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Communities and Control

October 5th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

I don’t know how many of you read the Ecologist. But an article in the recent online edition about the demise of the Freecycle movement in the UK makes interesting reading. The Ecologist explains: “Freecycle is, in essence, a giant internet-based swap shop, made up of thousands of localised groups allowing users to give away stuff they don’t want any more, and receive stuff they do want.

The rules are simple: whatever you give away must be free, and you can’t keep taking without giving. The aim is to keep useful things out of landfill, and although there are no official figures as to how much waste the network has kept above ground in the last six years, with nearly 5,000 groups in over 70 countries, and a total membership tipping 6.5 million people, it’s hard to deny its success.”

But as they go on to report: “over the last month, simmering tensions in the network have boiled over, resulting in more than 40 per cent of the 510 UK Freecycle groups breaking away to form an independent network called Freegle.”

The issue appears to be over control, with US organisers keeping tight ownership of the Freecyle tradename and maintaining a close grip on how the network is organised and managed. This despite their dependence on local group organisers.

This is not the first dispute to split an internet based dispersed community, nor will it be the last. Communities, be they face to face or online, require facilitation and decision making processes. Yet just because the community is online does not change power relations. And when community members feel they no longer have access to decision making processes, or that decisions handed down are unjust, they will often challenge such leadership.

Such issues are particularly fraught for communities of practice and for networks established to support projects. Whilst they may wish to promote community involvement and participation, often decision making rests on ownership (in the case of education networks often with the funding body).

Ultimately the only answer is to develop community governance models. But just as with business models, we are yet to catch up with changing patterns of participation and involvement enabled by Web 2.0. The old committees that we elected to run our community societies and clubs in the past may not be suited to the forms of participation and interaction engendered by Web 2.0 technologies.

Whilst there are programmes and projects looking at ideas of digital democracy, this work is still in its infancy. What does digital democracy mean? And how can it best be organised? How do online communities mediate power relations?

The new independent Freegle network appears to be growing fast. It will be interesting to see how they organise themselves.

4 Responses to “Communities and Control”

  1. alyssa says:

    I like the concept of freecycleing ,

    I think if enough people hear about it it will catch on.

  2. The first time I had to face my own demons in this area was with a playschool group. Because I had 4 kids in 5 years, eventually I became the only mother in the group who was a founding member. The original group was into creating something for all children in the community. As it evolved, the members wanted to pay the teacher a fairer wage and increase the quality of craft materials and activities, etc. It took me a day to realize that I was the only person who had joined who wasn’t giving their kids the best of everything so the affordability issue was a very self-centered one.

    Churches face the same issues. Most of the programming appeals to elderly seniors who are preserving their history. Do you serve the needs of your faithful supporters or do you focus your resources into creative programming that may or may not serve the needs of the 21st century broader community with their multitude of Sunday morning choices?


  1. An academic view on the #Freegle split from #Freecycle – – raises the issue of governance – will Freegle be different?


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Graham Attwell, theo kuechel and Ali Brown. Ali Brown said: RT @GrahamAttwell: learning from the Freecycle dispute for developing communities practice & community governance – […]

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