To be sure, MacDonald is a rare example of extreme success (and, perhaps, extremely good timing) when it comes to online bartering -- there's no telling what his journey would've looked like had he tried to trade that red paperclip after the economy started to falter. (For one, the house he ended up with most likely would've been a foreclosure.)
These days, though, swapping services in online forums is on the rise. SwapTreasures, an Internet bartering forum, has reported a traffic increase of 40% since the recession took hold, a member of the site's support team wrote in an e-mail.
The bartering section of Craigslist undoubtedly features a wider cross-section of users, but as a result, the listings often come off reading like a virtual scrap heap. Still, students are using the site with varying degrees of success, trading everything from tennis lessons to baby-sitting sessions to get by without things getting too expensive.
Leia MonDragon, a 23-year-old Borough of Manhattan Community College student, began bartering for child services to supplement her freegan lifestyle. She hasn't ended up with a house quite yet, but MonDragon uses Craigslist to barter for child care while she works or attends classes in the evenings. Since freeganism "is more based on the idea of gifting," MonDragon said it's necessary to barter for a service like babysitting.
"There are some beautiful ideas that go along with [freeganism]," MonDragon said, "but I need a baby sitter, so I need to barter."
For her part, MonDragon offers to provide child care services or music lessons on her end of the barter deal, but since her trades often involve people looking after her child, she said she takes extra precautions when selecting someone for the other end of the trade. Her advice? Take things slow.
"There is no rush," she said. " Get references [and] get to know the people you're working with. If people ever ever want to rush you, don't trust them."
Some other tips for mastering the art of the Internet barter:
- Go with your gut. MonDragon drives the point home: "Creeps often come across as creepy." If someone wants to rush a deal or starts pelting you with off-the-wall demands, you have every right to pull the plug on the transaction. It's online bartering, not an arranged marriage.
- Do some "freesearch." Sites such as SwapTreasures and BarterQuest offer barter services in the same manner as Craigslist. Peruse the postings around campus, in local coffee shops and in alternative newspapers. You might be surprised at what you find.
- Tell people where you will be when it comes time to trade. Better yet, bring a friend with you when it comes time to swap, and meet in a public place. "If you have a cell phone, bring it with you when you go to meet people," MonDragon advises.
- Scour sites for freebies. Craigslist has a robust "free" section on the site, where its denizens give away everything from furniture to old CD's, and the recession has influenced SwapTreasures to build a "donation" area to its site in order to provide users with items they need. (Spring cleaning, anyone?)
- Make your purpose known, then build a community. Start a Meetup group, which would allow people to RSVP, post their needs and network with each other. You can also publicize through Facebook, Twitter and other channels.
- Don't be afraid to reach out. Maybe your neighbor is fantastic at cutting and coloring hair, and maybe you're awesome at graphic design. Maybe said neighbor could use a new business card logo as badly as you might need your roots done -- do you see where I'm going with this?Don't be shy.
- Have fun. You might discover new friends, a new lifestyle or a new hobby you never thought you'd develop. "Someone I am working out a barter with wants to teach me fire spinning," MonDragon said. "That's pretty awesome."