, and they worried a sprout might fall along racial and socioeconomic lines and reinforce the legacy of segregation and redlining.

According to the admin and other members I spoke to, the regional admins doubled down, as did members, and the language got heated. “Our community gets really fired up on the internet,” the admin said. “It was rocky.” Then Clark got involved, writing in a regional group for admins that she was “saddened” by the Jamaica Plain community’s uncivil behavior. At this, the local admins quit in protest, and the remaining members revolted completely.

Members of the group discovered a YouTube video Clark had filmed during a Himalayan expedition co-led by Athans, her husband, with support from the Nepalese government. The video shows Athans in climbing gear, handling an ancient human skull while suspended in front of a cave. In voiceover, Clark explains reverently, “We’ve uncovered a people who persevered, their story of good health recorded in their bones.” She describes present-day villagers who, when Clark and her family brought gifts of clothing, insisted that the items be divided equally among the households, “so each family would have equal social capital to share.” She goes on: “We wondered, could we start an egalitarian gift economy in our own town?” The video cuts to Bainbridge Island.

Former members told me that the video was roasted for having colonialist undertones. One member, Kai Haskins, wrote a Medium post about the conflict titled, “That ‘Hyper-Local’ Buy Nothing Group You Love Is Controlled by a Wealthy White Woman in Washington State and Is Reinforcing Systemic Racism and Segregation.”

Clark took issue with Haskins’s account; for one thing, she said, she’s not wealthy. Still, she eventually apologized in a post to the Jamaica Plain group. “I agree that it is important for all of us, and white people in particular, to talk about racism without becoming defensive. I clearly have been, and I’m learning from my own fragility,” she wrote. By that time, though, everyone was fed up. The Jamaica Plain group fell apart, with thousands of members defecting and starting a separate group.

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One way to approach the episode might have been to see it as an inevitable, if uncomfortable, outgrowth of a movement that encouraged people to feel communal ownership of their local gift economies. If it ended with members in Jamaica Plain starting a rival gifting group, so what? That was not, however, how Rockefeller and Clark responded. They worried that the upset in Jamaica Plain, and other episodes like it, represented a bigger problem, and in late 2019 they formed an “equity team” to figure out how to create an “actively anti-racist and anti-oppression culture” within Buy Nothing. 

Katherine Valenzuela Parsons, a member of the equity team, told me that the team discovered people in other groups had also experienced a racialized dimension to sprouting. And Buy Nothing’s problems went further still. Some local admins were letting people offer Confederate flags. In several instances, when people of color complained about this and other racist or offensive posts, they’d been accused of incivility and thrown out of their groups. In other cases, members attacked admins of color for raising these issues.

Rockefeller and Clark had known about some of this, but the scope startled them. On the one hand, the Jamaica Plain experience had made them feel that high-level admins, themselves included, might have overstepped. On the other hand, they didn’t want the Buy Nothing experience to be so unsupervised that toxicity and racism would go unchecked and local admins would abuse their power.

They also felt that Facebook incentivized provocative, even hostile, communication. “Even if your motivations are purely lovely and welcoming and inclusive, you’re basically putting yourself in the meat grinder of social media, and you will be eaten up,” Rockefeller said. The equity team hadn’t highlighted Facebook itself as a problem, but Rockefeller and Clark started to wonder whether it all couldn’t be solved by going off the platform entirely.

The two of them had harbored vague desires since the beginning of Buy Nothing to divest themselves of Facebook, but they had never figured out how to do it. One option was to turn Buy Nothing into an independent nonprofit. But Rockefeller, who has spent much of her adult life volunteering and working in nonprofits, dreaded the cycle of fundraising and subsequent obligation to meet funders’ demands. It also seemed weird to start a business based on giving stuff away for free. Now, they came up with a plan. They’d collect donations from Buy Nothing members to build a platform independent of Big Tech. On Black Friday of 2019—celebrated in their community as Buy Nothing Day—Rockefeller and Clark posted an announcement on Buy Nothing’s main Facebook page: They were building an app called SOOP, for Share On Our Platform. “Because we want to answer only to the public good and not to platform owners who will profit from the use of personal data,” they wrote, “we are raising the funds to do this on our own.”

