I've been seeing a lot of people really excited about very leftist ideas on TikTok lately, as well as being very frustrated at the way that the 'developed' world exists, and I keep getting this idea of an app that would finally create some sort of framework for the average person to produce mutual aid.

The basic idea is that you could list things that you want to share. Other people can list things they need. The only limits would be, officially, no prepared foods, for legal reasons, and maybe other things that I haven't forseen. And that would be it! An app to share things you have extra of, with your neighbors.

So, that's been stewing around in my mind for a little bit, and then today, what do you know? I discover that 'Buy Nothing Day', a movement around the idea of a day where nobody buys anything, has an app like this! And it has existed for two years! But it sucks. All the reviews claim that basic functionality like making posts is busted despite praising the idea.

And my question is ultimately this: why has there not been a version of this sort of thing yet? Have economic conditions simply not been bad enough for people to want to help and rely on their neighbors?

Did craigslist pave the way despite becoming a cesspool of overly expensive crap and deceptively listed '$1' ads for businesses, that require you to drive 8 miles to pick it up while someone side-eyes you suspiciously from their driveway and waits for the venmo to go through?

Is this idea not sustainable or good in some way I'm missing? It seems like a no brainer to me and nothing but a public good. People could point to some theoretical stranger danger, but that just seems like razorblades-in-halloween-candyesque fearmongering.

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From my POV the main problem with these kinds of efforts is less the software interface, and more that trying to cooperate with strangers to share stuff, or to buy/sell stuff, is often extremely frustrating because people are frustrating. Not showing up, not returning things, scammers, last-second haggling, managing schedules for handing stuff off. It can be a rather large time cost which, in many cases, just isn't worth the hassle even if we had a perfect software tool to facilitate it. Unless, that is, you're dealing with a group that has existing IRL relationships (in which case the app isn't doing much of the work). 

I came here to say exactly this! It's one thing to build an app, but quite another to built the institution that makes it work.

So apart from having members exchange physical goods, and someone to take care of the technical machine, someone has to invest time to tackle all the moderation work to limit bad actors' effects on the series of trades.

There was a flourishing of apps like this around the '10s with stuff like couch surfing and tool trading apps etc but most have died off, leaving bigger players like Facebook marketplace or Craigslist precisely because, as I believe, they didn't have a plan to tackle the institutional work--instead just believing strangers will sort things out between themselves.

3AnthonyC3mo
Two years ago I downsized from a house to an RV, which meant selling, giving away, or tossing most of what I owned. Most items I posted online went through multiple instances of someone saying they wanted it, then not showing up (without even a message to say so) at the agreed upon time.
1M. Y. Zuo3mo
It's a bit ironic that the app idea doesn't work in practice for the same reasons that communism doesn't work in practice.
1lillybaeum3mo
Do you want to elaborate on that?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buy_Nothing_Project

Our household gives and gets quite a bit from "bonk" (BNK (Buy Nothing Kirkland)), as we call it. Many people in my circles are in local Buy Nothing groups on Facebook. Not just in Washington. I think the reason "nobody has built a killer app" for Buy Nothing is because (a) Facebook groups serve the purpose well enough, and (b) getting a lot of people onto an app is always hard.

EDIT: This was supposed to be a reply to the answer by Valdes, but for some reason LW keeps posting it as a separate answer. No idea why.

Most people are incompetent, and the competent ones are usually busy. So unless you pay the market price (quite high) or the project is super exciting (to someone other than you), you will get a crappy app. It's not just the code, it can be a crappy design, or utter lack of empathy with the user.

Recently I use an app to record my daily medicine usage. The idea is that every day I take a pill, and I confirm that "yes, today I took a pill at X o'clock". (Or: "today I didn't". Or, I forget to enter either information today, so tomorrow I enter it also for the previous days.) Then it uploads the information to a server. How difficult can this get?

  • First I start the application, and I need to enter a password. Then it takes about a minute to authenticate me on a server. I appreciate the concern for privacy, but why the fuck can't the password just be verified locally?
  • Then I need to choose whether I want to report the pill usage, or read the tutorial. I have already read the tutorial, why can't it remember this simple fact and skip the screen?
  • The next screen tells me that I have reported the pill usage for yesterday, but not for today. Thank you, Captain Obvious, that's like 95% of situations when I use the app. Why can't you just skip this screen in such case, and only display it when something unexpected happens, such as I have already reported the pill usage for today, or I forgot to report it yesterday?
  • Then it asks me whether I took the pill today, and I need to check the "yes" or "no" option, and then click Next.
  • Then there is a screen that tells me to select time. I need to click a clock icon, it displays a modal dialog where I adjust the hours and minutes (by clicking small "+" and "-" buttons below them; if I click outside the small buttons, the modal dialog closes and I need to click the clock icon and enter the time again). Why couldn't these two screens plus the modal dialog replaced by one screen that displays the hours and minutes with the "+" and "-" buttons, plus another button "I didn't take the pill today"?
  • Then there is a screen telling me to review the information I entered, click the "ok" checkbox, and then click Next. Except it doesn't show the entered information, so the only way to review would be to click the "Back" button and check on the previous screen.
  • Then it take another minute to upload the information to the server, and then I can finally close the app.

I mean, it could worse, and you can get used to it, but I could also be way more convenient. But it is not, quite predictably. Crap is what you get by default, and there is no market mechanism to select for a higher quality app.

I think it already exists to some extent, at least in France. We have "leboncoin" which I think is similar to Craigslist. Many offers are very cheap and the software is decent, though not great. The giver has to deal with the hassle of taking pictures, making a public offer, and then coordinating with the taker; so in exchange the taker gives them a token amount of money. Seems fair. I truly think that many offers on leboncoin are put there because people want others to benefit from what they no longer need. I also think I saw some offers in the past that were fully free (listed for 1 euro, with a comment saying they are free).

