Sharing Economy vending machine

 Wp-Content Uploads 2012 03 Presskit Kiosk The Swap-O-Matic vending machine is designed for users to give, take, or swap anything that fits inside the compartments. People have traded items like original art, poems, clothing, metro cards, etc. Lina Fenequito created the Swap-O-Matic as a student project at Parsons School of Design and is now trying to commercialize it. From CNN:

“The Swap-O-Matic recognizes that there is a thrill in getting things. The vending machine satisfies our desires for instant gratification, but it co-ops it and re-appropriates it to something that is a more sustainable method of acquisition, which is through swapping and trading,” said Fenequito…

To use the machine, one simply has to enter their e-mail address on the screen and choose whether they would like to donate, receive, or swap an item. Since none of the items in the machine is assigned a value, all item transactions work on a credit system. As a new user, you’re given three credits to begin with. A credit is earned each time you donate an item and it costs one credit to receive something. Swapping an item in the machine for something that you’ve brought doesn’t require any credits.

"Swap-O-Matic: A vending machine for bartering with just about anything" (CNN)

The Swap-O-Matic


  1. I love the idea, but what’s to stop someone from shutting the entire system down by leaving rocks or dog poop? Serious question, no snark intended.

    1.  Agreed. Swapping is nice, but can it be done reliably via vending machine? It sounds like maybe there’s some kind of reputation system attached, so that traders of dog poop would quickly be barred from using it. But I wonder if some people would get kicked out or get their reps downgraded for trying to trade something they honestly thought was worthy of trade? A poem in trade for an ipod or something?

      Or maybe the machine gradually fills up with poop (or things that no one else wants to trade), and needs to be emptied or re-stocked with good stuff occasionally. I suppose if those “little free libraries” can work, then this could too — for some values of “work.”

      1. I like the little free libraries, but a handful of paperbacks in a wooden box is a far smaller investment and smaller potential loss. Plus, you’re trading items of commensurate value or near about. It’s book for book or you’re just taking books and leaving nothing, which I think is okay for most people who set up these kinds of things. 

      2. That’s a reasonable concern, but it seems like it should be fairly easy to put together an explicit list of prohibited items — no perishables, no medical wastes, no explosives, no drugs — and trust in public visibility to do the rest. 

        I mean, technically, there’s just as little stopping someone from filling a public USPS box with canine by-products. But this doesn’t happen on a regular basis as far as I know. A stiff legal threat and the high chance of observation usually does the trick.

        Now, as for stuff that’s less obviously undesirable than dog crap, but still not wanted… that is an interesting question. You’re right, I do wonder if these machines wouldn’t instantly turn into Bible, Dianetics, and NutriLife dispensaries. :p

    2. Nothing.  It would just demonstrate why we as a species don’t deserve to inherit the planet.

    3. Seems to me like there’s a very simple and obvious solution, though: just don’t put it someplace that’s regularly unobserved.

      Put the swap machine in a busy grocery store, a museum dining hall, a university library… or anywhere else that is c0nsistently subject to a polite public presence, isn’t 24-hour accessible, and ideally already has some security presence. Anywhere with a substantial threat of an embarrassing “Pardon me, sir, what have you got there?”

      It’s a reasonable question — I had the same thought for a moment — but I doubt these machines were ever really intended to just be left in the middle of, say, a Greyhound station somewhere. There, I grant you, it would be about four days until the CDC would have to be called in. :) But we shouldn’t be too hasty to get cynical. There are still plenty of places where the social contract is in good shape, or at least has not degenerated to the “dog crap in vending machine” level. :)

      1. Ha! We need a civilization rating chart with “dog crap in vending machine” representing the very nadir.

    4. Yeah, this looks like a system that’s extremely vulnerable to the One Asshole problem.

      One asshole games the system, and it’s totally screwed.

  2. But seriously, I leave stuff that I don’t want in the alley and it gets picked up by someone who wants it.  No middleman.

