Join 3,375 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)

Why no easy way to barter personal services with others?
May 29, 2010 7:26 PM   Subscribe

Why isn't there a good way to trade/barter services with other people via the web? Craigslist is too local, and it takes too long to find an acceptable trade. Various barter sites suck and don't have enough people. Google or Ebay has a great opportunity here. Ideally such a service would also suggest/arrange multi-party trades. Such a website would not need to be very complicated, and would be incredibly socially valuable and fun. Golf lessons for Mandarin tutoring, anyone?
posted by blargerz to Computers & Internet (20 answers total)
A couple problems that come to mind: first, reputation. How do I know that Mandarin tutor isn't actually teaching me Cantonese? Or, for that matter, that that golf instructor isn't going to murder me with a nine-iron? Second, and probably bigger, is critical mass. I imagine that you'd have to build a very large base of users before you'd find somebody who wanted to help me set up a grow room in exchange for having me assign call numbers to their record collection. Another problem: tradespeople aren't likely to get on board, either because many of them aren't internet-savvy or because they can do better just taking cash. Many of the local barter exchanges that I've seen have a lot more massage therapists and beaders than they do plumbers and electricians.

And one last, obvious problem: one of the big reasons that systems of currency developed in the first place is because they facilitate these kinds of exchanges. Most folks won't put all that aside without a good reason (usually tax evasion and/or buy-local ethos).
posted by box at 7:41 PM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to work for a lady who was a big user of a services bartering service - she would offer her services (a life coach) in exchange for other work. I think it worked by points. This was several years ago so I don't know if it's still around or what the name of it was. I'm just piping in that I know for a fact it's been attempted.
posted by amethysts at 7:48 PM on May 29, 2010

There's a double whammy against starting a barter site for services. You have to have trustworthy people on the site, and at the same time you have to have enough services available in exchange to attract those high-trust people (and encourage more to join). It's a bit of a catch-22.

There was a business like that in Winnipeg a decade ago but it didn't grow much past a core group of true believers. I considered joining but didn't see any services I really needed at the time. My sense is that even with new social technologies it would be hard to reach the tipping point of a large base of services; many of your service people will want to see something they can get in return before committing their time and skills. You'd spread the word around much faster nowadays, but still you need that large committed base of services available.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:55 PM on May 29, 2010

Well, Australia had a great system that developed in the Blue Mountains area near Sydney. Until the Tax department heard about it, and insisted that the resulting services you were entitled to for the work you had done were income, and therefore needed taxing, and that they (the tax department) were auditing the provider of the bartering hook ups constantly to pick up people on this. And then, Centrelink (Social welfare payments) also declared that it was income for their purposes and meant people (pensioners etc) would have reduced payments even if they didn't receive any money. So... that might be part of the reason. Damned government.
posted by b33j at 7:55 PM on May 29, 2010

See here:
posted by b33j at 7:58 PM on May 29, 2010

box mostly has it. The issue of critical mass is the big one. Not enough people, and this doesn't really work. And, given the network effect, the first couple hundred people who sign up will find the site utterly useless.

The other problem is the huge difference in valuation for many services, depending on lots of variables. Build your website for you? Yeah, okay, that's probably worth an equal number of hours clearing brush in my yard. Build a new customer-relations database? Do you have an airplane for trade?

Another issue is that, as my link above illustrates, people often want real obscure (or expensive) shit. It's more trouble than it's worth to trade my programming for your house cleaning, given that we need to set up appointments and whatnot. On the other hand, I'd gladly program in exchange for a force-feedback flight sim control setup. The number of people who have one, don't want it anymore, and need a programmer? Not very high.
posted by Netzapper at 7:59 PM on May 29, 2010

It seems you've looked into some sites already, but in case you haven't come across this one yet: Barterquest is a legit-seeming website that looks like ebay for trade. However, I don't actually know how many people use it or the length of time it usually takes for an acceptable trade.
posted by melancholyplay at 8:00 PM on May 29, 2010

Oh, and the taxation issue. In the US, bartered goods and services are still income. And since it's hard to set aside 30% of two hours' of a string quartet's time for Uncle Sam, it gets to where it actually costs money to swap services--defeating the purpose.
posted by Netzapper at 8:02 PM on May 29, 2010

The counterargument to the reputation issue is Ebay

The counterargument to the critical mass issue is every dating site ever

It would quickly become clear what services would be hard to find because they are too valuable.

I believe it would work as long as it was made mainstream by a Google or Ebay.
posted by blargerz at 8:10 PM on May 29, 2010

And the counterargument to your counterargument is that nobody who has tried it has made it work (in your words, 'various barter sites suck'). And the counterargument to the counterargument to the counterargument is that nobody sufficiently mainstream has tried it yet (in your words, 'Google or Ebay has a great opportunity here'). And the counterargument to the counterargument to the counterargument to the counterargument is that neither Google nor Ebay is in the habit of seeing money lying in the street and not picking it up.

But arguing about stuff, or chatting about stuff, for that matter, isn't really what Ask Metafilter is for.
posted by box at 8:21 PM on May 29, 2010

Ebay doesn't have to deal with clients who don't specify exactly what they want, or no-show appointments, booking problems, etc. They just facilitate selling goods.

Dating sites get a pass when things go wrong because, well, things aren't expected to always go right when people date. Not so with services. We have a different expectation when it comes to buying someone's time, one that can't be met to the same degree that EBay and dating sites can meet their users' requirements. There's a lower bar for both of these types of transactions.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:23 PM on May 29, 2010

I think the biggest problem, the only problem that can't be overcome just by thinking it through well enough and developing a system, is that it has to be done under the tax table (at least in the US and Australia) which for many people and organizations is out of the question.
posted by amethysts at 9:04 PM on May 29, 2010

Your questions sounded like market research, but since you seem blind to the answers that are showing clearly why it wouldn't work I really hope it's not.