You say

Did craigslist pave the way despite becoming a cesspool of overly expensive crap and deceptively listed '$1' ads for businesses, that require you to drive 8 miles to pick it up while someone side-eyes you suspiciously from their driveway and waits for the venmo to go through?

But my experience with leboncoin in France has always been about nice people and polite conversations. Maybe there is a cultural difference?

I sometimes think that it would be great to have a more comprehensive system to facilitate giving and reusing all kinds of things across society. It would notably be great to have a system that handles storage until a taker is found, pickup/delivery, quality check, and cleaning in exchange for a small fee. We also have that in France for furniture, it is called Emaus. You give your couch to the charity, they clean it and ensure it is in decent shape (I think they do bedbug screening) then they put it up for sale and deliver it, all for a very reasonable price. In addition it even provides jobs for people in need who might often be "noncompetitive" and unlikely to find jobs otherwise. Emaus is a charity, so they don't care: the jobs are part of the goal. Their website is quite bad, there is no accessible database of items on offer and they don't even do a good job at clarifying their services and policies. So you need to go there and see for yourself. Why don't they have a good website/app? I don't know but I can guess. Not a priority, their volunteers are often old and don't know how to code, it would take more work for each donation if they had to populate a database, everything gets sold eventually so they think better software would change nothing.

In short: Craigslist/leboncoin is already decent software for donations where you pay the donor a few bucks for taking the time to organize the donation, and people use that software to that end. Maybe there would be benefits to an app that only organizes donations and nothing else, but the gain seems minimal. It would make sense to have a third party simplify the logistic for a fee, and that has been done for expensive items (couchs). For it to work with smaller stuff you would probably need some economy of scale, so it might be harder to make it work. Maybe there is an opportunity there. You certainly would need good software: I might go to Emaus to see if they have a nice couch, but I won't go for a blanket if I cannot check in advance that they have a nice one.

Code has a cost. Creating it, testing it, releasing it, supporting it, updating it. It’s certainly cheaper to run a server to handle that sort of app than at any other point in the history of the Internet, but as the number of users increases, so to do the costs.

Given that the whole idea is predicated on a barter economy, and not money, that cost would likely fall on some lone developer. It’s easy to be excited about such a project for a while. As bug reports come in taking up more and more time, along with feedback from users who only see their inconvenience, that excitement easily wanes.

Because of this, it’s not surprising to me that there isn’t a good app in that space.

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In my neighborhood there are some similar activities.

About once in a year there is a "Money-Free Zone", which means that someone rented a big room for a day (for example a gym at a school, during a weekend) and put there some tables. People who want to donate stuff come there, give the stuff to organizers, the organizers sort it out and place it on the tables. Then everyone is free to take whatever they want. At the end of the day, organizers put the remaining stuff to bags and offer it to some charities, and I suppose whatever is rejected ultimately gets thrown out.

This requires some money and work, but only on the side of the organizers. For everyone else it is free. For people like me it is actually a good opportunity to get rid of some things I no longer need, so I usually give about as much as I take. The event is open for everyone, and giving is purely optional.

The problem is that this works okay as long as giving and taking is at least somewhat balanced. I do not need to take as much as I give, but if I take literally nothing, it removes a large part of the incentive to come the next time. Most of the time it is okay -- I suppose because most poor people do not get the memo? though that explanation sounds a bit weird -- but I have heard that at some places the event was overrun by hordes of poor people (sometimes poor smelly people) which was a bad experience for the donors, so the next year the event was organized at a different location and was not advertised publicly; it was still open for everyone who came, but you needed to be lucky and get the info through the grapevine.

We also have a neighborhood group on Facebook, and related to it there is a mutual donation group, that only the members of the neighborhood group can join. If you want to get rid of something, you post a photo and a description, and the first person who replies can take it.

There is also a website for people selling to each other, where you can also "sell" for a price of 0 €.

Compared to the American versions, as described on Wikipedia, it seems to me that our local version is much less ideological. Like, the Facebook group is not ideological at all, the spirit is "neighbors offering stuff to each other"; at the selling website the spirit is "this is so cheap that I am actually not even asking money for it". Only the Money-Free Zone has some ideological connotations in the title (it may appeal to people who believe that money is a bad idea in general), but the activity itself is very factual: you bring stuff, you take stuff, no one is giving you lectures on anything. I suspect that whatever is your motivation for organizing such events, not pushing your ideology on the participants makes it a better experience.

(I assume that the main effect of a "Buy Nothing Day" is that people buy that stuff on the previous or the next day instead, so the weekly sales remain the same.)

Not only do I share your guess that the main effect of a buy-nothing day is to shift rather than remove purchasing, I can't escape a cynical suspicion that the idea of a "Buy Nothing Day", on a day when major retailers have particularly low prices, might originally have been seeded by those retailers in an attempt to get people to feel good about Not Contributing To Capitalism when what's actually happening is that they buy the same things but at different times and hence at higher prices.

(I think that probably isn't what happened. But I wouldn't bet against it at 10:1 odds.)

The IRS might consider the creation of this app facilitation of tax evasion.

I really don't see how? What tax are you thinking of?

It is my understanding that the US federal government levies taxes on gifts and barter. This proposal sounds to me like something in between the two, and if it is not, can certainly be construed to be by the prosecutor.

There is a tax on gifts in value greater than $17,000 per recipient per giver per year. Unlikely to be an issue.

There is only a tax on barter, essentially sales tax, in the event that the seller makes more than the item bartered cost them. Sharing, and there's no profit or loss. Selling used stuff, and you're unlikely to make a net profit.

Because you can't make money off of it (by definition) so no-one wants to work hard enough on it to make it work. Sort of like communism itself.