What initially struck me about Freecycle was that it was the first useful thing on the Internet I learned about by reading a newspaper instead of through the leading-edge online news sources I follow. The next thing I noticed about Freecycle was that, unlike Craigslist, Flickr, and other "Social Internet" phenomena, it wasn't centered on major cities but had local groups all over the place, even in towns like Apache Junction, Arizona, and Bradenton, Florida. And then, when I actually used my local Freecycle group, I discovered something else: A high percentage of users were over 50, female, or both.Note that Freecycle was not started in or near San Francisco or New York, and that it's a non-profit. It's decentralized, so anyone who wants to start a local Freecycle community, anywhere in the world, can go ahead and do it. Since it's essentially a collection of Yahoo! Groups, no technical knowledge is required, just time and patience.
Freecycle scales easily. If one group gets too crowded -- and many get hundreds of OFFERED and WANTED posts every day -- it's no big deal to split that group into two or more smaller sub-regional ones. And if more moderators are needed, training them is no problem, at least on the technical side. This is an ideal volunteer job for a retiree with a computer and Internet connection. There are plenty of retirees on my local Freecycle, and I'm sure there are many on other local Freecycles, too.
Support Your Local Blogfinder
TampaBLAB is meaningless to you unless you live in or near Tampa, Florida. It aggregates local blogs, and only local blogs. Founder/maintainer Brett Glisson put it online in September, 2005, and says it now gets "about 1000 to 1500 pageviews per day," and that it has "been picking up a lot of steam" in the past few weeks.
Brett got the idea from ORblogs, which calls itself "Oregon's Independent Weblog Community." He decided to do it as a regional thing rather than statewide because he liked the idea of it being intensely local.
Brett says, "This kind of site is something anyone with a bit of web-savvy could do."
TampaBLAB isn't as fancy as Dan Gillmor's Bayosphere or many of the other professionally-run regional blogs and "citizen journalism" sites out there, but it's not supposed to be a professional operation. It's something put together by one guy who has a day job in IT with a local financial service company, using "tweaked versions" of WordPress, FeedWordPress, the OZH Click Counter and "some custom graphics."
Brett has his own blog, My Addled Brain, but it is just one of 60+ blogs that now belong to TampaBLAB. A cabbie writes about the cab business. RANTING RIGHT WING HOWLER is exactly what you'd expect. Bitch | Lab ("because lefties and feminists have dirty mids too") is in a category of its own. Several "professional" bloggers from the St. Petersburg Times are listed. There's no set political agenda. There are neighborhood activism blogs, sports blogs, news blogs, opinion blogs, and silly random musings. It's a mix of pretty much everything and anything that anyone in the Tampa area might want to write about on the Internet.
At some point Brett hopes to interview some of the bloggers and perhaps try to have a get-together now and then in order to make it more of a community. And he may look for some local business sponsors, but has no expectation of ever earning a living either from his blog or by aggregating others' blogs.
The main thing here is that Brett has put together an easy way for locals to find what other locals are writing. It is an idea that can be duplicated anywhere the Internet reaches for next to no money, without a national company or big name behind it.
What Else is Out There?
Freecycle and TampaBLOG use existing software. They aren't hot Web 2.0 properties that have venture capitalists sniffing after them and get lots of buzz. But they are at least as important to the people who use them -- who are, remember, not necessarily computer sophisticates -- as Gmail or LinkedIn.
I'm sure there are plenty of other unheralded Web communities out there, quietly growing and attracting non-technical users. Most will never amount to much. But a few will become popular and influential, or at least will inspire imitators that might end up changing the way millions of people use the Internet.
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