Gifts Among Strangers: The Social Organization of Freecycle Giving

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Description: The Freecycle Network, with its millions of members gifting objects to strangers, is a stalwart fixture of the increasingly popular sharing economy. Unlike the wildly profitable Airbnb and Lyft, the Freecycle Network prohibits profit-making, or even barter, providing an altruism-based alternative to capitalist markets while keeping tons of garbage out of landfills. Why do millions of people give through Freecycle instead of selling, donating, or throwing away items? Utilizing participant observation of two overlapping Freecycle groups and a survey of their members, I investigate motivations for giving and the social norms that guide it. I find that while members of other internet-based groups have been found to exhibit altruism and solidarity, altruism and solidarity in Freecycle appear to be secondary. Instead, green-washed convenience takes precedence as members are motivated to give in order to de-clutter their homes in an environmentally friendly fashion and in a way that can expiate guilt from overconsumption. Embedded in local contexts and governed by powerful cultural expectations based on gift exchange and charitable donation, Freecycle givers create a set of social structures that combine with the organization’s focus on the environment to downplay altruism and elide inequalities.

License: CC-By Attribution 4.0 International

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The Freecycle Network, with its millions of members gifting objects to strangers, is a stalwart fixture of the increasingly popular sharing economy. Unlike the wildly profitable Airbnb and Uber, the Freecycle Network prohibits profit-making, or even barter, providing an altruism-based alternative to capitalist markets while keeping tons of garbage out of landfills. Why do millions of people give t...

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