Freecyclers score free stuff, but at what expense?
With two small children, Annemarie Schulte didn't have time to go to the gym or the money to purchase home workout equipment. Eager to shed a few "baby pounds," she joined Freecycle Milwaukee, an online Yahoo group where members post items they want to give away or hope to receive at no cost.
"An awesome couple gave me a Bowflex. Freecycle really helped out big time with that," says Schulte, who lost 10 pounds since she started exercising regularly on her "freecycled" fitness machine about a month ago.
Freecycle is loaded with altruistic aspects: It slows down landfill growth, promotes the spirit of giving, makes it acceptable to ask for something, and in some cases, builds friendships.
"I have really gotten to know some other moms on this site, and it's fun to trade stories or talk about the kids," says Schulte. "Plus, I have seen just about every part of Milwaukee and have met some people that I would have never talked to or met otherwise."
But like all things that simply seem too good to be true, Freecycle has its downsides, especially now that the cyber-group is 4,800 strong and growing daily.
"There can be some very opinionated or judgmental people starting drama on the site by actually posting their views or opinions even though this is against the rules," says Natalie Morris, a 28-year-old mother who lives in Riverwest. "But the moderators usually get it back into control pretty quickly."
"I had a woman berate me and tell me I was greedy and mean because I didn't give her a bag of infant clothes that I had. She was convinced that she was the neediest and deserved that bag of clothes," says Schulte.
Sara Fetter is one of three moderators for Freecycle Milwaukee, and she admits there have been issues in the group.
"The problem that we are constantly battling is people asking for wanteds (want ads)," she says, referring to unreasonable requests on the site for items like CD car stereos, ATVs, running cars or trucks and other expensive or inappropriate goods.
"We even had someone who was looking for guns and ammo," she says. "He was a hunter, but that is a big no-no. It needs to be appropriate for all ages."
Other Freecycle fouls include people trying to sell products instead of gifting them and group members stealing items left outside for another member. Hence, e-mails with full names, addresses and phone numbers are encouraged to be sent privately.
"As a moderator, I have experienced a ton of problems with freecyclers," says Donna Tipton. "As a member, I have only had one problem, and that is someone took a box of remote control cars that was clearly marked with another member's name. I asked for them to be returned so I could give them to the intended person, but to no avail."
When a posted freebie is popular, dozens -- or more -- freecyclers respond to the post, asking for the item and explaining why they deserve it the most. The guidelines require a 24-hour wait before the giver chooses the recipient so everyone in the group has enough time to throw their hat in the ring.
"If you are truly in need of something, sit at the site and refresh it a lot. The first person to respond to an offer is likely to get it," says Mike Schmidt, 43, who lives on the Southeast Side.
Jennifer Lucas says being an MPS teacher has helped her get chosen for numerous items, including shelving units and toys for her kindergarten classroom.
"I'm addicted," she says.
The most common complaint among freecycle members is "no-shows." Others complained they felt harassed.
"Once I had a freecycler that was very persistent. They were so persistent it scared me and I just avoid them," says Lena (who asked to have her last name withheld), a 25-year-old mother in Jefferson County.
Freecycle Milwaukee members receive hundreds of e-mails a day, so signing up for the digest version is encouraged. Instead of individual e-mails, a digest e-mail with 24 messages is sent out eight or nine times a day. Some people opened special e-mail accounts just for Freecycling.
"We have been having a lot of people unsubscribing due to the amount of e-mails they receive," says Fetter. "And especially when spring hits and people start their spring cleaning. We have over 4,800 members, and if just one-third of them post, that could generate a lot of e-mail."
Members can also choose "no e-mails" and read all the posts on the Freecycle Milwaukee site.
Most of the members interviewed said they felt Freecycle, despite its glitches, is rewarding.
"It is the best list I've ever participated in," says Riverwest's Claudine Lienau. "Just make sure you choose the digest version and not the individual e-mails."
Rosemary said: I think this site is a wonderful idea- I can't believe no one came up with it before now! I love the philosophy behind it and, after all, isn't it better to give something you no longer need to someone who can use it rather than throwing it out? Thanks to all involved!
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