Free scallops and salmon were on offer recently, via one of Minneapolis' many Buy Nothing Facebook groups.

Sounded good. A little too good, the further you read. A neighbor had purchased scallops and salmon and then accidentally left them out on the counter overnight.

But in the weird world of digital gifting networks, no good is too meager or worn out, too busted or, frankly, disgusting for somebody, potentially, to find it desirable.

Buy Nothing's free-spirited approach has summoned a few doozies. (The spoiled seafood post was quickly removed.) But it has also enabled a vast gifting economy. Fueled by the pandemic and high inflation, the organization's Facebook groups and app now have 7.5 million members worldwide, sharing a bounty of time, talent and stuff.

In the wake of peak shopping season, Buy Nothing provides a reality check to soulless holiday consumerism. Its forums are full of household effluvia both mundane (end tables, drink koozies) and strange (dryer lint, used deodorant, those boogery blobs for making your own kombucha). Each item — be it chicken poop or a dishwasher — is rendered equal, with zero monetary value. It's as if economists' "invisible hand" ceased balancing supply and demand and instead gave capitalism the finger.

While Goodwill drops are expedient and Craigslist posts reach more people, Buy Nothing differentiates itself by connecting givers directly to recipients in their neighborhood. The groups become more than a bunch of individuals exchanging their stuff, but a crucible for tighter-knit communities.

Mary Kidd, a self-described aesthetic "maximalist" and curb-and-alley scavenger, became a top contributor to her Minneapolis Buy Nothing group after moving to Minnesota three years ago. She initially joined to help set up house, but soon found that engaging in mutual aid made her feel more connected to, and grateful for, her neighbors.

"At first it was just like, 'This is amazing, I can get so much stuff for free,' " she said. "And then it became a lot more personal."

From twigs to dog costumes

Buy Nothing was started a decade ago by two eco-conscious, frugal-minded women who met through their Bainbridge Island, Wash., Freecycle group, another digital gifting platform. (One had offered a bunch of twigs and was shamed by the group's moderator. The other wanted the twigs.) The two envisioned a new forum for freely giving, receiving, lending and borrowing that would also strengthen community bonds.

They set up Buy Nothing's Facebook groups to be geographically limited, so members could potentially reach several thousand members, without opening themselves up to the broader public. The neighborhood scale helps foster trust and curb uncivil behavior, said Kidd. "It's adding that bit of familiarity and almost accountability."

When a "potentially absurd" request recently went up on Kidd's Minneapolis Buy Nothing ("does anyone have the zinus green tea cool gel foam hybrid mattress, and if so, would you let my partner and me see how it feels in person??!"), the group was large enough that another member had the same mattress. And small enough that she invited them over to try it.

Buy Nothing feeds are universally eclectic: There are crop tops, crystals and crutches alongside green tomatoes, shower curtains, an environmental hydrology textbook and VHS tapes.

Some items are highly specific (concrete mortar dissolver) and rare (an Indonesian bamboo instrument). Others hold clear cash value (an assortment of unopened aperitifs; a chic couch in mint condition). A few are delightful, including a hot dog costume for pups ("mustard lights up. my dog got too chunky to wear it this year and was always a little scared of it anyway "). A local celebrity — Minneapolis author Heid E. Erdrich — gave away plants.

And for those rare you-couldn't-pay-me-to-take-it items — used underwear, ¾ a bottle of Smurfs multivitamins, or a roller chair so decrepit it could have belonged to the basement-dwelling stapler guy from "Office Space" — there's a Worst of Buy Nothing page.

But just when you think no one could possibly have need for the bottom half of a toilet, an engineering professor snaps it up for a student project.

Saving money, the environment

Buy Nothing is for people who can be bothered, including the phalanx of members who rushed to supply someone with a protein-powder scoop.

Recently, Vi Tran needed a pen — literally, one pen – and made an ISO ("in search of") post in her Minneapolis Buy Nothing group. Yes, she could afford to buy one. And, no, it wasn't performance art.

The 25-year-old was simply trying to be a conscious consumer and didn't want to buy a 10-pack of pens when she only needed one. Why add to the world's tsunami of plastic, when someone nearby probably had a surplus?

Sure enough, a neighbor had several extra pens on hand. Another member filled Tran's request for a calculator in similar fashion. ("Believe it or not, I was vacuuming my house yesterday and found a calculator behind a radiator!")

Participating in Buy Nothing requires an openness to secondhand goods and a dose of patience that defies American "buy, buy, buy" culture, Tran said. But along with a bookshelf, cookware and a cactus, the group has given her a sense of camaraderie. "We're not necessarily friends, but we see each other on Buy Nothing and it's like an agreement that we all kind of care," she explained.

That feeling has motivated Tran to give away items she could potentially sell, including several pairs of pricey shoes. "I'd rather give back to the people around me, because I've been able to get things that I need through their generosity," she said.

Most of Tran's Buy Nothing exchanges don't go further than a quick hello, reflecting the local brand of niceness (generous, but detached). "It's very Minnesotan," Tran said. "Like, 'We will help you, but we're not going to welcome you into our home and invite you to dinner.' "

Convenient and connecting

But some Buy Nothing exchanges do go deeper.

Kidd spent a fun evening having her makeup done by a cosmetologist who wanted to practice her craft. She cat-sits for a member who once loaned her a dinosaur costume. And her 6-foot-8 boyfriend regularly swaps clothing with a similarly super-tall member.

Gifting winter clothing to the daughter of a single mom was especially meaningful for Kidd, who grew up unable to afford clothing worn by her peers and relished receiving hand-me-downs. "It was like Christmas Day for me, so being able to pass that along was so gratifying," she said.

Another time, Kidd was moving apartments and gave a Buy Nothing member a few pantry items. The woman mentioned she and her husband had just moved to Minneapolis from the Philippines and didn't really have anything. So Kidd immediately invited them into her kitchen and loaded them up with more — shifting the interaction from transactional to connecting.

"It changed from convenience, 'I'm moving out and you're taking this stuff off my hands,' into 'I really want to help you,' because now that I have a face and a story behind who these items are going to, it means so much more."