Freecycle folly

How to ensure bad P.R., the freecycling way

Published July 27, 2006 9:21PM (EDT)

Imagine if Google's home page included an admonition to would-be searchers never to use the word "google" as a verb, as in, "I don't know the answer to that question, let me google it for you." Such effrontery would be roundly mocked and promptly ignored. It would also be dumb. Don't you want your brand name to enter the common lexicon? You can't buy that kind of public relations.

Back in November 2003, Salon's technology section published a story by Katharine Mieszkowski on Freecycle, a nonprofit that aimed to facilitate the distribution of unwanted goods via the Internet. Using Freecycle, which basically was little more than a network of geographically distributed mailing lists or group forums, one person's junk became another person's vital necessity. It seemed like a pretty cool idea, a classic Internet operation, à la Craigslist, for eliminating waste and friction from the world. The more junk redistibuted to people who could use it, the less would end up in landfills.

But that was before we learned of the pathetic road Freecycle has traveled since. For the full scoop, go to Gristmill, which has all the ugly details. Short version: Freecycle picked up U.S. Waste Management as a corporate sponsor. Then it began attempting to advise media organizations on how to properly use the word "freecycle":

"Only use it as an adjective (Freecycle group, etc.) and never as a noun or verb, or morphed into another word (freecycler, freecycling, freecycle the couch, etc. are no-nos)."

And finally, reports Grist, the company started seeking court orders forcing the removal of Internet postings disparaging Freecycle's "possible trademark and logo."

As a general rule, How the World Works is loath to pile on in a blogospheric frenzy; Grist's treatment of the whole sordid tale is pretty definitive. But given Salon's role as one of the first publications to tout the wonder of Freecycle, it seems appropriate to chime in with some mockery of our own. Freecycle seemed like an operation that understood what the Internet was good for. But given its stumbling progress since, it doesn't appear to understand that what the Net gives, it can also take away.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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