Early this month, Brian took advantage of the time off he had for the holiday weekend to do a little cleanup in the laundry room/workshop. Though you may not be able to tell it from the picture, he actually got rid of quite a lot of stuff, sending some to the trash and some upstairs for me to list on Freecycle.
So over the past few weeks, I've made several Freecycle posts and dealt with several different Freecyclers, and the experience has reminded me of something I've thought for a while: there really ought to be a code of etiquette for dealing with people on Freecycle. It might seem like the rules of polite behavior on Freecycle are pretty much the same as they are anywhere else and shouldn't need explaining—but apparently they do, since so many people violate them all the time.
Since it appears that Miss Manners has somehow managed to overlook this particular area, I guess it falls to me to fill in the gap. So here are my proposed Rules of Freecycle Etiquette.
Rule 1: Provide a clear description.
When you offer an item on Freecycle, describe it as clearly and specifically as possible. Include a picture for any item that people might choose based partly on looks, or any item that's hard to describe clearly in writing. Also, provide as much detail you can in the item description, such as dimensions, color, material, and brand and model number. Providing all this information up front saves people the trouble of e-mailing you to ask for details—and it helps you by eliminating the risk for you that someone will request an item, show up, decide they don't like the looks of it, and back out.
Rule 2: Respond to messages.
If someone contacts you about a Freecycle post—either to request an item you've posted, or to offer something you've requested—you have an obligation to respond. Even if the item they're requesting is no longer available, simple courtesy demands that you tell them so.
Yet apparently, most Freecyclers don't bother to extend this common courtesy to others. Many times I've asked for an item and simply been left waiting for an answer, and it's incredibly annoying. I have no way of knowing whether I should be trying to plan my schedule around picking up the item or not. Whenever someone contacts me to ask for an item that I've already promised to someone else, I always reply to tell them so, and they usually respond with something along the lines of, "OK,
thank you for letting me know." This shows that (1) they appreciate
getting a reply, and (2) they're surprised to get it, because most people
Rule 3: Express your intentions.
When you first contact someone about a Freecycle post, your message should state specifically what you want from them. If your message simply says, "Hi, is the bureau still available?" the other person has to e-mail you back to ask, "Yes, do you want it?" and then wait for your reply before you can start the process of making arrangements for a pickup. If you had simply said, "I am interested in the bureau, if it is still available," you could have started making arrangements right away.
Now, you might argue that this isn't really necessary, because obviously, anyone asking about the bureau must be interested in it. So in theory, you could simply respond to "Hi, is the bureau still available?" with "Yes, when would you like to pick it up?" But unfortunately, experience has taught me that this isn't a reasonable assumption. Often, my reply of "Yes, do you want it?" meets with no response—which suggests the answer is "No, not really." If I had instead replied with, "Yes, when would you like to pick it up?" I would have been left waiting for a reply that would never come, and being forced in the meantime to turn down other people who are requesting the same thing because I've already promised it to someone else.
In fact, it's better still if you go one step further and state in that first message not just that you are interested in the item, but when you would be able to pick it up: "I am interested in the bureau, if it is still available. I could pick it up Monday evening, if that's convenient." Including this information in your first message saves another round of back-and-forth messages. I have taken to putting in my posts, "If you are interested, please state in your first message when you can pick it up," in the hopes that this will save time—yet even then, most people ignore the request.
Rule 4: Be specific as to place and time.
This is kind of an extension of rule 3: when you offer to pick up an item, be as specific as possible about when you will be there. If you say, "I will come by some time on Saturday," or worse yet, "some time next weekend," then I have no idea when to expect you. If the item is too big for porch pickup, I'll be effectively held captive in my house all weekend waiting for you with no idea when you'll show up. If I'm leaving it out for porch pickup, this is less of a big deal, but it's still a minor inconvenience not to know how long the item will be out there.
By the same token, if you're the person offering the item, provide clear information about where your house is and what they must do to retrieve the item. I give not only my address, but a description of the house and a couple of landmarks they can use to help them find it. I also tell them if I want them to ring the bell or if I will leave the item out for porch pickup, and if it's the latter, exactly where the item will be: "I'll put it in a bag labeled 'Freecycle' and tie it to the railings of the side stoop." This may seem like overkill, but even with these detailed directions, some people still have trouble finding an item I've left out for them, and they either ring the bell or e-mail me later to say they came by and couldn't find it. But I can at least minimize the problem by being as specific as possible.
4. Honor your obligations.
If you have promised an item to someone, make sure that item is in the stated place at the stated time. If you said you would leave it out for porch pickup, make sure it's out there by the time the person is supposed to arrive; if they're coming to the door, then make sure you're home at the time they said they'd be there. And, obviously, if you have promised something to one person, don't give it to someone else instead just because they could come pick it up earlier. If you're not willing to wait until Tuesday, then don't promise the item to someone who can't come until Tuesday.
Likewise, if you have promised to pick something up at a given time, be there at that time. Don't assume that, just because the item is free, it doesn't really matter if you keep your promise. Even though there's no money at stake, you are still creating inconvenience for the person who posted it and has been forced to stay home waiting for you, or else gone to the trouble of hauling the item out to the porch only to see it sit there unclaimed.
Of course, emergencies do happen that can prevent you from showing up as scheduled. Your car breaks down; you have to stay home with a sick child; you're forced to work late. If something like this happens and you can't be there when you promised you would, SAY SO. It only takes a minute to send an e-mail to say you can't make it and attempt to reschedule. That way, the person can at least leave the house instead of sitting there waiting and wondering if you're ever going to show up. And if you can't arrange another suitable time for the pickup, they at least have a chance to withdraw their offer and give the item to someone else, instead of being stuck in limbo with an item they can't get rid of and can't give to anyone else because it's already promised to you.
5. Post a "taken" message.
After your item has been picked up, remember to go back to Freecycle and post a new message to say the item is now taken. Otherwise, it will still appear as an available item, and people will waste their time and yours asking you about it.
If everyone could just follow these five simple rules when using Freecycle, I think it would be a much more pleasant experience for everyone—givers and receivers alike. If you think there are any other important rules of Freecycle etiquette that I've left out, let me know in the comments.