Gifts Among Strangers: The Social Organization of Freecycle Giving

Social Problems, Forthcoming

43 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2015

See all articles by Sofya Aptekar

Sofya Aptekar

University of Massachusetts Boston

Date Written: October 10, 2015


The Freecycle Network, with its millions of members gifting objects to strangers, is a stalwart fixture of the increasingly popular sharing economy. Unlike the wildly profitable Airbnb and Uber, the Freecycle Network prohibits profit-making, or even barter, providing an altruism-based alternative to capitalist markets while keeping tons of garbage out of landfills. Why do millions of people give through Freecycle instead of selling, donating, or throwing away items? Utilizing participant observation of two overlapping Freecycle groups and a survey of their members, I investigate motivations for giving and the social norms that guide it. I find that while members of other internet-based groups have been found to exhibit altruism and solidarity, altruism and solidarity in Freecycle appear to be secondary. Instead, green-washed convenience takes precedence as members are motivated to give in order to de-clutter their homes in an environmentally friendly fashion and in a way that can expiate guilt from overconsumption. Embedded in local contexts and governed by powerful cultural expectations based on gift exchange and charitable donation, Freecycle givers create a set of social structures that combine with the organization’s focus on the environment to downplay altruism and elide inequalities

Keywords: conscious consumption, sharing economy, Freecycle, altruism, environmentalism

Suggested Citation

Aptekar, Sofya, Gifts Among Strangers: The Social Organization of Freecycle Giving (October 10, 2015). Social Problems, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Sofya Aptekar (Contact Author)

University of Massachusetts Boston ( email )

Boston, MA
United States

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