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Digital Freegans? An ethnography of anti-consumerism in South London

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Margie Cheesman

on 24 March 2017

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Transcript of Digital Freegans? An ethnography of anti-consumerism in South London

III. 'You are what you eat': freegans as a group?
V. Freeganism is already a social network? Meetup.com

IV. London as a ‘collection of villages’: Imagining and negotiating Brixton and the city

About the project
= individual meet-up routes
Freeganism in Brixton: an exploratory ethnography

This ethnographic research centres on four daytime meet-ups with the group South London Freegans between December 2016 and March 2017. I found the group’s Meetup.com page when I became interested in on-the-ground urban 'freegan' networks: connected people who try to source all their food for free, by foraging in food waste.

I had read in the
Evening Standard
about the emergence of digital apps designed to facilitate the sharing of everyday food waste in London, such as Olio and Too Good To Go (explore videos >). These apps are affiliated with the Standard’s Food For London campaign, addressing concerns about the city’s huge ‘food waste problem’, a big topic recently in popular media, locally and globally. I wanted to dig deeper than the journalistic rhetoric. This ethnography zooms in on everyday lives, experiences, feelings and practices of freegans.

I first talked to people from start-ups working on technological solutions to food waste in London (e.g. Olio, Brixton Impact Hub and YFood). It turned out that these professionals knew little about the lived experiences, habits and needs of potential app users, i.e. highly waste-conscious Londoners. Ethnographic methodologies can help fill this knowledge gap.

This ethnography consists of a hodgepodge of snips, clippings, snaps and videos from different physical meet-ups, plus digital trawlings on the South London Freegans’ Meetup.com page, their WhatsApp group, other related websites and journalistic sources. This multi-media, multi-sensory intermingling of the ‘online’ and the ‘offline’ aims to capture the hybrid digital-analogue nature of the social arrangements constituting this ‘field’, and the mess involved in conducting this participant observation.

II. 'Making a mess with method'
I. 4 Research questions
I. How do London’s waste-conscious groups and networks (‘freegans’) operate, and how does the digital come into play in their practices?

South London Freegans is the only freegan group in the city that convenes via any public-facing social media platform. So:

II. What holds this digitally-mediated collective together? Why do they use Meetup.com in particular rather than other social media platforms? Does the group share a common attitude towards the online? What does this say about their politics, their status as 'digital citizens' (Isin & Ruppert 2015) and as citizens of London?
III. How do participants imagine, negotiate and make London? Is the city made to cohere through their practices?
IV. How does (digital) anthropology represent non-cohesive field-sites?

This is a small-scale, close-up, multi-media, multi-sensory ethnography. It aims to exemplify the value of digital anthropology in accounting for the heterogeneous details of ‘alternative’ modes, imaginaries and experiences of living in London. It documents local interventions in global conversations about food waste, and activist and techno-solutionist responses to the problem. It critically examines the role of the digital in these networks and contexts.

Above all, this ethnography tackles methodological difficulties associated with flux and fragmentation. Immersive ethnographic research reveals that the digitally-founded community of South London Freegans does not seem to function as a community at all.

discussion forum: 0 replies
Play me
During this 4-month ethnography, the meet-up groups I took part in collectively managed to obtain just two brown bananas, three lemons and some coat hangers.

Indeed, the meet-ups could be deemed a failure on several other fronts. Two aims of the meet-ups were highlighted on the online page – a logistical ‘local spots’ tour and ‘getting to know each other’. Both were less than fruitful. At every meetup, most supermarket waste disposal sites were closed off, and there was a general scarcity of available surplus food.

Nobody ever came to a meet-up more than once, except me and the organiser, Ellie. Nobody ‘made friends’. Ellie commented disappointedly several times that “I have to cancel all the time ‘cause nobody shows up”. Each meetup had only 2-6 participants, and they would often wander off or disappear during the meetup.

Digital platforms do not facilitate extended connectivity or group coherence in this instance. The individuals who came were generally shy, isolated, techno-sceptical people, with heterogenous backgrounds and lives and partly conflicting motives for ‘doing’ freeganism. They came to the meetups from all parts of London. (Nearly all were - happened to be? - Britons of Asian heritage.) Nobody used digital technologies in the field, perhaps partly due to the performativity involved in enacting an anti-consumerist identity (cf. Butler 1988). Few participants used other social networking sites (e.g. Facebook) or had even heard of the emergent platforms I was interested in like Olio.