The response was mixed at best. Some community members found it wildly hypocritical that the founders were asking for money. It was a fair point: Rockefeller and Clark’s own rules for local groups banned “requests or offers for monetary assistance, including requests for loans, cash, or donations.” Optics-wise, it didn’t help that Rockefeller and Clark had started plugging their forthcoming book, The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan, on Buy Nothing’s Facebook page. A few members did donate, but the total—just $20,000—wasn’t enough for even the most basic proof of concept. Humbled, Rockefeller and Clark returned the money and tabled the idea.

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Their book came out a few months later. The tone was part Marie Kondo, part manifesto. “Money isn’t all that wonderful,” Clark and Rockefeller wrote, adding, “The market economy begets isolation, and money disconnects us from one another.” Those who worried that the book would make the authors rich needn’t have wasted their energy—it was published just as the pandemic arrived, and barely sold.

The pandemic propelled Buy Nothing into mainstream popularity. With people hunkering down in their neighborhoods, membership started growing faster than ever, to about 1.5 million users in July 2020; over the following year, the project would add nearly 3 million more. People shared groceries, homemade masks, over-the-counter medication. It was exhilarating but also, for Rockefeller and Clark, exhausting; suddenly they were working nine-hour days on top of everything else.

Meanwhile, they’d been changing Buy Nothing’s operations, partly in light of the equity team’s findings. They started getting rid of regional and global admins, a move meant to return control to local groups and streamline communication. They published self-serve materials on their website so that people could launch new groups on their own. They also loosened Buy Nothing’s rules to let groups determine their own geographical boundaries, decide when to sprout, and allow members to belong to more than one group.

Not everyone appreciated the changes. Haskins, one of Buy Nothing’s more vocal critics in Jamaica Plain, said they came across as “performative bullshit.” Parsons, the equity team member, told me that while she came around to them, they went much further than anything she and the equity team had suggested. 

Other admins felt the founders had broken Buy Nothing’s intimate feel and community-led support systems. And they objected to the top-down direction of these changes. One of them, Andrea Schwalb, took to the Admin Hub to denounce the project’s new direction, and said she was kicked out. She started a separate Facebook group, called Gifting With Integrity—OG Buy Nothing Support Group, for Buy Nothing admins who preferred the old organizational structure and rules. Schwalb and others were already prickly about how Rockefeller and Clark publicized their book; all the changes, she said, made matters worse. “We were big mad.”

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Clark and Rockefeller saw their modifications as necessary, if controversial, improvements. They were making the organization less bureaucratic and more equitable; those who disagreed were resisting change. And it was hard for them to feel generous toward their most strident critics. 

By this point, Clark had stopped making documentaries and was working on Buy Nothing full-time. Rockefeller had, in Buy Nothing’s early years, taken a job at an organization that assists people with disabilities and eventually became its executive director. As Buy Nothing took up more of her time, however, she stepped into a part-time position as an administrative assistant that paid little more than minimum wage. “I’m basically living on the edge of poverty so that I can serve this thing that I helped create,” she told me. She acknowledged she’d done this by choice. Still, she added, “Sometimes it feels like, ‘Oh, this is absolute insanity, it makes no sense.’” She and Clark started dreaming of paying themselves and others for their Buy Nothing labor; it seemed only right. Their crowdfunding efforts had backfired. Now they wondered whether it wasn’t such a bad idea to turn Buy Nothing more straightforwardly into a business.

In January 2021, Clark received a LinkedIn message from Tunji Williams, a former attorney turned entrepreneur who had previously built a small startup. “I just learned about your amazing movement,” he wrote, and offered to collaborate with them. They invited him to meet over Zoom, where Williams explained that the birth of his first child had inspired an idea for an app to share secondhand baby paraphernalia and other items. Friends told him about Buy Nothing, and he thought he’d approach them about launching a startup together.

