Episode 0025 · March 14, 2023

The podcast about what to do next.

Buy Nothing


Paul Ford: Hey, Rich, how you doing?

Rich Ziade: I’m doing well. How are you, Paul?

Paul Ford: I’m doing okay. You know, I, it’s there, my, um, my spouse is kind of like a thrift shop oriented person, so am I gotta be honest. I like, I like a, I like to get stuff that’s used. I like stuff that’s just kind of old worn out. And so there’s this thing, have you ever seen this thing on Facebook? It’s called Buy Nothing?

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Okay, so we were really into it. We were-

Rich Ziade: So what is it? What is Buy Nothing, explain it.

Paul Ford: Okay, so you go on, you go on Facebook and these groups of people who are like, “Hey, I have, uh, an old electric fan that I’m getting rid of because we don’t need it anymore”, and you go and it’s literally like, well, “I’ll just put it on the porch if you want it, or come by and I’ll, and you know, knock on the door, I’ll give it to you”.

Rich Ziade: Stuff gets- it reduces waste, it’s a way to keep stuff in the world, I’m not using this thing anymore. Maybe somebody who needs it can have it. We do, we leave stuff on the stoop all the time.

Paul Ford: That’s exactly right. Like just, and it’s, so, it was a structured way to do that. And it grew and [00:01:00] grew and grew, and the, the groups have like a thousand members each, and they splintered off. And it really, it was like a, a phenomenon. The Buy Nothing group.

Rich Ziade: Right, so just a, a quick aside, Paul, not everyone listening to this lives in New York City, uh, a stoop for whatever reason, and my theory is that for whatever reason to get into your house, you have to go up three steps in New York City, my theory is that this is the, the, the product of a conspiracy, uh, between the cement manufacturers and the city to make everyone take three steps up the stairs. Um, and it’s, it, it brown stones, if you look up brownstone on the internet, you’ll see what they look like. It’s actually a lot of the world doesn’t look like this, stoops sort of a place, you [00:02:00] hang out and sit in front of your house and a lot of times you’ll find books weird dodas, cabinets, all kinds of strange things like, you know, pots and pans, uh, on the stoop.

Paul Ford: I love it. Like I have probably picked up 300 books in Brooklyn, just walking around.

Rich Ziade: It’s great, it’s great.

Paul Ford: And you know, and then you’re like, ah, I don’t really care. And then you leave it on your stoop or you put it in one of the little free libraries or, or just it, it’s all good. So anyway, there’s this whole culture around Buy Nothing.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And then, uh, there’s an article in Wired magazine, I guess full disclosure, I write for Wired, but you know, this is just me talking about an article I read.

Rich Ziade: Full disclosure as he raises the champagne glass.

Paul Ford: Yeah exactly [laughter].

Rich Ziade: [laughter].

Paul Ford: With my, my Wired, uh, my wired winnings. Uh, so it’s from February, 2023 and it’s by Vaahini Vara and, uh, it’s called The Battle for the Soul of Buy [00:03:00] Nothing, and it’s a good article. And it’s a good article because it actually describes, the internet in this, in a way that I, I think it’s, it’s really important to understand, right? Like and, and did you read it? I sent it to you.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: Okay.

Rich Ziade: Let, let, let me restate what Buy Nothing is cause it’s a weird name, it’s essentially a Facebook group where people post stuff that they don’t need anymore, not for money.

Paul Ford: That’s right.

Rich Ziade: And it’s huge.

Paul Ford: That’s right.

Rich Ziade: It’s really big.

Paul Ford: And, and it was, it was started by two ladies who liked to, you know, kind of thrift shop oriented ladies in the, in the Pacific Northwest.

Rich Ziade: Sure. It connects people and it reduces waste. You’re not throwing stuff in a landfill.

Paul Ford: Well, you know, people were uncomfortable with it being on Facebook, so that was one thing.

Rich Ziade: Okay.

Paul Ford: So it’s Facebook, the Giant platform. Uh, and, and then there’s, as you read this article, it just follows a pattern [00:04:00] that I have seen with every single community. As things scale-

Rich Ziade: Mmm.

Paul Ford: People assert themselves as humans in the wildest.

Rich Ziade: Ex- give me an example.

Paul Ford: Um-

Rich Ziade: Stick to Buy Nothing, what happened?

