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Giving stuff away on Freecycle is more trouble than tossing it in a landfill.

Taking it to an op shop isn’t trouble-free either.

I’m not happy chucking out usable hardware and other items with plenty of life left in them. In my case this is a mixture of greenery, plain old-fashioned protestant hatred of waste and memories of hard times.

One alternative is to list unwanted items on TradeMe with a $1 reserve – for overseas readers TradeMe is New Zealand’s home-grown eBay.

Free listing on Trademe

Listing items on TradeMe is free. If they sell, there’s a 6.9 percent commission fee. So if the item sells for $1, I’m 7 cents out-of-pocket. Or, more accurately, I’m 93 cents richer as it is something I’m ready to give away. These numbers are so small they are negligible. In effect, there’s no cost difference  between selling on TradeMe and giving things away on Freecycle.

Yet the cash element involved seems to oil away some of the friction associated with Freecycle.

As mentioned in an earlier look at the free trading site, Freecycle transactions don’t always go smoothly. In my experience more than half fall through.

Freecycle pain

While many are  fine, some Freecycle people are a pain to deal with.

On the other hand, when someone pays for an item on TradeMe, no matter how small the price, the nature of the deal is different. People turn up as promised.

I suspect the reason for this is people don’t put a value on things they get free, so they don’t value my time and effort at the other end of a Freecycle transaction and feel comfortable stuffing me around. When they pay, the transaction has a value to them and they act accordingly.

Thanks to Parsley72 who pre-empted this post in a comment on Frustrating Freecycle.

Your view may differ.

Benefits of TradeMe over Freecycle:

  • Money oils away transaction friction
  • Feedback scores show good people to deal with
  • There’s a legitimacy with TradeMe
  • Questions and answers get dealt with in a single, visible place
  • Efficient, no need to deal with tons of emails after items are taken
  • Less email aggravation, less rudeness for disappointed recipients
  • TradeMe has wider reach

Marketing consultant Johnny Moore writes about “a creeping extension of the need for academic qualifications, the ability to write clever essays” in The Tyranny of the Explicit.

He says:

The intention is good, but the practical effect is to engulf people in explicit, complicated systems and reduce their freedom – based on an unconscious assumption that everyone is not to be trusted. We give ascendancy to people who are really great at theory and effectively degrade practice. I think its rooted in the idea that one person or a group of people can effectively oversee a system and control how it works with written instructions.

One aspect of this is the arse-covering qualifications provide. If, say, a marketing manager hires a copywriter with a degree in copy-writing, they feel they are not to blame if the writer fails to deliver.

There’s an incentive in most organisations to engage the best-qualified person for a task, not the most experienced, best skilled or highest performer.

File compression works because document files store data quickly and inefficiently – like carelessly throwing clothes in a suitcase before a trip. Taking more time and care makes it possible to pack more in the case.

File compression tools are like vacuum luggage packs that squeeze half as much again into your bag.

You could be forgiven for thinking file compression is past its sell-by date in this era of huge hard drives and broadband. Compression is still useful because broadband speeds are still not spectacular and modern multimedia files are enormous.

You probably use compression all the time without thinking about it because it is hidden from sight.

Take, audio. A file on a standard music CD is many tens of megabytes in size – typically 50 MB. The same song stored as an MP3 file might be only 4MB. MP3 is a compressed data format – in effect it squeezes out the blanks between sounds.

If music wasn’t compressed, you wouldn’t be able to get many songs on an iPod and it would take forever to download from iTunes. Compression removes some music information along the way – that’s why MP3s rarely sound as good as the original audio files.

In a similar way jpeg compresses pictures and movies are compressed with a range of different formats.

Compression is not built-in to office applications like word processors and spreadsheets. Third-party compression tools to fill the gap.

Zip is the best known file compression format. Another popular format is .rar, there’s a good chance you’ll come across other formats.