Approaching this fragmented, ephemeral, paradoxically anti-technical yet online-founded group through a digital lens might help make sense of it, as long as we don’t presume that the digital is socio-culturally significant always, everywhere. For the South London Freegans, in which ways do digital technologies assist or disrupt, complicate or transform the processes of finding free, wasted food? Is the social element (meeting up, making friends) more important than the practical desire for surplus goods?

John Law (2007) highlights the value of a flexible, messy methodological approach in the face of non-coherence, ephemerality and elusiveness. He argues that social scientific methodologies constitute rather than reflect social reality. Researchers must not avoid messiness, ambivalence, elusiveness. “If this is an awful mess … then would something less messy make a mess of describing it?” (Law 2007:595).

I am employing the multimedia, high and low-tech map as method, as representational tool, and as artefact. Maps not only map infrastructure, they ‘can also function as (…) infrastructure, an object that mediates people’s relationships to one another and to the landscape’ (Life Off the Grid 2017). The hand-drawn elements represent the analogue modes in which participants navigated Brixton and imagined their relationships to the city and the wider freegan movement on food waste. The map contains media contributed by two participants who used their cameras/camera phones on the meetups. Incorporating participant photography makes room for the activists’ voices, as offered by them, intermingling with the researcher’s: their preoccupations and politics, their relationships to the group and to London.

A ‘talking while walking’ methodology (Anderson 2004) became my route into studying the city. It afforded easy flowing conversation and relaxed participant observation during the meetups. My multi-sensory data is mainly in visual form, appropriately: the South London Freegans’ practice mostly involved looking and seeing, a kind of anti-consumerist flânerie (“gastronomy of the eye”: Balzac, 1829) as participants scanned backstreet bins and market edges, geographically and politically outside, alienated from capitalist urban life, looking in on it. I took fieldnotes on my iPhone, cautiously. Bringing out the device made me feel like a normative capitalist consumer under their gaze.

This mobile methodology translated into hybrid online-offline research. I explored the Meetup.com page and other digital platforms, following the flux and shifts in digital-social relation-making as a faction of participants exchanged numbers in order to migrate to a Whatsapp group at the end of one meetup.

The flux and mobility in my empirical findings are suggested in the visceral spatial shifts afforded by Prezi PowerPoint. This form of presentation suggests (I hope) the nauseating sensory experience of shifting scale between streets or roads and individual bins or boxes, online and offline spaces, and different selected social media platforms. It captures the restless mutability in the participants’ often frustratingly fruitless quest for surplus edible food.
Methodology cont'd

Ellie (the Meetup organizer) told me the collective is sporadic: there have been only 12 meet-ups in the last three years, “I’ve had to cancel like five ‘cause of a lack of responses”, and few ever attend. What explains this failure? And why does Ellie keep organising the meet-ups after so many disappointing ones?

Through participant observation, I could tease out the divergent array of motivations, sensibilities, sociotechnical habits and practices. A hierarchy or ‘scale of freegan-ness’ in people’s lifestyles, experiences and knowledge could be derived from the participants’ conversations:

Play me
‘Full freegans’ source not just food, but all necessities outside the capitalist market system. The closer to ‘full freegan’ a participant was on this scale, unsurprisingly, the less ‘digital’ they were, i.e. the more likely they were to have no more than an email account and a feature phone (or not even that). Advanced freegans see apps and technologies like Olio as forms of ‘gentrification’ and ‘commodification’ of the analogue freegan practices that everyone can (and should) be doing already. Full off-grid freeganism can be associated with rebellion, illicit behaviour and vagrancy (Guardian 2014). Freegans struggle to represent themselves in mainstream media (Lefevre 2011).

The divergence in character types in the group was most evident when Dave, who had just been fired from his hotel job after three months for taking left-over food and surplus mugs, began to argue with Ulli, a law student who was less forgiving about the legal grey areas of participating in freeganism (left-overs, surplus, and waste are private property).

Agnes, a middle-class piano teacher from Hampstead, is a “complete beginner”, still “getting over the stigma of dirtiness attached to going freegan”. She rubbed up against Cam, a recently-made-homeless omnivore who is proud to have always been ‘off the grid’. Cam has never had Facebook or a smartphone. He sometimes uses his friends’ devices but generally doesn’t send messages and goes to meet people in person. A friend had told him about this particular meet-up. Cam eats everything and anything because “everything is alive so there’s no point discriminating”. He highlights the complex position a freegan must negotiate: seeking surplus, free food is doing the activity of homeless people, but most participants were ‘doing freeganism’ not as they had no other options, but rather because it’s free and because of their ethical position against consumerism and waste.

