Thursday, 27 March 2008

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

For a while, in England, I was a freecycle junkie. If you don't know, it's all about giving things away, locally, for free. You advertise (offer) an item on the mailing list and people claim then collect it. No money or payment in kind is allowed (although one chap insisted I take 2 bags of horse manure in compensation). Good quality goods go very quickly and at one sad point in my life, I changed the automatic Get New Mail interval down to 10mins to try and get ahead of the crowd.

I've followed the Singapore freecycle group for a while but I ended up marking the incoming mail As Read upon receipt. Low critical mass is one issue. Singapore seems to struggle to tap long tail effects and the local freecycle, craigslist and eBay are all small. Maybe there are more scam artists around but people are more wary of online transactions and arranging to meet at private homes. You need a car to collect anything large or heavy so posts tend to be for smaller items like books, CDs & toys. There's no DIY culture here (it's cheaper to get a tradesman in), so you don't see offers for bricks, paving slabs or even large furniture. However the biggest downer with the mailing list is that it feels like most posts are Wants, not Offers.

Time for some hard data. In 2007, the Singapore group had 4,684 posts, of which 42% were Offers, 16% Taken and 33% Wants (based on the text of the subject line). In comparison, Oxford had 48% Offers, 20% Taken and 30% Wants. If you add Offers + Takens, the gap widens to 10 points (58% vs 68%) which validates my instinct that the SG group is less ... giving.

There's more social effects at work here than just these numbers. It shows how the culture of a group (whether online or not) finds different equilibrium especially where leadership from moderators is weak. I've argued before that while untidy, leaving an old sofa in the void deck affords residents a chance to re-use it for free before it is trashed the following day by the maintenance guys. The local council will collect such large rubbish without charge but then there's no re-use.

The bring'n'buy sale, WI, car boot attitude of social generosity displayed by middle England has different outlets in Singapore. At the middle to lower class that SG freecycle seems to cater to, the discards at the HDB void deck offer more.