Paul Ford: Oh, you know, the, the groups get big and then it’s like, well, I don’t like the rules of this Buy Nothing group, there were all these rules and bylaws and it’s, you know, some groups didn’t, they were like, you know, once you get to a thousand people, you should create a new Buy Nothing group. And some people were like, well, “no, that’s not good”. And then people were like, you know, when you split the group, a lot of times they split along racial lines because demographics and communities. So instead of mixing communities now we’re actually encouraging and, and sort of enforcing segregation. So all kinds of stuff came out. And then one of the co-founders of Buy Nothing, cause of course these people have pretty big profiles, uh, there’s a point where, uh, apparently she was in Nepal and there’s a video of her and she’s like holding a human skull, uh, talking about it. [00:05:00] And that brought up a lot of issue, you know, it is wild how often people end up getting caught-

Rich Ziade: Well wait an actual human skull?

Paul Ford: Yes.

Rich Ziade: All right.

Paul Ford: I gotta tell you, I am, I’m a white guy of a certain age, but I have never picked up a human skull in another country and went like, “Hey, wow look at how he lived”.

Rich Ziade: Check it out.

Paul Ford: I just, I don’t, I don’t understand, like I’ve, I’m everyone engages-

Rich Ziade: Everyone got upset, everyone got upset?

Paul Ford: Well, it just kind of, you know, there’s a, a narrative around colonialism and, and sort of who are these people and that takes hold. And then of course the equity committee got created and so Buy Nothing, became this enormous bureaucracy where everybody is kind of fighting about what the core principles are. And so what the co-founders decided to do is like, well, look, we need to create an infrastructure here that is away from Facebook and we need to, we’re gonna do a startup, we’re gonna make a, a public benefit corporation and we’re gonna build [00:06:00] an app and, um, and we are, yeah, exactly, and so we’re gonna take Buy Nothing away from Facebook and create its own world. And I mean, frankly, you know, I’ve got the Craigslist app on my phone, this is not a wacky idea.

Rich Ziade: No, for money? Are they gonna charge now?

Paul Ford: Well, they’re, they’re going to make some money. Like that is a goal here and that now you have a problem because Buy Nothing is by its nature, extremely anti-capitalist, but now you have a startup.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: And a startup is really, you know what you start to realize? And everyone should read the story cause what you realize is how dominated we are by the stories we tell about different categories of existence. And so like, when they said we’re gonna do a startup, the larger Buy Nothing community is like, you know, they, we wanna get away from Facebook and make our own platform. Okay, but now it’s a startup and you’re gonna charge for things and-

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: Have your own app, and they, they tried to raise money to build the app and of [00:07:00] course, like no one knew how much it actually cost. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop the app-

Rich Ziade: Sure, sure, sure, sure, sure.

Paul Ford: So you know, and then, you know, folks are showing up and sending email and everyone is ready to help at the beginning.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: So, uh, no, what’s interesting right, is in this article, so this group has, you know, the, the Facebook groups have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of members because it’s so easy, it’s free on top of Facebook. And, uh, they did get a lot of signups, but essentially it’s like 90,000 active users are on this platform. Now I look at that and I’m like, that’s a really good start. That’s pretty good.

Rich Ziade: Not bad. Not bad. I mean, it, it’s hard to, to amass users, but that’s not bad as a starting point.

Paul Ford: Well, there’s no funding and these nice, you know, theoretically nice ladies who also wrote a book and that upset everyone cause they were charging for the book. And I just, you get into a place, if your product is never give anyone ever money, ever, you get into a place where it’s really hard to build something sustainable on top of [00:08:00] that.

Rich Ziade: I, I don’t think we’re fully grappling with, this phenomena that you’re talking, that you just described, because it’s happened in a lot of different ways, and what I’m gonna do is try to describe how the lines get crossed here. What happens when these communities take hold, which by the way, a company is also a community, this happens to companies as well.

Paul Ford: When you’re saying communities take hold, we’re talking about a thousand people coming together on a platform.

Rich Ziade: Or millions of people coming on together on a platform, but it is worth noting a couple things. First off, even when millions come, millions come on a small percentage of that, a very small percentage of it become emotionally invested in the place, and they view it as their own. They view it as this quasi-democratic place where whatever you signal out, whatever you represent, whatever rules you put forward, um, you did not consult them for it and, and they view it– [00:09:00] Why, it’s not because they’re power hungry, it’s because they’ve actually confused this effectively group mechanism, it’s group software with an affinity that is actually akin to an a, a, a town, a religion, a cult, a clan, a group, a tribe. They, they, and so what happens is when they see things happening to what they view as something that is their own and that they have an emotional connection to, they lash out. They come out real aggressive. It’s not even the actual subject matter, they just can’t believe they weren’t asked, they can’t believe they weren’t in the room.