Ania has seven carnivorous cats. She ‘dumpster dives’ mainly to find raw meat for them, because, being a vegan, she does not want to subsidize the meat industry. This is her first Meetup.com, but she also goes on a ‘London vegan meet up’ Facebook page, as well as ‘Drooling vegans’ and ‘Challenge 22’, to chat to other vegans and share experiences because it’s sometimes a difficult and alienating lifestyle. We talked about why the London vegan networks on and offline are so strong and vibrant, compared with freegan ones. She hypothesized that a freegan might be less keen to share her bin secrets. “If you start going round Brixton market every day, you might get to all the good stuff before me.” Indeed, good, edible ‘surplus’ food is not plentiful. Certain raiding spots are well-kept secrets. Ania’s pragmatism conflicted with other participants’ ethical veganism. Vegans commonly evangelise because every new vegan helps the planet.

Most participants I met (out of 11 people in the 4 meet-ups) were non-vegan 'beginners' or had dabbled a bit, and were seeking advice and tips. Yet no matter where people revealed they were on the freeganism scale in conversation, during the meet-ups it always seemed inappropriate to go inside, to a café or somewhere out of the rain, to discuss. There was a sense of silent competitiveness, an uncomfortable sense that people felt they had to act ‘freegan enough’. Perhaps this is one reason why people do not attend the meet-ups twice. Participants overall seemed to be attending primarily in order to meet people in ‘real life’, to strike up friendships and relationships, but this did not work. They were all curious, extremely heterogeneous individuals in their late 30s or 40s, attending and leaving on their own. Social relations were maintained online only very tenuously.
Most participants were not South Londoners. They came by tube from all over the city. The 'South London Freegans' meet every time in Brixton because Ellie the organiser lives nearby, and because Brixton has a progressive, radical political history (e.g. the anti-gentrification movement), and is a hub for forward-thinking social enterprise (e.g. the Brixton Pound pay-what-you-feel Café). Within the usual routes of the meetups is a technologically innovative site, Brixton Impact Hub, which hosts a People’s Fridge for sharing community food waste with those who need it most, as well as a community garden. But when the group went past this site, it was an uncomfortable experience: we were on the outside. The fridge is quite mundane, everyday technology, but this one was associated with gentrification and its twin, technological innovation. The Impact Hub is located in hipster restaurant haven, the Brixton Pop project, home to pop-ups and start-ups. Our visit became an interesting foray into another, more ‘consumerist’, ‘techie’, ‘gentrified’ field site. This again exposed the ethical tensions in doing freeganism alongside the truly ‘needy’ – the hungry and homeless. Brixton and South London were opposed to Central London by the more experienced freegans: there are many more homeless people in the centre. Location and place are embedded in the uncertain ethical implications of freeganism.

Likewise technologies and rejection of them: freegans at the meetups made no use of digital devices such as Google maps to navigate the city. They relied upon the oral transmission of knowledge and so performed a kind of bardic, analogue mode of hunter-gathering through Brixton’s backstreets and bins. The knowledge shared along the way was either Brixton-specific (e.g. 'the market closes at 6pm so it's good to hang around then and get the surplus veg') or very general (e.g. 'supermarkets put out their surplus food at night time so that's the best time to go bin raiding').

Yet this analogue, off-grid imaginary conflicted with most participants’ on-grid Tube map imaginary of London: like most people navigating the city, it is pictured as a ‘collection of villages’ or ‘pockets’ that one pops up into from the Underground.

Hine (2008) suggests that “with Internet research, possible connections to pursue multiply”. The South London Freegans’ practices in Brixton and on social media resonate with wider networks and sites (such as the community fridge, imaginaries of greater London, and other Facebook groups). This points to the constructedness and selectivity involved in making any ‘field site’.

Just as freegan knowledge and tips were transmitted orally, experienced freegans suggested that the best hauls required a strong face-to-face social relationship with shop and market workers. Meetup.com (and perhaps all social media platforms) do nothing to facilitate this.

Many Web sites and forums offer localized tips and advice about doing freeganism, e.g. FoodCycle, WikiTrash and FallenFruit. Either participants have poor online research skills, or the South London Freegans Meetup is filling some sort of social need. I think both.

Meetup.com was founded in New York just after 9/11 in order to facilitate a perceived heightened need for connectivity (Butterfield 2012:13). Disconnected, isolated individuals are united with Meetup.com’s ‘connective logics’. Freegans’ desire to connect is supported by Meetup.com’s social architecture, as in the 'Good to see you', 'Stay in touch!', and ‘Invite a friend’ buttons. Butterfield suggests that the site is an 'organisational tool', (2012:22), but I believe it is also a social one: albeit a clunky, passé one.