    1. That might work in the US.  In the UK, they fine you £100 if you put your trash can out an hour early.

      1.  The more I hear about the UK, the more of a disturbing Orwellian dystopia it sounds like. Not that America is much better, but the UK sounds *really* bad, from what I’ve read… Is it? Honest answer (from anyone who lives there)?

        The Olympic stuff is ridiculous, but I feel like it’s just shining a light on a deeper issue.

        Or am I totally off base?

  3. An artist from Ottawa and a close friend had been doing a low tech version of this for years. We sadly lost him last year, but I wish to share a video that him and his friends made on the project.

  4. Maybe I’m jaded by capitalism, but if I had something of real value to trade…why not just sell it?

    I wonder if I put a credit card bill in there if anyone would pay it?

    1. I don’t believe this is intended to replace the actual buying and selling of most items of value, but there exists some feeling of connectedness with our fellow humans (maybe it has a name, I don’t know) when we exchange things, even if we don’t see or know the person we’re swapping with.

      I have an off-brand Leatherman-esque multitool that I acquired some years back, which, while not cheap and junky but actually quite serviceable, is not quite up to the standards of a genuine Leatherman.  Having received a real Leatherman last year as a gift, I consigned the Pleatherman (or whatever) to the kitchen junk drawer.  It’s way too good to throw out, but is now about as useful to me as a third elbow.  Too much trouble to try to sell.  Why not take it down to the local Swap-O-Matic and see if I can get something more useful to me for it?

      I suspect I’d find all kinds of stuff there.  Some of it might seem like crap to me, but unless there’s actual literal crap, I believe nearly all of what I find therein would be valuable to someone.  And that’s true of many things I keep in my junk drawer, or on my bookshelf, or in my garage.

      What this is, is a small push toward a sense of community, like this machine is our Community Kitchen Junk Drawer.  As in our own personal junk drawers, we don’t actually save trash and feces in there, but potentially useful or nifty things instead.

      The guy who leaves rocks or turds or empty beer cans in the Swap-O-Matic is just like the guy who defaces or sets ablaze the Little Free Library: essentially someone who’d take a dump in a kitchen drawer.  The existence of things like this machine and the LFL sets a social expectation: that we can and do have nice things, and that they belong to all of us, and that it’s our collective responsibility to respect and maintain and even improve these things.  When we set such an expectation, more people are inclined to respect that expectation.

      Think about trash on a neighborhood sidewalk.  If the trash is left there, people think it’s okay to add to the pile.  Some people might deplore the trash, and wish out loud that “somebody should do something about that.”  Like “The City” or something.  Because nobody takes ownership of the sidewalk.  But there’s a difference between adding trash to the pile (since apparently “everyone does it”), and being the first to drop some litter on an otherwise clean sidewalk.  And if I make the effort to keep my street’s sidewalk clean, people will notice that some poor schmuck (me) will have to pick up their empty can or cigarette butt if they drop it on “my” sidewalk.  And that has an effect.  When the social norm deplores chaos enough to actively fight it, far fewer people flout that norm.

      On occasion, I’ll pay for the lunch of the guy behind me at the drive-thru.  Not because I know who he is or what kind of day he’s having, but just because I already know I live in a world wherein random bad things can happen to all of us, but I want to live in a world wherein random good things can happen, too.  It doesn’t make me morally superior in any way; it just shows that I’m cognizant of the fact that we have to actively manufacture goodness and kindness, since they don’t actually grow on trees like selfishness and cruelty do.

      1. I agree with your sentiment of community and the greater good.  I know over the years I’ve tossed out things, like your faux Leatherman, just because it was simpler and easier than finding someone who wanted it.

        Honestly I could find a couple things around the house that I could stick in one of these that might be worth something to someone…  A lot of my excess stuff/junk that I think someone might get some value from I package up and take to Goodwill.  It’s not free, but at least it has a change of getting reused by someone else.