Paul Ford: I mean, this has always been my line about the web, which is that the fundamental way to understand the web is that everyone’s looking at it and going, why wasn’t I consulted? Why’d you change the logo?

Rich Ziade: You’re being humble, Paul. I mean, you wrote a profoundly important article many years ago called “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?”, and the web is [00:10:00] that it is a customer support platform of the highest order. Right? And, and I think, I think the fact that, um, this can actually materialize without money tells you the whole story. Like, I’m gonna defend these poor co-founders for a split second here, they made no money for many years, for many, many years, and they went ahead and wrote a book, and I gotta tell you, most people probably said, “ah, good for you. You wrote a book. I hope you make some money”.

Paul Ford: No, but there, there is a small percentage in the community with a very loud voice, right?

Rich Ziade: Oh yeah. And if you pause and think about how wildly irrational that is. Wildly irrational it is. And why is it? You know, what else is wildly irrational revolutions, Paul, revolutions are wildly irrational. They’re good, necessary sometimes, but they’re also banana cakes.

Paul Ford: It’s death by a thousand opinions. No. You, you’re [00:11:00] watched at all times.

Rich Ziade: It’s unwinnable.

Paul Ford: I’ve, I’ve seen it, it’s every community and so, and, and, and it’s, it’s an absolute dynamic. It is an inescapable dynamic. And I think what, to your point, I think that the, I like this model that you’ve come up with because what happens actually, the narrative becomes, those are bad actors who are just sitting there keeping a tally of everything that we’re doing that’s wrong, and they’re coming after the founders. And meanwhile the founders are still like, but we started this and we’re trying to do the right thing.

Rich Ziade: She, it’s, it’s, she’s a nurse, practi, I’m making this up, it’s like a nurse practitioner that runs home to their computer to make sure everything’s going okay, it’s like a labor of love.

Paul Ford: That’s right, this isn’t our thing with these Buy Nothing groups, the, the local people working on them-

Rich Ziade: It’s, it’s exhausting.

Paul Ford: They were spending enormous amounts of energy and they weren’t, they had no opportunity for upside or success, you know, they just were kind of admitting the Facebook groups.

Rich Ziade: Exactly, exactly.

Paul Ford: So [00:12:00] these dynamics are really, really tough. And I think to your point, right? Like when, once enters the picture, all bets are off.

Rich Ziade: All bets are off.

Paul Ford: I’ll give you an example, like the magazine I write for Wired, wired is a wonderful demilitarized zone cause I go in and I write for Wired and people might have opinions and they’ve sent me angry emails and nice emails and all sorts of stuff. And they’re affiliated, when they subscribe, they connect to Wired, they look at the website and so on and so forth. But I, and I’m part of that package, but it’s not, I’m not like on the hook for the whole magazine, right?

Rich Ziade: Sure, sure.

Paul Ford: So there’s these little proxy spaces where you go and participate and you can do it in public and you have a certain amount of privilege and people can be like, I like that, I don’t like that. But ultimately, everybody gets to go home. At the end of the day, I don’t stand up, I don’t wear a wired t-shirt when I go out. I don’t, when somebody has a problem with their subscription, they don’t send me an email, right? There’s a structure and there are community, there are [00:13:00] boards for not-for-profit.

Rich Ziade: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: So on and so forth. This structure where a single individual, I remember I started this thing called Till the Club, where I just set up a server and I was like, anybody who wants an account can have one. We’ll make webpages like it’s 1995 and within about two weeks I was losing my mind because so many people wanted to be in it and I was getting so much signal, when you get signal-

Rich Ziade: Which is varied validating, right? And cool and fun?

Paul Ford: Well, it’s, it’s exciting and you feel that you need to ride the wave, but then you’re getting a hundred, 200 emails a day from people who have, who are so excited and they want to affiliate and you want to meet them emotionally, and it is an absolute car crash.

Rich Ziade: It’s overwhelming, yeah.

