The Battle for the Soul of Buy Nothing

How an idealistic community for exchanging free stuff tried to break away from Facebook and ended up breaking apart….

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 Facebook group for local admins, 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. Rockefeller and Clark told me that they required this link so that admins wouldn’t have to make manual updates whenever the rules 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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