Flickr/Lomiere

Research suggests that people who participate in Freecycle communities experience greater group identity and solidarity.

Freecycle launched in Tucson, Arizona, back in 2003 as a local email list with the simple premise of helping people unload junk they no longer wanted – furniture, clothing, office supplies, you name it – onto nearby people who did. The system came with one rule: Whatever you’re giving up, you can ask for nothing in return. Everything must be free.

Today, the online network of Freecycle communities has nearly 9 million members around the world all collecting hand-me-downs from each other’s doorsteps. These people have gone even further than "collaborative consumption" or a "sharing economy." They’ve created a massive gifting economy.

Sociologists have long been intrigued by these kinds of benevolent "generalized exchange communities" (if you’ve ever given blood or participated in a Secret Santa, you’ve been a part of one). What motivates people to participate in them? And what happens to a community when its members willingly give to each other with no expectation of getting anything in return (at least not immediately)?

"This old idea that gift-giving communities generate lots of solidarity, is it true and does it hold up outside of the lab?" asks Robb Willer, a sociologist at the University of California. "We found that it does."

Freecycle generates feelings of group unity and cohesion [PDF] among the people who participate in it. "First, you sort of build this feeling of group identification," Willer says. "Then you build this feeling of solidarity. Then after that you’re more motivated to give to the system."

Interestingly, you don’t get the same benefits from participating on Craigslist, which is a more traditional type of "direct exchange system" based on the quid pro quo that you’ll give me something – probably cash – in return for my old love seat. The researchers drew their conclusions by conducting extensive surveys of hundreds of users of both of these networks.

This Freecycle feeling of group solidarity and identification is likely equally true of similar gifting systems like Couchsurfing. But what makes Freecycle particularly interesting is that it’s a web community that’s also grounded in a physical one. Chances are, if you put a box of children’s books on your front porch, someone who lives relatively close to you will turn up to collect it. And this suggests something much larger.

"It’s entirely possible," Willer says, "that these feelings of solidarity with one’s geographically identified Freecycle group spill over and help build feelings of solidarity with your larger community."

Researchers don’t know this yet for sure, but it’s a compelling hypothesis (and one that might counter some of the cries that communities today have weaker ties and less social capital than they used to). Wouldn’t a neighborhood have greater group identification and solidarity if neighbors gave freely to each other? What if you’re bowling alone with a bowling ball you got on Freecycle?

Top image: Flickr user Lomiere, via creative commons

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