Is Marketplace the least evil part of Facebook?

Why Facebook Marketplace is the best hope we have for shrinking our shopping addiction.

Mark Zuckerberg holding a bucket of meat

A woman named Sherri waved from my front porch. Her blond hair was tied back in a ponytail, tucked underneath a hat, and she smiled but didn't knock or ring the doorbell. She knew I had a baby.

Sherri and I were strangers, but we didn’t feel like it: We’d spent the week messaging back and forth about a U-Line minifridge I’d listed for $50 on Facebook Marketplace. I lived in Austin; she lived in Johnson City, a small town 50 miles west. I had a baby; she had a nephew willing to lend her his truck. Sherri worried about hefting the fridge into the truck bed, so we coordinated a pickup time when my husband could be home to help.

“It’s pretty heavy,” my husband said, offering to do it himself. Sherri declined. She would carry her fair share. “I grew up in the country,” she said, laying a crisp $50 bill on our countertop. “I’m stronger than I look.”

Before walking out to the curb, we stood in the kitchen and chatted about my baby and Sherri’s family out in the Texas Hill Country. It was a scene that might unfold in Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry,” not our modern world.

If it was ironic that this pleasantry was facilitated by Meta — a platform known for, as billionaire ex-employee Chamath Palihapitiya put it, “ripping apart the social fabric of society” — there was a deeper irony at play, a deeper societal good. The secondhand sale of a minifridge didn’t just prevent an old object from heading toward a landfill. It prevented a new object from being purchased.

It was radical, an exchange directly at odds with the rest of Meta’s nearly $1.2T business. Meta — parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp — is a consumption machine built to sell us beautiful things through targeted advertising. I deleted Instagram years ago to avoid the Beyond Yoga leggings and Reformation dresses and Glossier makeup I couldn’t afford but also couldn’t stop thinking about.

Meta may exist to sell us more, but Facebook Marketplace provides one of the best options for us to consume less.

The cost of consumption

Today’s internet (Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Amazon) is like a darkly carpeted casino, a place where time doesn’t matter and money is easy to part with. Advertisements pay for content; content is often indistinguishable from advertisements.

In the weeks soon after I had my baby, I succumbed to the ease of it all, losing hours to ASMR videos of Target hauls and nursery restocks, filling my Amazon cart with product recommendations: 

  • VanAcc Offwhite Bouclé Sofa ($247)
  • Kindred Bravely French Terry Racerback Nursing Sleep Bra ($19)
  • Frida Baby Windi Gas and Colic Reliever ($12)

When the packages appeared, I wondered who bought them.

Thrift shopping in New York. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Thoughtless shopping feels satisfying, but it comes at no small cost: The UN considers overconsumption to be a greater ecological problem than overpopulation. Some 100B garments are produced annually, and almost 60% end up in the trash a few years later. Free return policies send piles of useful items to warehouses — squandered.

There’s the actual cost, too: Americans are in $1.13T in credit card debt.

Venture capitalists have invested billions in sustainable brands selling everything from sofas to toothbrushes. But those brands premise the purchase of new items. Facebook Marketplace offers what consumer brands can’t: extended life for existing objects, without intermediary fees. (Mostly.)

Unlike Meta’s murky management of users’ personal data — it was fined $1.3B last year for privacy infringements — the platform’s enormous size works well in the realm of physical goods. Connecting 1B consumers through Marketplace creates a hyperlocal, personal experience. When you spot a gem, you can drive over and pick it up.

The transaction volume on Facebook Marketplace is hard to quantify because most payments happen off the platform, in cash or through apps like Venmo, according to Juozas Kaziukenas, founder of Marketplace Pulse, an ecommerce intelligence firm.

And still, it’s just a drop in the ecommerce bucket: “Shoppers ​​have never had more choices,” he says, from “ultra-cheap apps like Temu,” or “fast-fashion apps like Shein.” Americans love bargains: Temu was the most downloaded app in the US in 2023.

The Hustle

I’ve bought my fair share of junk online, but I’ve also bought dozens of items on Facebook Marketplace: an oak bookcase, an acacia wood dining table, a green velvet chair. In contrast to items that often feel plastic and disposable, these pieces feel sturdy. Time-tested.

When I look at them, I see a countercultural way to live — one that doesn’t require constant replenishment.