        I also understand your trash story very well living on a corner lot in a downtown residential area.  I find all kinds of things tossed into the bushes.  Even found someone’s wallet and ID from a decade ago…

  5. I hate to bring money back into this, but I wonder if replacing the flimsy e-mail address requirement with a credit card transaction would solve some of the vandalism issues people are bringing up? Just some token like a $1 deposit, perhaps, to be refunded upon the item recipient’s acknowledgement that, no, they didn’t get something dodgy?

    Getting “real” money and “real” identities involved does feel a bit untrue to the spirit of this project, admittedly — but it’s still amazing what these things can do to coax grown-up behavior out of people. I hate to take the anonymity out of the process, but that seems to be the easiest way.

  6. “Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers of yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.” PKD

    PKD’s examples sound like straight up garbage that should be thrown away, but I’ve heard the word used for things that are not quite junk, but not quite useful, and which the owner doesn’t bother to throw away or doesn’t want to throw away. Depending on the person’s position on the OCD spectrum, that could include actual garbage.

    I would think Goodwill and thrift stores would be another common current example that shows whether some people can find value in almost everything. For middle-class-ish folks, the prices at some thrift stores are negligible. We’d have to grill some thrift store associates, but I assume they keep clothes and tchotchkes on display for a certain number of weeks or months, then throw them out to make way for newer stuff. There’s a “long tail” of subjective usefulness: if you kept a whole lot of stuff available to be looked over by a whole lot of people, then each item might be seen as valuable to one person or another. But given the limits of retail space available, and the number of people coming through, you can see a lot of stuff in thrift stores that probably will get thrown out before anyone finds value. Can I get a witness? Anybody have experience working in a thrift store?

    I’m going to have nightmares now about wandering through Warehouse 23 from Raiders, filled with items that couldn’t be sold at Goodwill. Yikes!

    1. I haven’t worked in a thrift store, but I go to several local stores regularly (a few times a week). The Salvation Army stores around here rotate their stock – something that doesn’t sell at one store but which isn’t obviously junk will show up in another store after a few weeks. 

      Sometimes when it gets moved it loses pieces – for example, something with its original packaging will lose the packaging. I’ve noticed this several times and I know it’s not just an identical item because these were rather unique items. It’s not too much of a leap from there to realizing that unsold stuff will get tossed eventually.

      However, there’s a third step as well. They have an “as is” store that occupies what was probably some sort of large mechanic’s shop – a dark and dirty garage sort of place that’s only open a couple days a week. There’s piles and piles of stuff without price tags (not clothing). If things are broken in the regular stores, or just not sold, at least some of it ends up there for a very low price (most things will cost you 25-50 cents). This is your Warehouse 23 :)

      Knowing how quickly things disappear from the shelves at thrift stores, though, I suspect they don’t actually throw that much stuff out that isn’t unambiguously trash. 

      1. I presume that they weed out some donated junk before putting it on shelves. There’s no telling what kinds or quantities of straight up junk gets donated, but we can make an educated guess judging by the fact that on any given day, you can see weathered, half-opened boxes piled up along a wall next to Goodwill, under the sign that says, “Donation hours X AM – Y PM only, please do not dump boxes here at other times.”

  7. Try Ample Hills Ice Cream Shop on Vanderbilt Ave in Brooklyn, NY.  They’ve had one up for about a year – haven’t noticed any poop.  Mostly kids books and random, cheap gadgets. 

    It’s right by the cash register so I guess your commitment to depravity would have to be pretty great to sneak in something truly atrocious.  

  8. I read the article and watched the video, however I don’t understand how the cost to construct the machine and pay for the electricity to run it are covered. Any ideas?

  9. Goodwill used to dump their unsold stuff in my neighborhood for the homeless to scavenge. We could tell where it came from because it still had the little colored tags they put on to differentiate price. Our local picker would go through it and knock on our door to sell us some of the best stuff for pennies. We never felt bad about it cause there was so much. The homeless were better dressed than I was most days. Not to my taste, but nicer, newer things, polyester and sports wear. They would come by, goodwill that is, and dump about six huge trash bags right on the sidewalk and drive away. It would all be gone in an hour or so.

    They also bundle and sell unsold clothes to recyclers overseas by the container.

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