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A man, a red paper clip and the Web
Monday, April 17, 2006 (CNN)
Kyle MacDonald is using the power of the Internet to trade up a paper clip
to a house.
BOSTON, Massachusetts (AP) -- Kyle MacDonald had a red paper clip and a
dream: Could he use the community power of the Internet to barter that paper
clip for something better, and trade that thing for something else -- and so
on and so on until he had a house?
After a cross-continental trading trek involving a fish-shaped pen, a town
named Yahk and the Web's astonishing ability to bestow celebrity, MacDonald
is getting close. He's up to one year's free rent on a house in Phoenix.
Not a bad return on an investment of one red paper clip. Yet MacDonald, 26,
vows to keep going until he crosses the threshold of his very own home,
wherever that might be.
"It's totally overwhelming, I'm not going to lie," he said by phone from
Montreal, where he and his girlfriend, Dominique Dupuis, live with two
roommates. "But I'm still trading for that house. It's this obsessive
The story begins last July.
MacDonald had spent years backpacking, delivering pizzas and working other
part-time jobs, suiting his jack-of-all-trades, restless nature. He paid his
$300 share of the rent by occasionally promoting products at trade shows.
But he yearned for one piece of settled-down adulthood: a house, which he
knew he could not afford.
It's clear, however, that MacDonald has a knack for promotion. Asked what he
had talked up at all those trade shows, MacDonald slipped right into his
spiel for the employer, TableShox.com. "You ever sat at a wobbly table at a
restaurant?" he said.
Beyond a gift for advertising table stabilizers, he's a geography buff,
keeps a blog and writes short stories. Random interactions with strangers
and the rich kitsch of North Americana provide his favorite material.
Put it all together, and you have the outline of MacDonald's quest.
He advertised it in the barter section of Craigslist.org, the Web site
teeming with city-specific listings for everything from job openings to
apartment rentals. At first, MacDonald said merely that he wanted something
bigger or better for his red paper clip. No mention of a house -- he feared
While he was visiting his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, two women
gave him a fish-shaped pen for the paper clip.
Later that day, MacDonald headed to Seattle to catch a ballgame and a flight
home. Before the airport, though, he stopped to see Annie Robbins, an artist
who had just stumbled upon the Craigslist barter section. She admired its
anticonsumerist vibe, she said, so she answered MacDonald's posting "on a
MacDonald left her home the proud owner of a small ceramic doorknob with a
smiley face, made by the son of an artist Robbins knows.
Next up was Shawn Sparks, who was packing up to move from Amherst,
Massachusetts, to Alexandria, Virginia. Sparks, 35, is a huge fan of
Craigslist barters, having acquired his 1993 Chevy Blazer in a trade for a
Sparks offered MacDonald a Coleman camping stove. Sparks had two, and didn't
want to lug both on his move. And he needed a new knob for his espresso
Done. The men celebrated with a barbecue at Sparks' house.
MacDonald gave the camping stove to a Marine sergeant at Camp Pendleton,
California, getting a generator in return.
East again. MacDonald swapped the generator for an "instant party package"
-- an empty beer keg, a neon Budweiser sign and a promise to fill the keg --
offered by a young man in Queens, New York City.
Before the trade, MacDonald left the generator in storage in his hotel. When
he went to claim it, he was told it had been confiscated by the fire
department because it was leaking gas.
"If there was ever a movie based on all that, that would be the closest to
losing it all," he said, recalling his anguish.
But more on movies later.
MacDonald reclaimed the generator by tracking it to a firehouse in lower
Manhattan, where he got a Tootsie Pop from the crew and petted their
The beer package went to a Montreal disc jockey, in exchange for a
Here's where the project's grassroots purity may have gotten compromised.
MacDonald's blog, http://oneredpaperclip.blogspot.com, was attracting
attention, and MacDonald was invited onto Canadian television. Our wandering
man was asked if there was anywhere he wouldn't go to trade the snowmobile.
An obscure place came to mind, so he spit it out: Yahk, a hamlet in the
Some publicity-seeking ensued. A snowmobiling magazine offered an
expense-paid trip to Yahk in exchange for the snowmobile. The trip went to
Bruno Taillefer, Quebec, manager for the supply company Cintas Corp. He got
headquarters to let him give MacDonald a 1995 Cintas van that he had been
planning to sell.
MacDonald gave the van -- stripped of Cintas logos -- to a musician seeking
to haul gear. In turn, the musician, who works at a Toronto recording
studio, arranged a recording contract, with studio time and a promise to
pitch the finished product to music executives.
MacDonald handed the contract to Jody Gnant, a singer in Phoenix who owns a
And that is how Kyle MacDonald has turned a paper clip into a year of
shelter in the desert.
Where it goes now, who knows. He says he has offers from Hollywood studios
to turn his story into a film.
But he pledges not to accept gifts or overly lopsided trades that would
undermine the peer-to-peer joy that he says has animated his journey. Asked
what he has learned from all this, he responded:
"If you say you're going to do something and you start to do it, and people
enjoy it or respect it or are entertained by it, people will step up and
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