Hypertabs is The Varsity’s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities.
“Hey. Are you here for the Bunz trade?”
I remember saying this to the lady standing at the park gate, hoping I would get an affirmative response, thinking how stupid I would look if I didn’t. She smiled with a ‘yes’ and I proceeded to complete my first trade after making my Bunz account two years prior.
This, I soon learned, was a staple interaction in the world of Bunz. I traded a few tokens for some old 35mm rolls of film at the edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park, following the golden rule of Bunz: no money allowed.
When I first downloaded the Bunz app, I thought it was just another millennial fad to partake in — but a good one, given that I didn’t have the funds to purchase such items at full monetary value. Later, I became fortunate enough to learn about the larger implications of a secret trading economy and the impact it’s had on so many Torontonians.
Bunz is a web- and mobile-based platform where users can post a variety of their unwanted items for trade. Each profile allows the user to post items they are ‘In Search Of’ — commonly known as ‘ISO’ on the app — to inform other traders what they’re looking for. If you’re interested in an item, you send a private message the owner, and the trading conversation begins.
This platform initially began as a private Facebook group created by artist Emily Bitze, who originally named the group Bums Trading Zone. Bitze told me what her life was like around the time of the group’s initial creation, after she had moved to Toronto: “Though I was happy, I was still frustrated and broke. The cost of living was high and I could barely keep my head above water.”
“It made sense, environmentally and economically,” Bitze continued, discussing her need for the platform. Everyone she knew was struggling with money, and she saw perfectly good things being thrown away on a regular basis — a reality U of T students are not unfamiliar with.
Today, there are nearly 135,000 Bunz users, many of whom use the app for the same reason Bitze created it.
A world without money
Donna Liu, a U of T architecture undergrad and member of the original Facebook trading group, has a running list of all her trades. Among some of her highlights are hummus for a hand knitted scarf, two leftover beers for a pair of Aldo heels, and a $15 bottle of white wine for a couch.
“I think the most awarding was when I did art commissions,” Liu said. “I also got asked to do a sketch as a wedding present, pet portraits of deceased pets, [and] a poster of a loved bike.” The list goes on.
U of T Ethics, Society, and Law student Madelin Burt-D’Agnillo described a chain-trading incident to me: “one day I trade[d] a Slap Chop… then immediately traded with someone else for a Slap Chop.” Their story reminded me of a trade I once did for coffee beans, and how I traded those coffee beans for an old camera immediately after.
The resurgence of a bartering system is a symptom of the reality we are living in today, where students and working class people increasingly have more debt — and more stuff.
“Capitalism’s been ramping up for the last, whatever, probably 40 or 50 years, to the point where people have so much stuff,” said David Morton, Bunz’s Marketing Director.
[pullquote-default]This resurgence of a bartering system is a symptom of the reality we are living in today where students and working class people increasingly have more debt – and more stuff.[/pullquote-default]
Bitze says that the environmental implications are one thing she appreciates most about her work. “Knowing that we have diverted tonnes of potential items from our landfills,” is one of Bitze’s favourite experiences with Bunz.
Redesigning the brand
If you visited bunz.com last year, you would have been greeted with an image of an unimpressed blue troll asking for a password, as if it – the troll – was the only thing that would allow you to cross over into the Trading Zone. “The troll was somewhat accidental,” Bitze said, explaining that the meaning behind the troll “was in the classic sense, like a bridge troll.”
However, there were increasing concerns that the term was alienating; this was understandable given the association with what we now know as Internet trolling. The troll has now been replaced by something more friendly and inviting: “It’s a B, it’s two people together, it’s happy neighbours, and it’s cheeky,” said Bitze.
It’s two buns — or bunz, if you will.
A similar change was instituted over growing concerns surrounding the original Facebook name, Bums. After concerns were brought up that the name was insensitive, Bitze changed it to what we see today: Bunz Trading Zone.
The growth of the platform — now with 13 full-time employees — is largely due to an anonymous angel investor. However, the onset of making money from a platform which is premised on the exclusion of money is something that has generated tension for both the Bunz team and the Bunz community.
Bitze asserted that, for her team to continue the project for the community and expand further, they need the funding. And now they’re “working on something new that’s never been done before,” she told me. It’s a project to be launched by the end of this summer.
When discussing one of her favourite things about Bunz, Bitze mentioned that the support of the community has been “essential to how we’ve grown,” and how this will continue to guide future expansion.
Bunz has provided an opportunity for users to experience the richness of Toronto’s people from an entirely new perspective. The platform has become an excuse to talk to random strangers you would otherwise pass by in the hustle and bustle of Yonge Street.
By taking the time to stop and talk, you can discover an obscure detail of their life, like how they’re willing to trade a contour kit for a collectible set of quarters — one of my best trades yet.
When asked what her favourite trade was, Burt-D’Agnillo replied that it was her “super old wooden desk/chair, because the person who traded with me threw in a bunch of pencils and supplies because she knows I’m a student.”
It’s these little moments of connection with and appreciation for strangers that really make Bunz such a fulfilling experience. And for some, the app holds significant meaning to their livelihood.
“So many days I want to stay in bed. Bunz trades [get] my butt out of bed and forces me to walk,” said Bunz user, kada. kada suffers from chronic pain due to an accident affecting her physical health requiring use of a cane to help her walk. She moved to Toronto to be closer to the St. Michael’s hospital and is now a regular user of the app.
Another Bunz user, bokin, reflected a similar sentiment: “I got to see a part of the city I may otherwise may have never visited.” bokin discussed one of her first trades, where both her and the other trader brought their dogs and she was introduced to the Trinity Bellwoods neighborhood. She said it was “Literally the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had with a complete stranger.”
For bokin, Bunz played a part in overcoming her crippling anxiety and depression “by giving me something to be responsible for and above all – confidence.”
Over time, Bunz became more than just an alternative to Kijiji or Craigslist. It became a platform via which Torontonians and others can interact over collective interests and struggles. The over-250 Bunz-branded Facebook groups around the world are a testament to this community-based sharing culture. U of T students are probably most familiar with the Bunz Pet Zone page for all things pet-related, the Bunz Home Zone for furniture and house supplies, and the Bunz Helping Zone page for really any and every question you have.
It was precisely this Bunz community that allowed user millie7354 to start a non-profit after-school program: “I put up a post asking for boardgame donations and got over 50 responses.”
millie7354 now has weekly after-school sessions thanks to the helping hands of Bunz users.
By talking to its users, I could see that Bunz is more than the resurgence of a bartering system; rather, it’s the resurgence of talking to your neighbours and building a grassroots community.