Remember the scene in The Social Network where one of Mark Zuckerburg’s friends asks him if a girl in his art history class is single? You see the lightbulb go on over Zuckerburg’s head, and he runs back to his dorm room to add Relationship Status as a field in Facebook profiles.
Creating a way to broadcast that simple piece of information revolutionized dating in the digital age. With the rise of the sharing economy, Facebook has an opportunity to allow us to broadcast another piece of key information that is typically hidden under social norms: the items we want to obtain or get rid of.
Imagine a feature called Facebook Exchange. It’s as simple as a shopping list. Users enter items into two categories: Things I Want and Things I’m Offering.
While it would seem nosy to ask everyone you know what they have in their house that they want to get rid of, and it would seem greedy to constantly ask people to give you stuff, the reality is that we all have wants and needs that people we already know could happily fulfill. The missing link is an easy connection between the wanters and the providers.
With a growing cultural mindfulness about waste and excess, people are more willing to share what they have and more uncomfortable with simply throwing decent stuff away. While there are plenty of standalone platforms for reselling, secondhand shopping and free-cycling, there isn’t one that connects you to the people you already know, and those are the people with whom many of us would be most interested in conducting an exchange.
Exchange isn’t a full classified ad service. Facebook tried that once with Marketplace, which has now been transferred to an external provider called Oodle and is no longer available on the Facebook platform. Facebook’s error with Marketplace was in reinventing the wheel. Relationship Status didn’t need to be a dating service; once the information was out there, users acted on it in a variety of different ways without needing additional intervention from Facebook. Similarly, Exchange isn’t about executing transactions; it’s about creating the sense of serendipity that comes from connecting with existing friends in new ways.
Let’s say I’m looking for vacuum cleaner bags. (My needs are glamorous, I know.) This is a low-value item that would be pretty pointless for anyone to sell, but it’s also an item that would be silly to throw away if it’s in perfectly good condition. In this case, let’s say one of my friends’ moms has vacuum cleaner bags to give away. She puts them on her Things I’m Offering list, and because we’re friends and I have vacuum cleaner bags on my Things I Want list, Facebook sends me a notification: “Janet Smith just added ‘vacuum cleaner bags’ to her Things I’m Offering list. Send her a message to ask more about it.” Janet would also get a notification that “Julia Spangler has ‘vacuum cleaner bags’ on her Things I Want list. Send her a message to see if she wants what you’re offering.”
That’s as far as the feature would go. Any photos of the item and the details of the transaction would be handled through person-to-person communication. Users would be free to arrange their own preferred forms of payment, barter, or give stuff away for free. In a lot of cases it could also eliminate shipping, which is one of the biggest inconveniences of online shopping. In this example, my need isn’t urgent, so I’d just pick up the goods the next time I was in Janet’s neighborhood.
The goal of Exchange is to identify potential matches between list items, then let users hash out the details in a subsequent conversation. Facebook’s understanding of language is good enough that it would be able to match up list items that are close but may not be phrased the exact same way. The feature would also be a boon to Facebook’s advertising strategy, since users would literally be telling the platform what they’re interesting in acquiring.
Exchange is obviously a hypothetical feature at this point, but it illustrates a potential solution to the gap between wanters and providers of any given item. My previous blog post on this topic illustrates how challenging it can be to find the right recipient for your unwanted stuff. How much better would life be if we could easily find those people within our own networks?