Clark and Rockefeller accepted. Going into business with someone who happened to email at the right moment may not have been the savviest decision, but the way they saw it, their cards were finally lining up. Williams came across as genuine and experienced, and, if they were being honest, they needed help. On January 13, they registered The Buy Nothing Project Inc. as a benefit corporation—a for-profit business obligated to prioritize society, workers, the community, and the environment—in Delaware. This time they took a more conventional approach to fundraising, collecting $100,000 from family and friends. The company had four cofounders: Clark, Rockefeller, Williams, and a software developer named Lucas Rix who, as it happened, had also sent a blind email to Clark and Rockefeller. Clark would be the CEO, Williams the COO, Rockefeller the head of community, and Rix the head of product. For the first time in months, Rockefeller and Clark felt energized. “It was a huge relief,” Rockefeller told me. 

Three weeks after registering The Buy Nothing Project Inc., Clark announced in the Admin Hub that they were building an app “to host the Buy Nothing movement as it continues to grow.” The founders would now dedicate their time to this new endeavor. As a gesture of gratitude, she added, they would give a stake in the platform to admins who joined the waitlist for the app. “Your enthusiastic participation will help us reach critical mass more quickly,” she wrote. 

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The reaction was not particularly enthusiastic. Some people did cheer the founders on and sign up for the waitlist—but others were upset. The app had no admin roles at all. Several admins told me that although they didn’t begrudge Rockefeller and Clark their entrepreneurial turn, they couldn’t help but view the app as competition with the existing communities that they’d painstakingly built over years. “There was a time when I was spending 30 hours a week doing things for Buy Nothing,” Kristi Fisher, an admin in California, told me. “There was this feeling of, like, nobody asked us or took our thoughts and feelings into consideration.”

Others turned their ire directly on the founders, harshly criticizing them for capitalizing on the work of thousands of volunteers and then shilling their product in that very same space. Rockefeller and Clark felt personally attacked. As they pushed on with what they saw as an attempt to give the Buy Nothing community a healthier existence online, it seemed possible that in the process they might lose the community entirely. 

In November 2021, the Buy Nothing app launched. It was immediately clear how different it was from the Facebook groups. You didn’t have to be approved for admission, for one. You could set any address as your home base and search for items within a larger radius: maybe one mile away, maybe 20. 

But some core features of the Buy Nothing culture had been lost. You could no longer click on a person and see where they worked or whether you had friends in common. On Facebook, Buy Nothing posts had appeared in your feed spontaneously, encouraging off-the-cuff interactions, but using the app required remembering to open it in the first place. All this added up to making the posts feel less intimate and more transactional. Some people told me that, on the app, Buy Nothing resembled the depersonalized services against which it had originally defined itself.

The launch of the app intensified the feud between the Buy Nothing founders and their internal critics. Rockefeller and Clark almost fully reoriented the Buy Nothing website around the app; at one point, information about the Facebook groups was tucked under a snarky message: “Want Facebook to profit from your Buy Nothing experience? We’ve got you covered!” Schwalb, meanwhile, developed her OG group into a sort of alternate universe in which nothing about Buy Nothing had changed. She shared Buy Nothing documents that the founders considered obsolete, coached admins on how to operate under the old rules, and, through friends who still belonged to the Admin Hub, generally kept tabs on what Buy Nothing was up to.

In the weeks after launch, thousands of people tried out the app. By the end of the year, 174,000 people worldwide had downloaded it; of those, about 97,000 were using it once a month or more. As time passed, though, the numbers stalled. In the App Store, one-star ratings dominated. By April 2022, monthly users had fallen to 75,000.  

The discontent among Buy Nothing Facebook admins explained some of this; they were hardly going to evangelize for an app they resented. But the far more significant problem was that the app just wasn’t very good. It was so basic and bug-ridden that, at first, people couldn’t even figure out how to register. To limit expenses, Clark and Rockefeller had contracted a web-development shop in Poland to make a simple version. They eventually raised another $400,000, but that was still short of what they needed. 

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The truth was that turning Buy Nothing into a business had come with far more expenses than revenues. If Facebook profited from Buy Nothing members’ activities, it also covered many of their costs. With the launch of the app, the resources that came for free with Facebook—software development, computing power, visibility—were suddenly Clark and Rockefeller’s responsibility.

