What do you do on Facebook? Are you the last person playing Mafia Wars? Are you scrolling through photo after photo of a friend of a friend you only met once? Are you sucked into the vortex of Tasty videos? While you RSVP to events you’re never going to go to and try to ignore the five people you know who post Facebook Stories, an underground group of folks who may or may not be your neighbors are usurping capitalism. And by an “underground group”, I mean a private Facebook group and by “usurping capitalism” I mean they’re giving away things for free. Like a classier and friendlier version of Craigslist, the Buy Nothing Project has spawned hundreds of loosely connected groups all over the world, from the United States to Australia to Brazil to the Philippines.
D.C. itself only has five groups, but Northern Virginia has 20+ (the entire state has over 100) and Maryland boasts 33. Of these local Buy Nothing groups, Buy Nothing Silver Spring, which has now split into three separate groups, had more members than many of the other neighborhoods combined. With our curiosity piqued and our thirst for free things always simmering below the service, we called up Elisa Ferrante, former regional admin, current developmental admin and forever member of Buy Nothing Silver Spring group to talk about the ins and outs of running a Facebook group with 1000+ members, how to spend less money and make new friends.
Brightest Young Things: How did you get involved with the Buy Nothing Project?
Elisa Ferrante: I used to live in Charlottesville, Virginia. It popped up on my newsfeed at some point that there was a Charlottesville group and I was a member there. I thought it was pretty awesome because it was focused on hyperlocal gifting- no need to exchange things or trade things, no buying. It just kind of really appealed to me as, you know, as a good way to connect with my community, but also keep things out of the landfill. When I moved to Maryland for a job, I tried to join the Silver Spring group for a little while, and I wasn’t getting in, so I emailed the larger Buy Nothing, and one of their global admins reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be an admin… And I said no. [Laughs] I said no a bunch of times, actually. She kept asking me every couple of weeks for, like, four months until I was like, yeah, okay.
BYT: What made you change your mind?
Ferrante: [The global admin] sent me a bunch of materials that they have on their website about what events [they had] and what it was about, and as I’ve gotten a little bit older- at the time I was in my mid-thirties- I’ve been focusing a lot more on how can I make an effort to live a greener life. Everything that I read really resonated with me. There’s a bunch of groups with no rules, but Buy Nothing has very simple rules, and it’s mostly to make sure people are nice to each other and keep the group from becoming a bulletin board with recommendations and advice and things like that.
It all just really made sense to me, and so I eventually said yes, and when I got into the group, it was pretty much that there were about 100 people and there wasn’t much going on, so I started -because I really liked the mission- I started posting it to the parent listserv and all of the groups I was in, Yahoo groups, Silver Spring Moms and Dads, Silver Spring yard sales, and the group started growing. Once I saw that people were responding to it, I was modeling the behavior that I wanted for the group. I started getting more confident and doing little activities like “Wish Wednesday”, why don’t people try putting a wish in the comments and see if people fulfill it? It became super popular. The group is like, 1200 people now.
BYT: Before this call, I was going through all of the groups in Maryland, of which there are many. Peeking through some of the ones in D.C., and just by briefly glancing, Silver Spring by far has the most members. Why do you think the Silver Spring group has been so successful while other neighborhoods in Maryland and D.C. have less than 100 members?
Ferrante: Some of the groups are actually brand new. Those admins are becoming established and starting to get the word out- they’re growing. Some groups have kind of stalled because it’s really up to the local admin to make a go at it. We have a local admin group that also has regional admin- that’s what I was first, before I became a development admin. We provide a lot of support to people if they want it. A place to bounce off questions, that kind of stuff. It’s up to the [admin] to make it what they want to be, and to be as involved as they want. The purpose of the Buy Nothing Project is not to manage people, but to bring the hyperlocal gifting to diverse communities.
BYT: When you submitted your request to join the Silver Spring group, did you ever think that you would become this enmeshed in the organization?
Ferrante: I had zero idea. I still feel like I must be a little crazy to be doing this. [Laughs]
BYT: How much time would you say you spend working with your local group and other groups in the area?
Ferrante: With the local, I’ve been fortunate that people volunteered to be admins as well. I have two co-admins for the group, which makes a huge difference. For regional and development, I would say I spend between 5-10 hours a week, and a lot of that is helping people get into the training for being an admin, which is very easy and actually very enjoyable… Helping them build a map, figuring out what the boundaries are, and how they are going to run their group.
BYT: What would you say you look for in an admin?