Thrifting’s rise in popularity

Although Facebook — as a social media platform — is declining in popularity, Facebook Marketplace is increasingly popular with Gen Z, according to The New York Times.

In a poll of 460 of The Hustle’s readers, half said Facebook Marketplace is the primary reason they use the platform. They bought Nike Air Jordan sneakers, pachinko balls, cast-iron sinks, poker sets, and patio furniture — curiosities they wouldn’t be able to source anywhere else. And they sold things, too.

“I recently sold a surfboard I had in my garage for years to a local guy that absolutely loves surfing and has dozens of boards,” one reader told us. “He was super excited about the ‘rare’ board I sold him. I had no idea it was rare!”

The Hustle

Thrifting is popular for two reasons: saving money and scoring unique items.

But despite thrifting’s popularity, the business of reselling secondhand goods isn’t easy.

  • The RealReal laid off 230 employees in February 2023 after losing $151.2m in a year.
  • Tech startup Trove, which raised over $150m to develop software for apparel resellers, laid off 130 employees in January.

The secondhand apparel market is growing 11% annually, according to ThredUp CEO James Reinhart, but the company itself doesn’t seem to be financially benefiting: ThreadUp’s stock price has fallen ~90% since its highs in July 2021, hovering now at $2 per share.

Why is resale so hard? Unlike traditional retailers simply ordering new items from manufacturers, secondhand marketplaces have to solve a logistical puzzle.

“Every item has to be coaxed from consumers’ closets with marketing and advertising. Every item has to be individually shipped,” writes retail investor Richard Kestenbaum. “Each product has to be inspected individually and get its own written description. All of this takes people’s time and costs money.”

The Hustle

Facebook Marketplace isn’t a perfect solution for secondhand clothes shopping either, says Megan McSherry, a sustainable fashion influencer. “The user experience on Marketplace works well for furniture and decor items, but compared to secondhand shopping apps like Depop, Poshmark, or eBay, the search and filter options don’t work so well for clothing items,” she says.

There’s also a tricky balance to selling clothing that has already been worn. Customers expect a bargain, but in order to make a profit, resellers need to protect their margins. The incentives aren’t perfectly aligned.

“I don’t want to spend $40 on a jacket that originally cost $60,” my friend Mallory, an avid thrift shopper, told me recently. “I either want to pay $5 or buy myself a nice, brand-new jacket and consider it an investment.”

Of course, the biggest difference separating Marketplace from something like eBay or The RealReal is the economics. It’s a side business for Facebook, which gives Marketplace more financial flexibility (plus a built-in clientele).

Meta makes money from sellers’ ads and charges a fee when payments are exchanged online, but it’s unclear exactly how much revenue it makes from Marketplace. Facebook didn’t respond to questions about the revenue model and has been mum on specifics about Marketplace in recent annual reports.

There are some promising secondhand startups navigating the quandary of how to be profitable: Goodfair, which has partnered with Nordstrom, sells bundles of T-shirts, flannels, and jeans in a set. Allhers, a local secondhand marketplace in Austin, Texas, connects women to buy and sell.

Still, when considering the potential of making a fortune in this industry, it’s helpful to remember that Goodwill — a popular and century-old destination for thrift shopping — is a nonprofit.

Is Facebook the answer?

It’s unusual to describe Facebook as a moral agent. But Facebook Marketplace, free to use and widely available, may actually be doing some real good in the world.

The market cap for Meta, parent of Facebook, has risen to more than $1T. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Scams do pop up on Marketplace, but for the most part, identity management, unlike on Craigslist, is baked in through existing Facebook profiles.

Prices are determined by buyer and seller, which means haggling is expected. The experience may be mediated by code and pixels, but it ultimately takes place in space and time, an exchange of material goods. Humans say hello, make small talk, and go on their way.

Since having the baby, I’ve spent more time than ever before thinking about what I buy and why I buy it. Do we really need this many plastic toys? I recently bundled up a duffle bag of baby accouterments and donated it to our local pregnancy resource center.

“I can keep it?” the woman who received the package said, delighted. “All of it?”

The worst part of modern online shopping is its inhumanity: the swiping and scrolling in the dark of the night, sending packages flying around the globe on a whim, produced and delivered by nameless, faceless people. Who do we become when shopping is so frictionless? It’s worth asking, and worth fighting against, even if just by buying a minifridge on Facebook Marketplace.

Topics: Facebook

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