About one year ago, I bought a table with stools on Craigslist for $120. It was circular and bar height, and the stools pushed in to fit neatly underneath it, creating a single column of wood. The seller had purchased it at Costco a couple years earlier. In October, I moved into a bigger house with a bigger kitchen, and I replaced the second-hand set with a new table to better fit the space. Back to Craigslist the table went; that was six months ago. I received a few inquiries, mostly from people who requested strange measurements or asked whether I would deliver. Too lazy to push for the sale, I gave up and the table went into the garage.
About a month ago, I listed it on Facebook Marketplace. After one day, I had nearly 30 people asking — begging — to buy it. I sold it two days later for the asking price of $100, and a mom-and-daughter duo arrived promptly at 10 a.m. on a Saturday to take it away. After I marked the table “sold” on Marketplace, I had more than one message from heartbroken potential buyers, asking me, Was it true, was the table gone? And if so, where could they find one like it? Later that afternoon, someone showed up to buy an extra pair of hiking shoes I’d also listed two weeks back, for full price.
I am one of many satisfied sellers, says Facebook VP of marketplace Deborah Liu. According to her, 700 million people come to Marketplace to buy, sell, and browse. The service launched in October 2016, when there were already myriad apps that acted as digital garage sales. OfferUp, Letgo, and Nextdoor’s p2p feature all function similarly. Selling apparel has taken off on Instagram with the increasingly common closet-purge sales. And, of course, Craigslist is the godfather of these services. If a recent forecast report from PSFK is correct, there’s room for all of them. The report found that “unlike their Millennial counterparts … Gen Z is more interested in purchasing items from peer-driven marketplaces as opposed to the direct-to-consumer brand model.”
Ultimately, what differentiates Marketplace is how it harnesses the social network to assure its users. The platform displays friends shared by buyers and sellers, offering some reassurance that a transaction will not be a scam and the people involved are in one’s community. Of course it is not impossible to use Facebook maliciously, and the service is not impervious to scammers, but there is a higher barrier to entry for such nefarious work than with anonymity-protecting networks like Craigslist or eBay.
“We started [Marketplace] because we saw people were doing it,” says Liu, who advocated behind the scenes to build it for years. Before the hub existed, Liu and others noticed that people used Groups to organize sales. Parents looking to both sell and purchase used kids’ items were particularly active. Because of organic communities like this, the work to catalog inventory and build the product infrastructure yielded immediate returns. “We tapped into a lot of what people were looking for,” says Liu.
Popular categories include the usual reselling fare: furniture, cellphones, clothes, and cars. Facebook recently introduced Automobiles sales after search data indicated that users were interested, and it’s already become one of the most popular types of sales. Facebook added apartment rentals for the same reason — because of what users searched for. Indeed, search patterns are integral to the platform. Search history influences not only what sale the company decides to support, but what a user will see in Marketplace. If you type “camping” into the global search bar that sits at the top of Facebook, you will get a Marketplace result for camping gear.
“In the future when you come to Marketplace, you will be able to save that search,” says Liu. “We do remember and surface something you’re interested in; it’s part of the personalization of the Marketplace feed. We see what people are clicking on and what they’re interested in.” Of course that could raise concerns for some. Facebook is already a network capitalizing on your searches and clicks throughout its network. Marketplace positions its parent to dig its hooks deeper. Should you choose to use the new feature, Facebook will be able to play a direct role in your purchases and your shopping interests, data about which it has only been able to infer till now. Facebook stresses, however, that it does not keep a log of transactions made in Marketplace, and all transfers of property and money are conducted offline.
In a sense, Facebook is pitting its revenue-contributing clients, advertisers, against its users. The social network has long catered to advertisers, and within the past few years it has made a significant push to give brands tools and placement to pedal their products in News Feed. That initiative is likely to be scaled back in light of Facebook’s new resolve to show users more content from individuals and local news sources (brands still have a playground in Instagram). Marketplace allows users to circumvent the consumer brands who have purchased ad space.
Moving forward, Facebook may have to confront how p2p sales undercut its biggest clients and how the tool functions all together. At the moment, Marketplace is very much like an online garage sale, but Liu says the network is interested in incorporating small businesses and local craftspeople, adding an Etsy-like component. “Peer-to-peer is doing well, but local businesses want to get involved, too, so we’re exploring how to involve them,” says Liu. Facebook says it’s already seeing local businesses and makers use Marketplace this way, so it’s likely the platform will find new ways to support those efforts, which could alter the current user-centric feel of Marketplace.
Facebook-owned Instagram serves as a cautionary tale. The platform is still wildly popular among average users, but it has been infiltrated by brands and small business peddling their various products. That platform, originally a user-first space for brunch pics and weekend adventures, has been transformed by advertisers. According to Ad Age, the network is now home to about 2 million advertisers and 25 million businesses (which actually pales in comparison to Facebook’s 5 million advertisers and 70 million businesses). Though it’s still a smaller sandbox for brands, there are plenty of clues that Facebook plans to push businesses and brands toward the photo-sharing network, further reverting the original community to be more personal.
For now, Liu (who buys and sells using Marketplace frequently) is thrilled with what the app has already accomplished. “I realize it’s really touching a lot of people’s lives and that’s really meaningful.” Marketplace’s relatively seamless launch suggests it’s a feature people truly wanted out of Facebook. Maybe that’s because Marketplace gives a level of control to users that previously belonged only to paying advertisers. The move tracks with Facebook’s effort to make News Feeds more about the people in your network and less about external players. But if we’ve learned anything from social media, it’s that people, not just businesses, are brands, too. The natural progression of that is to eventually open ourselves up for shop. Marketplace might just be where we do that en masse.