VI. ‘Shall we de-camp to a WhatsApp group?’: polymedia and scalable sociality

The techno-sceptical participants seemed to use it because all the sign-up requires is an email address. But it transpired that it would take more than a web platform like Meetup.com to trigger lasting and meaningful social relations. The platform presents a problem of anonymity. It is not linked to other social media (as e.g. Tinder connects with Facebook and Twitter profiles) and so lacks personal content – most participants post their name (or pseudonym) alone. As it is difficult to remember who was who at a meetup, participants seldom reply or comment on posts on the discussion forum. Yet, there is power in the potentiality of this group. They are digital citizens who have “opened up the possibility of subversion” (Ruppert 2015). They are connected, and could, in theory, galvanize again around a worthy cause.
At the end of one meeting, five participants decided to share mobile numbers in order to migrate from Meetup.com to a WhatsApp group. This form of digital migration exemplifies the common model of ‘polymedia’ interpersonal communication (Madianou & Miller 2012).
Whatsapp is a closed platform and so more intimate. ‘Scalable sociality’ (Miller 2015) between larger and smaller groups, and public and private platforms, offers more customized forms of digital-social relation making. These participants were mainly female and seeking a more close-knit support network. Going ‘dumpster diving’ (especially at night) can be fairly daunting for women.

The Whatsappers shared a brief exchange about lemons the following day, and Pipe posted her picture of them. David posted some photos of the mugs he had gotten fired for taking from the hotel, as well as a ‘Freeganism’ graphic (see image). I suggested meeting up again. Ellie posted about a comedy event coming up. However, nobody did meet up again (only I went to the comedy). The group became inactive. Again, the anonymity of Whatsapp is a factor – one can only see people’s phone numbers unless they enter their name, and even with a name it’s difficult to remember who that person actually was, especially if they don’t post. Yet, again, a form of social power exists in the potentiality of the closed WhatsApp group, especially for the women freegans, who now have a dormant support network.

Digital anthropology offers a way of cutting through complex social relations in urban settings. This study demonstrates the friction between freegan identities, motives, ethical sensibilities, experiences and imaginaries. Experiences of the ‘online’ and ‘offline’ are blurred and in flux when participants scale between a broad ideological cohesion represented in the concrete, seemingly bounded group on Meetup.com, and fragmentary, ephemeral experiences and practices on the streets of Brixton and on the WhatsApp sub-group.

VII. Conclusions & Bibliography

Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London:Verso.

Anderson, J. (2004) ‘Talking whilst walking: a geographical archaeology of knowledge’, Area 36(3): 254-61.

Balzac, H. (1829) The Physiology of Marriage. Project Gutenberg. At: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16205/16205-h/16205-h.htm.

Butterfield, A. (2012) Ethnographic Assessment of Quantified Self Meetup Groups. San José State University. At: http://www.sjsu.edu/anthropology/docs/projectfolder/Butterfield-Adam-project.pdf.

Butler, J. (1988) Performative Acts and Gender Constitution. Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 519-531.

Guardian (2014) Three charged with stealing food from skip behind Iceland supermarket. At: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/28/three-charged-vagrancy-act-food-skip-iceland

Hine, Christine (2008) Question 1: How can Qualitative Internet Researchers define the boundaries of their projects?  Internet inquiry: Conversations about method. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. 

Isin, E. and E. Ruppert (2015) Being Digital Citizens. London:Rowman & Littlefield.

Law, J. (2007). Making a mess with method. In: Outhwaite, William and Turner, Stephen P. eds. The Sage Handbook of Social Science Methodology. London: Sage, pp. 595–606.

Life Off the Grid (2017) Mapping Eigg. At: http://lifeoffthegrid.net/scotland/mapping-eigg.php)

LeFevre, T. (2011) No such thing as a free lunch. At: https://vimeo.com/17734167.

Miller, D. (2015) Introducing Scalable Sociality. Global Social Media Impact Study at: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/global-social-media/2015/06/16/conclusion-introducing-scalable-sociality/

Madianou, M. and D. Miller (2012) Polymedia: towards a new theory of digital media in interpersonal communication. UCL website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/people/academic-teaching-staff/daniel-miller/mil-23

Ruppert, E. (2015) On doing words with things: citizens, claims and social acts. The Sociological Review at: https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/on-doing-words-with-things-citizens-claims-and-digital-acts.html

Freegans constitute a global ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1991), unified against normative, wasteful consumption practices. They broadly share anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist, environmentalist values. Food is a classic anthropological focus point, revealing wider sociocultural relations and practices. Freegans convene through an overlapping assemblage of values relating to food, but it is not strong enough to hold this heterogeneous assortment of individuals together.
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