Save The Culture book exchange: Nice idea or a scam?

You might have seen the hashtag on Facebook or Twitter, or even in your email account: #savetheculture.

Monday, 8th August 2016, 1:48 pm
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 8:14 pm
Save the culture

It seems like a beautiful idea: why not set up a global exchange where readers can each share a book that means a lot to them. After all, as the quote by Edgar Watson Howe goes: “When I get hold of a book I particularly admire, I am so enthusiastic that I loan it to someone who never brings it back.” Pictures are popping up everywhere of people receiving pristine new paperbacks – “just got my first book from #savetheculture book exchange!” or sending them off. In a world full of frippery and greed, what could be bad about a scheme that gets more real books into people’s hands? But there’s an obvious problem. The most common form of the #savetheculture post is as follows:

“We need at least 6 people to participate in a book exchange. You can be anywhere in the world, the further we get, the better. All you have to do is buy a book and send it to one person. You will receive approximately 36 books back.”

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Wait, so you buy one book and you get 36 back? That sounds like… well, it is a pyramid scheme.

The way it works is as follow: One person posts the above text asking for at least six people to join the exchange. The number six seems to be arbitrary, but we’ll stick to it for example purposes. Six people like the original post and are told, via private message, the details of the scheme. The six people in the second tier post the text on their own profiles. The 36 people who sign up in the third tier are instructed to send a book to the poster in the first tier. This continues, in theory, indefinitely. The people in the sixth tier will be sending books to the people in the fourth. The people in the tenth tier will be sending them to people in the eighth. By that point, it’s a lot of people.

Eventually, the pool of people willing to send books will dry up and someone will be left out-of-pocket, having sent one on and received nothing in return. Anecdotal evidence from a few people who posted about #savetheculture reveals that no one actually got any books – but only one actually got as far as sending a book either, which would seem to point to the post as a sort of shareable “nice idea” rather than it being any sort of nefarious scam.

And it’s not clear who the originator is. The hashtag is not linked to any organisation or broader idea, and while it started popping up on Facebook and Twitter in early March of this year, similar schemes were circulating for Christmas gift-giving (“Sister Santa”) and children’s books last year. But it does seem to have started in March – #savetheculture as it was used before March generally referred to hip hop culture.

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Unless the book you’re sending to your Facebook friend is a first edition Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, you’re probably not going to lose your house through participating in an exchange. People give each other books all the time. But postal scams are, technically, illegal in the UK. So maybe it’s better to join a book club if you’re looking for new literary friends and new inspiration.