How a Facebook group taught me to subvert capitalism
It was summer, and I’d just moved back to New York after four years in the San Francisco Bay Area. For my first few weeks back, I stayed at a friend’s place while she was out of town, and my primary job during that time was to find a permanent place to live. I didn’t have any furniture, and not a lot of cash, so I was looking for a roommate.
Due diligence in a roommate search meant keeping an eye trained on Craigslist listings. One thing that was high on my list was living with other queer people. I’d lived in households where I was the only queer person, and it had always felt isolating. More importantly, I didn’t want to have to try to guess which households were going to be queer-friendly. As a result, I often searched for the word “queer” in the roommates section of Craigslist.
I was lucky to have a good number of friends and acquaintances in town, so my chances of finding something through word of mouth were pretty decent, and made better by that fact that most of those friends and acquaintances were on Facebook. Facebook meant I could advertise my need upfront instead of hoping to slip it into conversations with people I didn’t know well. Also important was making sure those friends who “knew everybody” knew I was looking, as they were more likely to have heard of someone who needed a roommate.
It was one of those highly-networked friends who connected me to my future roommate. This particular friend wasn’t someone I knew well, so it was unlikely I would have called or texted him to ask if he knew anyone who was looking for a roommate. His reading one of my posts on Facebook was the key to making the connection. It felt like a lucky coincidence: he’d happened to be reading Facebook at the right time for my post to show up in his feed.
The coincidence stuck with me. What if my friend hadn’t seen my post that day? Housing options were scarce, and it could’ve meant a month of couch-surfing before I found a place to land. Not the end of the world, certainly, but a rough way to start.
Towards the end of that summer, as I got settled, Facebook started lighting up again with people looking for housing and looking for roommates. I was eager to pay forward the favor of connecting people with compatible needs. It was hard to track, though, who had said they needed a place, and if they were still looking by the time someone else posted an available apartment. There should be an easier way to connect friends of friends, I thought.
I started a Facebook group with that purpose — not just to connect people around housing needs, but also people buying and selling things, giving things away, or looking to barter. Craigslist did some of this beautifully already, of course, but on Craigslist there’s so much to sort through to find what one really needs. Because of the trouble I’d had finding queer-friendly housing on Craigslist, I wanted the group to be LGBTQ-specific. I called the group “Queer Exchange.”
I invited about 20 or 30 queer people I knew in New York to the group, and encouraged them to invite their friends. Within a few months, membership was 500, then 1000. Over the course of several years, the group grew to upwards of 20,000 members.
There’s a lot to be said about the dynamics of online communities in general and this community in particular, most of which I won’t get into here. Things didn’t always run smoothly, but I want to talk about what worked. I’m going to focus on the transactions, and how those transactions fostered a sense of community.
Most people joined because at least one of their friends was a member. When it came time to make an exchange, it was highly likely that the two people had friends in common. Facebook makes a point of showing you your friends in common, and that became integral to cultivating a sense of trust in the group. In a forum like Craigslist, common connections are hypothetically possible, but not surfaced in the application, and much more rare.
In Queer Exchange, the trading took off quickly. Along with buying and selling, people regularly offered things for free and agreed to make time to meet up and hand off the goods, even when it might have been easier just to leave things on the curb. People were enthusiastic to see their excess stuff put to good use. Likewise, there was never a short supply of people asking for what they needed.
Occasionally requests seemed like wishful thinking, like the people moving to New York from the Midwest and hoping to find an apartment priced ridiculously under market. For the most part, though, requests were reasonable: a USB keyboard, a cat-sitter, a mattress, sometimes with an offer of money or trade, and sometimes not.
A few things became clear to me from several years of participating in and observing Queer Exchange: (1) people like to help each other, (2) community members can aid in taking care of the needs that society leaves unmet, and (3) people want alternatives to mainstream transactional relationships.
Because the transactions in Queer Exchange originated on Facebook, which was essentially a discussion forum, there were lots of opportunities for people to talk through issues, and the issues were often economic. That meant anything from soliciting recommendations for a mover or how to deal with a shady landlord to a person offering odd job services in order to make rent that month.
On several occasions, I saw the community swoop in and come to the rescue of a person who was in a jam monetarily. I can think of at least one case in which people in the group organized to prevent someone’s eviction, and many others where people donated furniture or food to help get someone through a rough time.
There was a certain pride in the group that people were taking care of each other when institutions failed to do so. There was a sense that we had found a way around the mainstream marketplace — we couldn’t escape capitalism, but we could make it a little less hard-edged.
Though we often hear the phrase “the LGBT Community,” in reality it’s many communities loosely joined to each other. Though most members of Queer Exchange knew at least one other member, the particular people in the group weren’t necessarily in a community together before joining. The social overlaps helped foster a sense of trust, but the trading itself created a sense of community.
Money, after all, is a social phenomenon. It came into being in order to manage our complex social relationships. It’s hard to see the effects of that in late capitalism, as money falls into the soulless domains of business and banking. I’m not trying to argue that money is a force for good. Rather, if we have to deal with it, we can segment some part of our necessary transactions into the realm of the small-scale community marketplace. Trading within a local community can help us stay connected to our communities when most of our daily transactions are impersonal.
I’d like to push a step further and propose that in those small-scale marketplaces, we might avoid the use of money altogether. There appears to be a lot of room for alternative economies to spring up, beyond Facebook groups.
A marketplace could operate a little like a barter system, except instead of holding out for direct exchanges, people could exchange IOUs, which would work as a currency. Anyone could create an IOU, whether they had dollars to spend or not. An alternative marketplace would bring resources into cash-strapped communities and help people meet their needs. You couldn’t pay your rent with the IOUs, but you could get a home-cooked meal, a babysitter, or a couch.
A system of IOUs — essentailly, a new kind of currency — could support a trading group like Queer Exchange, on Facebook or elsewhere, offering members who wanted to participate an alternative to cash payments. Membership in the trading group and membership in the currency system would not have to fully overlap; it would simply be an option among many, the way Venmo is an option for a transaction when two people agree to use it.
For as much as Facebook facilitated the quick growth of Queer Exchange, it ultimately isn’t the right platform for small-scale trading. It organizes groups in terms of conversations, with the most commented threads appearing ahead of less popular threads. Listings of goods and services, however, would make much more sense categorized and ordered chronologically. That leads me to believe that an alternative currency might benefit from having its own platform where members could post listings.
Following from some of the things Queer Exchange got right, I believe people would be enthusiastic to try trading with a new form of currency that wasn’t tied to the dollar. People want to help each other out; they want to save money; they want meaningful work; they want to make ends meet. With an alternative currency, communities can begin to meet the needs of their members even when money is in short supply.
See also Visualizing Queer Exchange Friendships by Jen Jack Gieseking
For more on my ideas for an alternative currency, see https://medium.com/@robyn/towards-a-local-alternative-digital-currency-2f0fcafe81f0