Trading Up


On July 12, 2005, Kyle MacDonald posted an ambitious request on Craigslist: He wanted to trade a single red paperclip ( for something of slightly greater value, to be traded in turn for something better, then something better, till at last his trading landed him a house. Dramatically enough, he succeeded in less than a year. More dramatic still, however, was the triple play that sealed the deal. Having gone from paper clip to snowmobile in just six trades, MacDonald had generated enough Web celebrity to start attracting some serious swag. So when he traded away an afternoon of hang time with Alice Cooper for an old Kiss snow globe, some fans thought he’d screwed the pooch. Not even: Corbin “L.A. Law” Bernsen — a major snow globe collector, it turns out — snagged the Kiss globe in return for a guaranteed role in his next movie, which he traded to the town of Kipling, Saskatchewan, for a newly renovated 1,100-square-foot house. Bingo.

And sure, the One Red Paperclip project is just another online money-for-nothing stunt, but face it, some online money-for-nothing stunts speak more eloquently than others. All those “cyberbegging” sites out there (blunt appeals for boob-job/dental-work/shopping-debt money) tell us plenty about the possibilities for generating wealth online. But what One Red Paperclip has to say about the nature of value in the networked age — from the burgeoning relevance of barter to the increasing marketability of fame — could fill a dissertation. Above all, perhaps, it demonstrates the limits of reckoning anything as personal as value in terms as abstract as money’s. After all, when you’ve just bet the farm on a snow globe, there’s only one question worth asking: “What’s more important to a man dying of thirst in the desert — $1 million or a glass of water?” The only answer being, of course, MacDonald’s: “All I gotta do now is find somebody who needs a ‘drink.'”