The Battle for the Soul of Buy Nothing

At the one year old On the anniversary of its launch, the Buy Nothing app was downloaded 600,000 times, but only 91,000 people used it regularly, not much more than when it started. Meanwhile, the Facebook groups the founders broke away from thrived without them. The worldwide membership had exceeded 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 asked Williams, the COO, the same question, he said he had thought about it. “We’re adults,” he said. “We have to close it.”

However, Rockefeller and Clark had not given up. They decided to change tactics yet again. Over Thanksgiving weekend, they changed the Buy Nothing website so that anyone looking for information about starting a Facebook group was instructed to fill out a form that was automatically sent to Rockefeller and Clark. The form asked people if they had tried the app and offered a download link. If they still wanted to start a Facebook group after trying, Rockefeller or Clark would set up the group for them.

Rockefeller and Clark may have realized that if they couldn’t compete with Facebook, they’d be better off taking control of what they started. A few days after Christmas, Schwalb opened Facebook to find her OG group gone. Months earlier, Buy Nothing Inc. had secured trademarks for the terms “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 crossed a line. The group aggressively promoted an approach that the founders had discarded; it had combined the Buy Nothing brand with the Gifting With Integrity name; it was the dissemination of ancient documents without what the founders considered appropriate attribution. “I can’t say, ‘I make shoes and they’re called Nike and they have the Swoosh on them and you should buy my Nikes,'” Rockefeller told me. This was a challenge for Schwalb and her co-admins. For one thing, Gifting With Integrity didn’t ask people to buy anything.

In January, Rockefeller and Clark posted a message to the local admins Facebook group outlining their stance. They were just trying to protect their brand, they said. To that end, they demanded that all Facebook groups link to a “Buy Nothing” webpage. Rockefeller and Clark told me they need this link so admins don’t have to make manual updates when the rules change. But Schwalb noted that the site conveniently promoted the Buy Nothing app.

To get back on Facebook without reprisals, the OG group simply changed their name to Gifting With Integrity – OG Admin Support Group and removed the part about Buy Nothing. They also encouraged local giving groups to change their names. According to their website, “We are not affiliated with or in any way supporting 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. It is 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 small hyper-local community and plan to continue operating on the original principles that make this group great. We don’t want that to disappear in the machinery of the new monetized system.” When I asked Schwalb how many local groups had dropped the Buy Nothing name and adopted the Gifting With Integrity approach, she replied, “We’re keeping no numbers and we definitely don’t intend to because I don’t want to revert to the buy-nothing conglomerate.”

In a way, Rockefeller and Clark’s loss of control made me think of women inventors who hadn’t received credit for their products: Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover the double helix; Lizzie Magic, the game maker who invented Monopoly. But then Rockefeller and Clark had founded Buy Nothing as an antidote to the capitalist ethic that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of the few while ruining lives, communities and the environment. The project was a success, certainly thanks to their efforts and also to the thousands of volunteers who have made Buy Nothing their own. If the movement ended up splintering into an inexplicable jumble of local variations—and Rockefeller and Clark didn’t make a penny in the process—that was perhaps the most fitting ending possible. The Battle for the Soul of Buy Nothing

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