It was logical that offsetting those costs, and eventually turning a profit, required bringing in revenue, but whenever I asked Clark and Rockefeller about this, they sounded genuinely perplexed. They had vowed not to sell their members’ personal data or run targeted advertisements, thus ruling out some of the most obvious business models. And their ideas for moneymaking enterprises that wouldn’t sacrifice their ideals struck me as convoluted: They considered collecting generalized information about what items people were sharing, then selling that to local municipalities tracking waste; they thought of pushing public-service announcements about reuse that users would pay to turn off. Their most straightforward idea was to incorporate a Taskrabbit-like function, allowing users to charge one another for add-on services such as delivering gifts or repairing broken items, with Buy Nothing taking a cut. But then that, of course, would involve buying something.

They were at an impasse, and funding was running out. So, in May of last year, Clark did what any self-respecting entrepreneur in her position would do: She started writing to venture capitalists and angel investors. In the months that followed, she sent messages to 163 investors. She got 17 meetings—and no funding.

Clark blamed the difficult environment at the time for fundraising. Rockefeller agreed, though she couldn’t help but suspect something else: “We’re two middle-aged women trying to raise money, and we have been a women-led movement from the beginning. They look at us, and they’re like, ‘Well, you haven’t run a multimillion-dollar company, so why should I give you any money?’” She bristled at that perception: “We took nothing, and we turned it into a movement that now literally millions of people participate in every day. Come on. That didn’t happen by mistake.”

Still, no funding materialized. Nor, as time went on, did the users. I spoke to dozens of Buy Nothing members while reporting on this article, and the vast majority had either barely heard of the app or had tried it once or twice before abandoning it. By June of last year, Rockefeller and Clark quietly stopped developing the app. By winter, they were scraping the bottom of the Buy Nothing bank account. 

Clark planned to cover the company’s costs, around $5,000 a month, as long as she needed to. But she and Rockefeller both sounded more disheartened than ever. Once, as we began a Zoom call, I could hear an incessant pinging in the background. Clark explained that she had set up notifications for support requests through the app. It turned out she and Rockefeller were mostly responding to the requests themselves.

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At the one-year anniversary of its launch, the Buy Nothing app had been downloaded 600,000 times, but only 91,000 people were regularly using it, not many more than at the beginning. Meanwhile, the Facebook groups from which the founders had disengaged were thriving without them. Global membership had surpassed 7 million. When I asked what Rockefeller and Clark thought would happen to Buy Nothing Inc. if they couldn’t come up with additional funding, they said they weren’t interested in thinking in such fatalistic terms. But when I posed the same question to Williams, the COO, he said he’d considered it. “We’re adults,” he said. “We’ve got to shut it down.”

Rockefeller and Clark hadn’t given up, though. They decided to switch tactics yet again. Over Thanksgiving weekend, they changed the Buy Nothing website so that when someone showed up looking for information about starting a Facebook group, they were directed to fill out a form that would automatically be sent to Rockefeller and Clark. The form asked people whether they had tried the app, offering a download link. If, after trying it, they still wanted to start a Facebook group, Rockefeller or Clark would build the group for them.

Rockefeller and Clark may have realized that if they couldn’t compete with Facebook, they would do better to take control of what they’d started. A couple of days after Christmas, Schwalb opened up Facebook to find that her OG group had vanished. Months earlier, Buy Nothing Inc. had secured trademarks on the phrases “Buy Nothing” and “Buy Nothing Project” and reported the OG group to Facebook for trademark infringement. 

Clark and Rockefeller told me that while they wanted to give local admins flexibility in running their groups, Gifting With Integrity had crossed a line. The group was aggressively promoting an approach that the founders had discarded; it had combined the Buy Nothing brand with the Gifting With Integrity name; it was disseminating old documents without what the founders considered proper attribution. “I don’t get to say ‘I’m making shoes, and they’re called Nike, and they have the swoosh on them, and you should buy my Nikes,’” Rockefeller told me. To Schwalb and her co-admins, this was a stretch. For one thing, Gifting With Integrity wasn’t asking people to buy anything. 

In January, Rockefeller and Clark posted a message to the Admin Hub, elaborating on their stance. They were just trying to protect their trademark, they said. To that end, they were asking that all Facebook groups link to a Buy Nothing web page describing the project. Rockefeller and Clark told me that they required this so that admins wouldn’t have to make manual updates whenever details changed. But Schwalb noticed that the web page, conveniently, promoted the Buy Nothing app.