Windows now has built-in support for Zip files. You can create a new compressed folder or create a new one directly in Windows explorer. Dealing with other formats requires a compression application – most, including some of the best are free. My favourite is jZip (www.jzip.com) JZip is a fast tool that handles most formats you’ll encounter in day-to-day computing.

You don’t need to overdo compression. In many cases it is more trouble than it is worth because it slows things down. Be selective about what you compress.

The idea behind Freecycle is sound. It is an online forum where you give away unwanted items and not dump them in a landfill site. There are local Freecycles around the world. I tried the one in Auckland, New Zealand.

In my case, I listed items I no longer need. People who want the items email their interest, arrange a meet up and deal with the item. There’s an alternative approach where people who need things can ask for them.

It sounds simple enough and I’ve used it to unclutter my garage before a house move, but I’ve run into problems with Freecycle, which make me question its value.

Freecycle problems

Problem 1: Can’t be bothered. I’ve offered a number of items on Freecycle, had them requested and the person at the other end of the deal fails to pick up the item. I guess because an item is free, it has little perceived value by the recipient. Maybe there are other reasons. Either way, my first three forays into Freecycle resulted in receivers not picking up the items they requested.

Problem 2: Slackness. This is closely related to problem 1. Receivers make appointments to pick up items, I wait at home for them, they don’t turn up. Then they make more broken appointments etc. While  rescheduling is fine, we’re talking about people who constantly shuffle appointments.

Problem 3: Greed. I’ve noticed some of the receivers turning up to pick up items ask for more. In one case the picker-up wandered into my open garage asking if he could take items than were clearly not for recycling. This makes me uneasy with the process. I also don’t like it when I offer item X, and get tons of emails asking if I’ll also be giving away a loosely related item Y.

Problem 4: Inefficiency. When someone requests an item, I post a taken message on Freecycle. The matter should end there, but emails pour in for days and weeks after, asking if the item is still available. Not taking notice of “Taken” posts is just plain rude.

Problem 5: Venality. Some of the stuff I’ve distributed via Freecycle has turned up for sale on TradeMe (if you’re outside New Zealand this is the local equivalent of eBay). On one level I don’t care when happens to the items I’ve given away. Once they’ve gone, they’ve gone. On the other hand, I suspect some Freecycle users are professional scavengers – which disturbs me. Apart from anything else this undermines the idealism of the project.

Have you run into problems with Freecycle? Or are you happy with it? I’d love to hear your opinion.

A review copy of Reality Check turned up on my desk in 1996. The book by Brad Wieners and David Pescovitz (ISBN 1-888869-03-8) is published by Hardwired, the book division of Wired magazine.

According to the review at Amazon.com:

Reality Check is based on the popular and amusing futurism section in Wired magazine. It makes bold predictions about when we will see some of the wonders suggested by pundits, thinkers, science fiction and today’s technological revolution.

Wondering when we’ll finally see universal picture phones? Electric cars? Contact with extraterrestrial life? Tricorders? Predictions for all of those are here, along with when the two-party system will die and–of grave importance–when we’ll all have virtual sex slaves.

You have to hand it to the authors for putting their reputation’s on the line with the predictions. Few are so public with forecasts.

Here at the start of 2010 we’re about halfway through the book (in terms of pages). So far  the authors have had more misses than hits – that’s only likely to get worse as time goes on.

According to the authors this year will bring:

  • Smart drugs. The description in the book is hazy, but so far, to my knowledge this doesn’t look like being on the agenda.
  • Robot surgeon (in a pill). While there is some robot surgery and some advances of this nature, I think the idea of swallowing a robot pill which swims through your body fixing up ailments is still a way off being an everyday reality.
  • The Audio CD becomes a format of second choice. In reality this happened four or five years earlier, but seeing as the book was written in 1996 we can give the authors a big tick for this prediction. What they failed to predict is in many places the Audio CD is now third behind digital music and vinyl – but that’s another story.