Paul Ford: What happened with Till the Club is I was like, “You guys have fun”, and I just kind of looked away for like three years until a couple people showed up and were like, “Hey, we’ll take it over”. It was the first thing that started the whole Till the movement, and I’m like, go to town have, here’s the account, have a great time.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, yeah. Um, yeah, I look, I think this is the Ziade and Ford [00:14:00] Advisors podcast, I don’t want to give advice to these founders other than to say, be careful, you could fall in and you’re not gonna make everyone happy death by a thousand opinions, so we know that that’s an easy one, right? It’s hard because for a lot of these people, it becomes, it becomes the place where they’re respected and they’re valued and they, they build those relationships. Did anyone yell at you about Till the Club? Did anyone say, how could you do this to me?

Paul Ford: Absolutely, everyone yells at you about everything and you just look, look, I, I have a pretty good life. I just kind of put it aside like I’m used to that now.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Ford: And it sucks and, but hold on, okay, I don’t have advice for those founders. They’re, they’re going through it, frankly, they probably have advice for us at this point.

Paul Ford: Well, I think like if you like getting your humidifier go, getting your humidifier, the thing that I emphasize when I’m dealing with people who are in communities like this, which include people who are in my life, [00:15:00] who are, I’m very close with, is that you should focus on the actual positive transaction and benefit and not the drama around it. And if that benefit is still there, encourage that. But what it feels like, if you don’t engage with the politics, it feels like you are betraying something, you’re betraying the mission. The reality is you’re not. That’s just humans and the, the way that you fur-

Rich Ziade: They’re gonna do it.

Paul Ford: And the way that you further the mission is you give away the electric fan on the stack of books, That’s the actual mission. But boy, it’s, it’s the easiest thing to lose, And this article is about that. This article is about how it’s so simple to lose the thread when there’s lots of people, because what happens is that power dynamics become more important than the mission.

Rich Ziade: I mean, you’re nailing it, right? The sad part is, um, a good thing is gone.

Paul Ford: Oh, I don’t know, because there’s lots of these groups now [00:16:00] on Facebook and elsewhere and, and like, good ideas splinter out, and humans make them their own because of a fundamental perversity in our dynamics as animals. Like, you just can’t, you’re never gonna change that.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: You’re never gonna change it

Rich Ziade: I will make a suggestion, I thought I was, I wasn’t going to, uh, I will make one. Yeah, you’re gonna advocate, you’re gonna ask for things, it’s normal. You have an emotional connection to the thing, every once in a while, thank your moderators, thank your administrators, like they’re doing the work probably for no money, like in these communities like a lot of the time, and I’ve seen people thank the founders of certain forums that I follow for like organizing a meetup or doing whatever. It’s okay to do that. Like people, people can do that and also ask for stuff as well, right? They are not be, they have a day job, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

Paul Ford: If you see that dynamic, that’s a healthy community, then what happens is people are like, look at you, toing up to the moderator, right?

Rich Ziade: [laughter] Oh, Paul, you’re become too cynical in your, [00:17:00] in your twilight years.

Paul Ford: Yeah, look, no, no, no, no, what I don’t, I’m not cynical. I’ll close on this, right? Those dynamics always emerge, how people handle them and deal with them is, is always sort of like a dynamic question, but you can tell the difference between the toxic and the non-toxic communities so quickly.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, it’s true. It’s true.

Paul Ford: You wanna know the number one way that you can really tell, thanking the moderators is a huge tell. The other one is, how do they treat newcomers?

Rich Ziade: Absolutely, they lo- yeah, good communities love to because you’re, you’re gonna be additive to the community. I’m gonna help you get up to speed, that’s a great point.

Paul Ford: Well critically, they’re focused on growth at that point, we know we need new blood. We want people in.

Rich Ziade: Yep. Welcome to the community.

Paul Ford: Well, there we are, my friend. Alright, Rich. So, um, well, we don’t agree, we don’t agree on everything here, but whatever. It’s Ziade and Ford Advisors. Hopefully this was helpful to people. Send an email to hello@ziadeford.com. Follow us on [00:18:00] twitter @ziadeford.com, anything else?

Rich Ziade: No, I think I, just be kind to each other is a good piece of advice.

Paul Ford: Thank your mods. Thank your mods.

Rich Ziade: Thank your mods. I thought you were gonna say thank your moms. Thank your moms and your mods.

Paul Ford: Thank your moms, and your mods.

Rich Ziade: Have a great week.

Paul Ford: Bye.

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