To get back on Facebook without reprisal, the OG group changed its name to, simply, Gifting With Integrity—OG Admin Support Group, removing the part about Buy Nothing. They encouraged local gifting groups to change their names as well. Their website reads, “We are not affiliated with, nor do we support in any fashion, the Buy Nothing Project.” On Facebook, the Gifting With Integrity group has 1,500 members, all overseeing local groups. 

My own Buy Nothing group, in Fort Collins, was one of those that followed Gifting With Integrity’s lead. It’s now called the Northeast Fort Collins Gifting Community. A friend shared with me a message sent to the group by an admin announcing the change: “We truly believe in building our little hyperlocal community and plan to continue to operate by the original principles that make this group great. We don’t want that to disappear into the machinery of the new monetized system.” When I asked Schwalb how many local groups had discarded the Buy Nothing name and adopted Gifting With Integrity’s approach, she replied, “We’re not keeping numbers, and we most definitely don’t intend to, because I don’t want to turn into the Buy Nothing conglomerate.”

In some ways, Rockefeller and Clark’s loss of control made me think of women inventors who hadn’t gotten credit for their products: Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover the double helix; Lizzie Magie, the gamemaker who invented Monopoly. But then, Rockefeller and Clark had started Buy Nothing as a counteragent to the capitalist ethic that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of the few while ruining lives, communities, and the environment. The project had been a success, owing to their efforts, certainly, and also to those of the thousands of volunteers who made Buy Nothing their own. If the movement ended up splintering into an unaccountable mess of local variations—and Rockefeller and Clark didn’t make a cent in the process—maybe that was the most fitting ending possible.

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I had all but written off their chances of survival when, in late January, I heard from Rockefeller and Clark again. Recently, with things getting desperate, Clark had looked back through her email to see whether there were any connections she’d missed. Scrolling, she hit upon a year-old email from a former Intuit executive named Hugh Molotsi. Molotsi had launched his own startup, Ujama, that helped parents coordinate childcare with one another via an app, but it didn’t have many users. Molotsi had written to see whether Rockefeller and Clark wanted to use his technology, but since they were building their own app at the time, they’d said no.

Now Clark did some research and realized Molotsi’s app was much better than anything they’d built. She’d also learned, from her conversion to entrepreneurship, how important it was to network. She got in touch with Molotsi and, after a couple of calls, made a proposition to merge the companies under Buy Nothing’s name. Molotsi would join the company as chief technology officer and rework the Buy Nothing app. “He needs community, we need tech,” Clark explained. 

Molotsi agreed; the deal is pending. As part of the transition, Williams stepped down as COO, though he remains on the Buy Nothing board. Molotsi also introduced Buy Nothing’s founders to their first funder in a long time: an angel investor named Paul English, known for cofounding the travel website Kayak. English put in $100,000 and introduced Clark and Rockefeller to a number of VCs and angel investors. So far, Clark told me, the response to their pitches has been much warmer than before, though no one has committed to investing. Visits to the app are up, too: Monthly users recently surpassed 100,000.

When I spoke to Molotsi over Zoom, he said he feels the company needs to do a better job explaining to investors how it can make money: “The Buy Nothing name—that’s a challenge, because it’s like, OK, nothing is being bought, how are you going to monetize the platform?” 

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I asked how that question might be answered. “There are lots of things happening around gift-gifting that I believe are monetizable,” he said. “So, for example, if you have a couch you’re trying to get rid of, and I want your couch, but you don’t have a truck, and I don’t have a truck, that presents a problem: How are we going to make this happen?” He was talking, I realized, about the delivery service Rockefeller and Clark had floated months earlier.

One of the last times I spoke to the founders, I remarked that these recent developments looked good for them. Clark responded that she still feels like they’re at a low point. Her schedule had become punishing: She’d been waking up between 4 and 5 am to work on Buy Nothing, and not stopping until she went to bed. It struck me as a big departure from the all-volunteer camaraderie of Buy Nothing’s early years. But Clark is as certain as ever that she and Rockefeller are on the right path in their decade-long quest to get people to buy less. “Rebecca and I are just two creatives. This was just never where we thought we would head,” she said. “But now it makes sense, because we want to build a bigger, better world.”


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