Amherst ‘Freecyclers’ break from national group

Last modified: Sunday, September 01, 2013
AMHERST — An Amherst Yahoo group that as recently as a month ago had 11,500 members who used a “freecycle” message board to give away and receive used items for free has severed ties with its national counterpart and started a new, independent Yahoo group.

The split with Arizona-based The Freecycle Network comes a year after a Northampton Yahoo group had a similar dispute in which the national nonprofit attempted to move Northampton away from its Yahoo group format in favor of its own email and message board system.

Until a few weeks ago, the Amherst chapter was one of about 5,100 groups throughout the country under the larger Freecycle tent. The national organization was founded a decade ago by recycling activist Deron Beal and now boasts more than 9 million members nationwide.

The Amherst group branched out on its own in early August, spurred in part by Freecycle’s “takeover” of its Yahoo site and at the behest of a majority of its members who wanted to remain independent, said Jennifer Page, a volunteer co-moderator.

“We firmly believe that this group belongs to the members, and they should be the ones to decide what happens to the group,” Page said.

Faced with a similar decision last year, the Northampton group disavowed its affiliation with The Freecycle Network. Moderator Larry Kuttner said his members were worried that consolidating power under The Freecycle Network would give Freecycle Network the ability to collect private information, distribute advertising and take over their groups at any time — something the national organization denied.

How it works

In the Freecycle system, people join Yahoo community groups and communicate online when they want to give or receive used items for free. In addition to Northampton and Amherst, local Freecycle groups are located in Greenfield, Deerfield, Plainfield and the Hilltowns, Holyoke and Springfield.

Unlike Northampton, the Amherst group did not have the power to stop Freecycle from taking over its site because neither Page nor the group’s other moderator had “ownership” privileges. Yahoo Groups have a three-tiered system of membership, starting with members at the lowest level, followed by moderators and owners. Only owners can promote others to owner status and delete a group.

The original owner of the Freecycle Amherst group, established in 2004, is no longer involved but this summer she was still listed as its “owner” along with the national organization, Page said.

This ownership status was not an issue until Freecycle reached out this year in an effort to move the group to its system, something a majority of the group’s members said in a recent survey they did not want to happen.

Because the group did not have a designated “owner,” Freecycle designated itself as owner and notified members that it would move the group to its site on Aug. 4, though Page said they did unsuccessfully attempt to contact the initial owner.

“We moderators did not have the ability to block this action, as the Northampton group was able to do since they had an active group owner,” Page said. “That was the point at which the ‘takeover’ began.”

That did not happen in Northampton’s case because Kuttner has ownership powers, though the national organization did start its own Northampton freecycle chapter.

Given the survey results in which 75 percent of members said they wanted to participate in a local and independent Yahoo group, the moderators created a new Yahoo group, of which Page is now the group owner.

That means there are now two “freecycle”-style groups for the Amherst area — the new group on freecycle.org, and an independent, locally run Yahoo Group called Amherst Freecyclers at groups.yahoo.com/group/amherstfreecyclers.

The Amherst Freecyclers group has 210 members, and is fairly active, though not as active as the old Freecycle Amherst group was before the “takeover.” In an effort to promote its new site, the Freecyclers group has signed up to be a part of the ReUseIt Network, a national Internet-based recycling group similar to Freecycle Network. ReUseIt has about 500 groups.

The Amherst group on freecycle.org lists 3,400 members, according to its website.

“I’ve been letting people know that they are welcome to sign up for either or both groups,” Page said. “My wish is that people keep freecycling, however it works best for them.”

Volunteer leaders of local groups in other communities are facing similar struggles. In Brookfield, for example, the national Freecycle group took steps to remove its leader and move that community’s Yahoo forum to its site. In response, the Brookfield Freecycle Group has followed Northampton’s lead and severed ties with the national group, opting instead to keep its local group running.