Ferrante: Kindness. For sure. Because sometimes people will reach out to you and they will be upset, so kindness, being able to step back and figure out why a person is upset and address their concerns. And energy, we want people who are gonna be engaged and are going to help the community become connected.
You can imagine that a group with 1200 people is difficult to manage- there are a lot of problems that happen, like missed pickups and people miscommunicating and also, people start thinking about: “Do I really want to drive to the other side of town to pick something up?” Actually, we are going to split into three new groups tomorrow. So, what we did is we put a call-out for new admins, and six other people for the two new groups, three each, stepped up. They are all members that have been really engaged in the group, have really come in with an open heart and sharing, really kind, and they just finished the training, so we are going to embark on this new adventure together.
BYT: What is the perfect size for a Buy Nothing group?
Ferrante: I think we were really great between 300-500 people, and it has gotten harder for me to drive to the other side of town with a toddler, for example. So the idea that my own local group is going to be within 10 minute driving distance and I could even walk is really exciting. It’s convenient, it means less driving, less carbon emissions, less waste.
BYT: When I was going through all of the different groups, it struck me how nailed down to the neighborhood some of these groups were. At first this didn’t make sense to me- I live in D.C.- I don’t care about going to Columbia Heights or Brookland or whatever, I can hop on the metro- why would they separate the groups like this? Do you think aspect is more helpful in a suburban area where public transportation is more difficult?
Ferrante: I think part of it is that it’s more about making connections with your actual neighbors. I can hop on FreeCycle, it’s not about stuff. I could get a bunch of stuff from someone who is not necessarily my neighbor, but lives 30 minutes away, or I could connect with a house down the street that has a baby older [than mine] that I didn’t know about and make a connection with that family.
BYT: Have you made new friends?
Ferrante: I definitely have, it’s been a huge thing. As you get older, it’s harder to connect with people. I moved here in 2016 and took a job at NIH, which is huge and doesn’t necessarily have the setup to make friends. [In the No Buy group] I have met an incredible amount of people, some of them families, some of them not families, a lot of them my local neighbors and a lot of them do live across the street. They’re [my] friends on Facebook and we actively participate in each other’s lives.
BYT: It seems like it goes beyond waving as you pass by someone’s yard.
Ferrante: For sure.
BYT: Would you say being a part of these groups has curbed your spending habits?
Ferrante: It has 100%. Rather than hop on Amazon and buy something, I usually ask in the group first. Sometimes it’s a big thing, sometimes it’s a small thing, I’ve seen a fridge gifted to a local school. That group- someone asked for a fridge for the teachers lounge, and somebody else was moving out of the country and they said, “You can have my fridge,” and another set of people actually volunteered to help transport it. That was a whole community coming together, so yeah, no wish is too small, and no wish is too big. Having had a baby, I had just become admin of the group, but it was kind of amazing what I’ve been able to do as far as having things for my baby thanks to that group.
BYT: I’ve heard that if you’re a parent, these groups are helpful, because there are so many things, once you’re finished having kids, that you can’t use anymore, even if they’ve only been used for a couple of months.
Ferrante: That’s keeping it out of the landfill and giving it a new life, too. From what I hear from the members, it makes them feel really fulfilled when they’re able to give something that they care about that they know will get used well for other families.
BYT: What are some of the most popular items you see posted in Silver Spring? Is there a general theme?
Ferrante: There’s a lot of everything, from furniture to clothing, home decor, even plants. I asked for office plants last Wednesday, and I got two new little office plants. Something else that Silver Spring has done really well that I haven’t seen from other groups is, we have traveling boxes of clothes for children- they’re separated by age 12-18, below 12 months and then for women, but we also have a lending library. So theres a list of people who have put out things like their lawnmower or a circulating saw, or even things to host a party, like giant platters and bottles to hold large amounts of drinks.
BYT: For the lending library, it sounds like general homeware items that anyone can pop in and grab. Where do these items live? With the receptive families that are offering?
Ferrante: With the owners, yes, so someone can say they want it for an event, and they go and borrow it, and then return it. We actually borrowed a knife sharpener.
BYT: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve seen offered on the group?
Ferrante: One that really warmed my heart was, there was a mom that posted about her little girl having lost a hat that she really cared about at an amusement park because it was a hat that her dad had given her and her dad had passed away. She posted to the group to try and find the hat, but we didn’t have it, so I posted to the other local admins in the region and through a series of events that took about a month, we were able to find the hat.
BYT: The same hat?
Ferrante: The same style. We couldn’t find the actual hat, because it was somewhere in Pennsylvania, but people knew where the manufacturer was and went to talk to them. So the new hat was exactly the same and ended up coming from West Virginia.