Moneyless Economies: A Consumer’s Comparison of Two Markets

Lately it seems that everyone on the political spectrum has their two cents concerning sharing economies. On the right, there are claims that companies such as Uber and Airbnb are taking advantage of and possibly outright breaking laws for the sake of profit, unhinging the economy so delicately balanced and moderated by the powers that be. The future of capitalism might look bleak and unstable on the back of this business model, or so deliberate the conservative economists. On the left, these companies, especially in the case of Airbnb, have been accused of contributing greatly to gentrification and the decline of living accessibility to those who reside in their shadows. Neoliberalism run rampant, so says the left-wing activists.

Berlin is among the few places that have recently taken action to discourage and heavily moderate flat-sharing businesses, in light of a housing crisis amplified by foreign owners cashing in on tourism. Good riddance for the residents, less so for those relying on that as a source of income.

This new wave of by-laws has renewed the buzz around economic buzzword “sharing”, in both Berlin and beyond. What has always struck me as odd is the liberal use of the word “share” when in reality there’s not much sharing to be had. I’m not the only one either, as economists in their expertise have also pondered over such nomenclature. But I’m no linguist, and I’m certainly no economist. So, if you’ll forgive me for that, from my lowly street-level of avid consumer and frugality-enthusiast, I’d like to divert your attention to a wholly different strain of “sharing”.

Toronto, from where I hail, is on several lists proclaiming it to be one of the most liveable cities in the world. Apparently that comes with a price tag, because list after list also seems to mark it as quite expensive. But beyond the walls of the Bay Street corporate offices (our version of Wall Street) is a warm and fuzzy underbelly that helps you decorate your flat, complete your liquor collection, or take public transportation for literally no money. That’s not a hyperbole. There’s literally no money involved. These days, when a Torontonian of a certain persuasion is in need of something, they head over to Bunz Trading Zone (Bunz or BTZ for short), an online marketplace where anything but cash is king. What essentially started off as a joke Facebook group by founder Emily Bitze has amassed a group of more than 50,000 members, countless satellite and spin-off groups, a popular app, a website, a documentary in the making, active plans to expand into the States and Europe, and probably more transactions than a sunny weekend in all the Flohmarkts in Berlin put together.

Popular items for trade include subway tokens and alcohol, although a typical trade can include anything: a haircut, old books, almost expired ham, used sex toys, new cameras, boxes of lime, game consoles, furniture, clothes, houseplants, used feminine hygiene products, information about unidentified individuals, flipping people off, t-shirts being made of said individuals, makeup samples, gift cards, etc. etc. etc. … You get the point.

That’s all it is. Troll trades, no cash allowed. The concept was beyond simple, and the fervor caught on. It was the epitome of the mantra “one person’s trash is another’s treasure”. And because it’s via Facebook, it feels safer than Craigslist and the like. Because it’s a private group that requires an invite, in other words, it’s all friends of friends of friends. From the get go, it had a definitive community feel. I myself have quite a few successful trades under my belt. One dreary December past I challenged myself to earn subway tokens for the entire month purely from trades in order to save money. When I was moving to Berlin, instead of having a yard sale, I posted everything I had to Bunz (also because yards in Toronto in the middle of February are usually frozen over and gross). When a good friend started handcrafting gorgeous jewelry, she traded them off for ample amounts of booze and wood. When my significant other had some visa troubles with the Canadian government and was no longer able to legally work there, he started offering pet portrait oil paintings in exchange for living necessities to an astounding amount of positive feedback, spurring him on to continue abroad.

Of course, with any internet forum of that size, things can turn ugly from time to time. Regardless, I can honestly say that most experiences from there have been incredibly positive. Which is why, when I was moving over to Berlin, I had high hopes that something like Bunz was a-brewing across the Atlantic. In all fairness, a satellite group was created for Berlin not too long before I arrived, but it didn’t blossom organically like the original and still has only few members (151, last I checked). But this wasn’t the end of the world. Berlin, rife with start-up enthusiasm and a leftist mentality, was bound to have similar options. I was directed to the Facebook group Free Your Stuff Berlin, some 75,000 members heavy. Well, that certainly put Bunz to shame by a large margin. And quite unlike its Torontonian counterpart, everything must be free. It’s only giving (or asking), no exchange. There is also a website, currently in Beta, though it seems to be specifically German.

When I found this, I remember thinking, “This is so Berlin”, as in, it’s so Berlin to want nothing in return, and Bunz was comparatively Torontonian in its valuing gains over giveaways. People moving from one place to another were giving away beds and mattresses and various furniture, people wanting to clear out their closet had piles of clothing to donate, and on the other end people were asking for random items to a fairly applaudable response. In short, it was a dream come true for me as someone new to the city with little desire to spend a fortune on new living necessities.

But as time went on, it became apparent that the fundamental differences between the two didn’t necessarily make Berlin’s group better. Milling through pages upon pages of posts, you soon realise that most products offered were things that weren’t worth selling, and those asking for items received much less of a response. That’s not to say that there aren’t amazing people there who are giving and friendly, but the general atmosphere reeks of slight desperation in its parsimony.

Of course, I’m not one to hold myself above getting things for free or calling myself desperate. So I tried it out. What I learned is that if you want a response from strangers on the internet, it’s best to post a photo of yourself looking forlorn and helpless, preferably as a girl (but being an attractive guy might do the trick as well).

In an amateur social experiment of sorts, my partner posted a picture of a cable he needed for a projector set, asking if anyone had one lying around, the type that most people will have accumulated multiples of. No response whatsoever. A week later, I posted asking for the same thing, except I did so with a photo of myself holding up the wrong cable and imploring for the correct one, attempting to look sad or cute or, better yet, some combination of the two. The results were immediate. I had no less than ten people offering up cables or telling me where I can get one for cheap, and about fifteen friend requests from people I’ve never spoken to before. In this sense, it felt almost as if I were a sleazy salesperson trying to sell myself for currency. I much preferred the Bunz variety where I could have offered up a few sprigs of fresh rosemary for a cable that someone didn’t want.

So, if you don’t want to feel like a sleaze, refraining from posting quasi-seductive photos of yourself is probably a great first step. The results might not be as plentiful, but the possibility of a response is still present. Some weeks before the cable experiment, I posted on Free Your Stuff asking if anyone had an old easel lying around for painting. No offers of free easels, but I did get an invite from a kind individual to an artist-based startup that held studio nights. There, one could freely use the amenities and art materials, including but not limited to an easel. While this was a better gift than a piece of wood for propping up canvases, I have to admit, it still felt like I was trading a part of my personhood.

There’s something decidedly straightforward about an exchange of commodity versus the act of freely asking and giving. My old speakers for your spare bike basket. No need to make yourself more likeable so that someone would help you out, no frivolous attempts at making friends. Perhaps my consumerist mindset simply won’t waver long enough for me to appreciate that free things truly are free, but an exchange is always seemingly present. I’d rather trade an object than objectify myself for trade.

Still, I took up the offer to attend one of those studio nights with endless supply of paint and good vibes, my first interaction with this Berlin variety of “sharing”. There was sharing of ideas, sharing of stories, of wine and chill tunes, and that beyond anything else was so Berlin.

By Sandy Di Yu
Image © Sandy Di Yu
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