There are so many issues that I can't see it working at all.

1) You say that eBay, etc have taken care of reputation systems. That's sort of true, but not multi-tiered reputation systems. When you get into the heart of such a beast it's almost impossible for it not to be abused. When a 3 way trade goes bad, who gets the blame? Especially when, for one party, it's all hearsay? (There have been entire books written on the subject, and that just covers 2 party systems.)

2) People have limited sets of services to barter and limited things they're willing to exchange for it. I can teach you to make great yogurt and sew a kilt. I want to learn to dry flowers and/or reupholster furniture. No one anywhere has the inverse to this list. Which leads me to...

3) Density. There are around 8 million people within 50 miles of me, and that is -still- not enough people to have significant mutual overlap in requests. A huge percentage of people in this area would need to be on the site and active at the same time for it to work at all.
Dating sites? No comparison. Everyone everywhere wants companionship. No one anywhere wants to trade beer making for hardwood floor refinishing.

4) Creeptacular. If you've ever bought or sold stuff on Craigslist you found out pretty fast that a high percentage of people you deal with are flakes or have a certain... uncomfortableness about them. I'm happy to take their money (cash only please) but I don't think I've ever met someone that I'd want a sustained relationship with, like a service barter would require. Ick.

5) This is what money is for.
posted by Ookseer at 10:50 PM on May 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

For an explanation of why this doesn't work, see every single intro Econ textbook ever, chapter: money and banking, money use: medium of exchange. Sure, sure, the Internet makes anything possible! But why try to make this happen to solve a problem that found a solution a few thousand years ago? And assuming that you or google or whoever isn't providing this service out of charity, how do you propose to cover the costs of this thing? Find someone to provide services for you in exchange for providing a service bartering website?
posted by MadamM at 1:05 AM on May 30, 2010

It's illegal!

Well, unless you want to be paying tax on it. But anything large and public enough to attract critical mass will also attract the attention of the parasites, and they will come and fuck it up. The government wants you to use their money, so they can easily tax you.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:15 AM on May 30, 2010

1. With n possible services, there are n possible swaps for money, but n*n possible swaps for services - so you would need a larger population to find someone who wanted a given trade. With a large number of possible services, you would need a very large population.

For example, say there were 5 services, in a money-based system the options would be:

Motorbike lessons for $
Guitar lessons for $
Flat screen TVs set up for $
Shirts ironed for $
Cakes baked for $

With 5 trades, you only need 5 traders and you can make any exchange.

On the other hand, with a barter-based system the options would be:

Motorbike lessons for Motorbike lessons
Guitar lessons for Motorbike lessons
Flat screen TVs set up for Motorbike lessons
Shirts ironed for Motorbike lessons
Cakes baked for Motorbike lessons
Motorbike lessons for Guitar lessons
Guitar lessons for Guitar lessons
Flat screen TVs set up for Guitar lessons
Shirts ironed for Guitar lessons
Cakes baked for Guitar lessons
Motorbike lessons for Flat screen TVs set up
Guitar lessons for Flat screen TVs set up
Flat screen TVs set up for Flat screen TVs set up
Shirts ironed for Flat screen TVs set up
Cakes baked for Flat screen TVs set up
Motorbike lessons for Shirts ironed
Guitar lessons for Shirts ironed
Flat screen TVs set up for Shirts ironed
Shirts ironed for Shirts ironed
Cakes baked for Shirts ironed
Motorbike lessons for Cakes baked
Guitar lessons for Cakes baked
Flat screen TVs set up for Cakes baked
Shirts ironed for Cakes baked
Cakes baked for Cakes baked

so there are 5*5=25 possible trades - meaning you need more people on the site to ensure a match.

In other words, if I bake cakes and want shirts ironed, it would be harder to find someone who wanted to make that precise trade, than someone who wanted to buy cakes and someone who would iron shirts for money.

If you've got, say, 200 possible services, the number of possible barter trades goes up to about 40,000

2. Cash can easily be divided up - so I can pay $1.45 or $1.50 for a cup of coffee. On the other hand, if I set up flat screen TVs as my barter skill it's either installed or not installed. It's like trying to trade when I only have $100 bills and no-one can give change.

3. If you set up a website (like ebay) to facilitate these trades, how would the website make money? With ebay, it's simple; you just skim some money off the exchange. The website would either have to accept barter (are you going to pay your developers in golf lessons?) or money (in which case that's the problem with barter right there)
posted by Mike1024 at 2:28 AM on May 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wait, what about freecycle?
posted by marimeko at 6:39 AM on May 30, 2010

FreeCycle rules say: * No trading/borrowing/bartering/offering to pay

Or did you mean FreeCycle as an example of a social site with multiparty transactions?
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:49 AM on May 30, 2010

Seriously, I thought freecycle was a place to barter things. Ignore me, I clearly have no idea what freecycle is..!
posted by marimeko at 8:18 AM on May 30, 2010

I was talking to someone in Belgium who uses one that's apparently well-trafficked there; she said it was originally Canadian and was also available in France. Oh here:

LETS International Groups

I don't use it, and am vigorously nodding my head in agreement with the limitations listed above. But SOMEONES out there is doing it.
posted by whatzit at 3:56 AM on May 31, 2010

« Older I'd like to throw an outdoor g...   |  What church was the Lost final... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.