“The head,” as Laura Wattenberg calls it, came into her life unexpectedly.
It has thick brows and feminine eyes with haphazardly applied taupe eyeshadow, thin glossy lips and a wispy mustache. It was the head of a mannequin, which Watternberg’s husband found in a box when his company moved offices earlier in the pandemic.
“Mostly, it was papers and coffee mugs,” Wattenberg said. “Then this.”
The couple moved it around their house in Winchester for a year, frightening guests and each other until Wattenberg finally relented. “The head” had to go. And only one place would take it: the local Facebook group where everything (really, everything) is free.
“We received this impressive 15-inch head by mistake and were unable to track down its rightful owner,” Wattenberg wrote to the 5,000 members of Everything is Free Winchester in November. “It has haunted us long enough. Please make it go away.”
And like that, “the head” was gone within hours.
Such is the norm on Buy Nothing, the offbeat and anti-consumption corner of Facebook that seemingly took off during the pandemic. Of course, variations of the neighborly swap existed long before the Internet, among pre-school parents, junior sports leagues, or religious congregations.
But probably not with this kind of reach: some 7 million members across Facebook as of February, according to Wired, up nearly fivefold in under three years.
In East Boston, the Buy Nothing group has doubled in size since May 2021; the one in Worcester added 1,500 people in the last year. Cambridge created a third, fourth, and fifth group since 2020, after the city’s original two got too large.
“It went from nothing to something fairly quickly,” said Ivy Stoner, an administrator in East Boston. “I’m sure a lot can be attributed to the isolation and insanity of the pandemic, the need for community. People thought, ‘This stuff could serve someone’s immediate need, and it’s someone in my backyard.’”
The “stuff” itself varies in utility: There are family heirlooms and outgrown children’s necessities such as cribs, bibs, toys, too-small diapers. Then there are the things people simply “no longer reach for,” a familiar phrase in the comments, such as the sweater languishing in your closet or the unused wine glasses your uncle gifted you six years ago.
There is the weird: a single slice of cake, a dead hamster in a bag, enough insulation for a small bedroom. And the wonderful: Worcester resident Jennifer Scott DuBos, for example, gave away her beaded wedding dress last Sunday, two years after her husband’s death, to a woman who shared her love story under her post.
“I had a good marriage,” DuBos said. “I wanted to see someone use it for themselves.”
Customs have emerged. Some members let items “simmer” for 24 hours before choosing the recipient among the commenters, often at random; “givers” leave the goodies on their stoop. Not every sale is smooth: a pair of Brookline residents told the Globe they once pushed a grill two miles down Beacon Street for an “eternally grateful” friend. But the swaps often bind strangers to strangers, creating friends of neighbors.
As Lauren Beitelspacher, a professor of marketing at Babson College, put it, “This is the most community-driven retail since the invention of the farmer’s market.”
A financial necessity, and an environmental triumph
In the early days of the pandemic, Buy Nothing served an essential purpose.
Laura Jean Randolph, who oversees a 4,600-member group in South Boston, said people used the Buy Nothing forum to crowdsource cleaning supplies, toilet paper, fabric for masks, and even alcohol. Then its functions evolved. The pandemic increased levels of addiction and hunger in Massachusetts, so members passed around food, such as flour and uneaten produce, Randolph said, and even Narcan for the nearby homeless population at Mass and Cass.
Inflation could be responsible for Buy Nothing’s continued success as well, she added, especially at a time when additional funds for programs such as rent relief and food stamps evaporated.
“High prices have made it impossible for everyone to survive,” Randolph said. “They cannot spend on frivolous things or things they need. It’s too expensive. Instead, they turn to Buy Nothing.”
Kelsey McChane said both rising costs and a shift in attitude about consumerism contributed to the movement’s popularity. The founder of the Quincy South Buy Nothing group has witnessed a “buy, buy, buy” mentality supplanted by greater environmental consciousness. People are trying to waste less and share more.
Recently, she tapped her group for supplies for her infant: a sandbox, rocking horse, and leftover breast milk storage bags.
“Someone down the street almost always had what I needed,” McChane said. “The only downside is that you’re taking time out of your day to coordinate, but it’s also the nature of the beast.”
Balancing free and Facebook
What ails Buy Nothing now is its future.
A half dozen administrators told the Globe they get more than 20 requests to join their groups every month. Most decline those who do not live within a strict geographic boundary, but communities are ballooning in size nonetheless.
Administrators are often forced to create a second group for the same neighborhood, or perhaps subdivide an existing one.
Buy Nothing was also born on Facebook, and that comes with its own issues. Many say the community’s do-good ethos is at odds with the social media giant, which relies on selling advertisements based on users’ data. The founders of the movement, Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, recognized this disconnect and created an independent Buy Nothing application in 2021. But they repeatedly ran into a few essential questions: How do you profit from something made to be free? And how do you convince members accustomed to one ubiquitous platform to move to one less so?
Plus the logistics of Buy Nothing are enmeshed with the way Facebook is set up. Items organically show up on members’ feeds, and the concept of “groups” makes it easy to join a community — and leave later on.
“It is truly just easier on Facebook,” Randolph of South Boston said.
Buy Nothing’s attempt to separate from Facebook has put local groups in one of two camps: Those who went along, and those who stayed put (most stayed on Facebook; the app has just 91,000 regular users).
Yet even for those who stay, Facebook is showing its limits. New technical features have made the platform less usable for administrators, one said. Younger users prefer TikTok and Instagram.
“I only use Facebook for Buy Nothing,” said J.T. Schilling, the 23-year-old administrator for Buy Nothing Fenway. “Which shows how special this group is.”
Regardless, what matters most to Cambridge resident Helen Snively is how the movement revived the practice of reuse on a humungous scale. Indeed, her group has ventured into the real world, starting monthly free swaps at a neighborhood community center, where members can arrive with jacket and leave with a mason jar.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s on Facebook or in-person,” she said. “I’ve been a swapper for decades. Most of what I own is from the trash or second-hand. And what I know is that Buy Nothing is just one piece of the puzzle. The bit about giving something to your neighbor is not going away.”
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.