It all began in July 2005. Kyle MacDonald was a restless young Canadian who asked himself a simple question: how far could he get if he played “Bigger and Better”, a kids’ scavenger hunt game, on the internet? The way it worked was players took a mundane item – say, a pencil – then scattered out into the neighbourhood, knocked on doors, traded up, then reconvened and voted on who had made the biggest and/or best swap. “I decided that instead of knocking on a neighbour’s door, it would be fun to knock on the internet’s door and see what people had to offer,” Kyle explains simply. It was pointless, yes. It was silly, certainly. But it was fun.
So Kyle sat down in his parents’ house in Vancouver, took a photo of a little red paperclip that was sitting on the desk and put this notice in the local community barter section of the free classified-ads website, Craigslist: “I want to trade this paperclip with you for something bigger or better, maybe a pen, a spoon, or perhaps a boot. If you promise to make the trade, I will come and meet you.”
Not far away, Rhawnie Vallins heard her flatmate and fellow vegetarian, Corinna Haight, read Kyle’s posting. “We were, like, is this guy serious?”
Rhawnie phoned Kyle and found out that indeed he was. The silliness of it was so appealing they agreed to swap a wooden novelty pen shaped like a fish for the paperclip.
The next morning, a laid-back guy with curly hair met Corinna and Rhawnie in the car park lot of a nearby 7-Eleven. They made the swap, took some photos and promised to keep in touch. The game, as Sherlock Holmes would say, was afoot.
Because Kyle had a) promised to make every swap face-to-face but b) had no money, he was limited to places he could visit cheaply or for free, or that were easy to get to from his apartment in Montreal.
But his next swap was in Seattle, as he and his family were on their way to a baseball game. They stopped to see Annie Robbins, a ceramics artist. Kyle checked out her array of items – a banana, a container of fish food and a little ceramic knob made by an eight-year-old boy. The knob had an odd face – a bug-eyed stare and a squiggly smile. “It looked like E.T. after he had taken a lot of drugs,” Kyle says. He went straight for it.
Next up was a two-burner camping stove offered in Amherst, Massachusetts. Kyle took it partly because its owner, a Craigslist devotee, begged for the little knob (“I have to have it. It would be perfect for the top of my espresso maker”), and partly because Amherst was on Kyle’s way to Manhattan, where he was meeting friends.
The stove then went west with Kyle and his mum to Camp Pendleton in California, where they exchanged it with a US marine for a small petrol-powered generator.
By then it was late summer and the offers were petering out. Kyle had a generator he didn’t need, a game no-one wanted to play anymore and an amusing little experiment that was dead in the water.
He was ready to drop it in November, but decided to give it one last shot. He spent a night, as he put it, “hammering together” an internet blog, which he called “oneredpaperclip.com”. In it he announced he was trading from a paperclip up to something bigger and better: a house.
Within 24 hours of putting the word out, Kyle got 120,000 hits, a vast improvement over the 20 or so he’d been getting before. In webspeak, his site had gone viral. The offers of things to swap poured in.
The list reads like a dadaist garage sale: 10,000 lifetime memberships to a date-a-golfer service, 1000 glow-stick powered basketballs, a 1974 fire engine, a tour of Air Force Two, a partly burnt-down house in Newfoundland, ten pieces of tile from one of Saddam Hussein’s castles, ten hectares of land in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a set of 14-carat removable gold teeth, a one-metre shark, 11 litres of homemade sauerkraut, one slightly used engagement ring, a herd of eight cows in Australia, and – his two favourite strange items – a total-body hair removal (available only in Tennessee and Kentucky), and a full-body tattoo.
By June of the following year, Kyle’s swaps had gone from the red paperclip, the fish pen, the funny-faced knob, the camping stove and the petrol-powered generator to…
A neon beer sign and a beer keg that Kyle dubbed the One Instant Party kit. He traded it to…
A DJ in Canada for a snowmobile that was traded to…
A snowmobile magazine that then offered a snowmobile trip in British Columbia to…
An outdoor enthusiast who offered a five-tonne truck that went to…
A record producer for a recording contract that was passed on to…
A “bohemian geek soul” singer in Phoenix in exchange for a year’s rent in her apartment to…
A waitress in Phoenix who offered an afternoon with her boss.
Now, her boss was Alice Cooper. That’s right, the snake-handling, ghoulish, shock-rock pioneer who is a Phoenix resident and the owner of Alice Cooper’stown, the restaurant where the waitress worked. “I can’t believe Kyle’s getting me to trade myself for him to get a house,” said Alice, “but it’s just crazy enough that I couldn’t resist.”
Word spread, triggering a tsunami of offers from Cooper fans. Of them, Kyle selected a rock’n’roll snow globe with the KISS rock-band logo and a guitar inside.
Oneredpaperclip.com fans went ballistic at such a stupid swap.
But there was method to Kyle’s madness, and we’re getting ahead of the story. Two months before, producer Corbin Bernsen, best known for his acting role in the hit TV series L.A. Law, heard Kyle being interviewed on the radio. Bernsen was writing a psychological thriller movie called Donna on Demand, and decided to offer a part in it.
Kyle loved the idea but did not have anything to swap with Bernsen.
Weeks later, he was talking to one of the Alice Cooper bidders, Mark Herrmann, an aspiring rock-concert photographer. “I really wanted to swap with him, but nothing he was able to offer seemed like a step closer towards the house,” Kyle says. “Then, in a sort of eureka moment, I thought of Corbin.”
Bernsen, Kyle knew, has a world-class collection of more than 6000 snow globes. “I said, ‘Mark, you might think I’m crazy, but do you have any snow globes?’ His answer was, ‘Yes. I have a KISS snow globe.'”
The next call was made to Bernsen, who said, “Not only do I want that snow globe, I need it!”
By then it was late June. The pressure was on. Months before, Kyle had let slip to a reporter that he hoped to get a house by July 12, the anniversary of the day he came up with the idea. So here he was, three weeks before the deadline and no sign of a house. Kyle was nervous.
Out of the blue, he got a call from Kipling, Saskatchewan, a small Canadian town (population 1100) close to the US border. Kipling offered Kyle a house in exchange for the movie role, which the town planned to raffle off.
On July 12, 2006, precisely one year after he began his journey, Kyle accepted the keys to a three-bedroom house at 503 Main Street in Kipling. In front of his house stood a 3.6m-tall red paperclip that the town had built.
Nearly two months later in September, the little town of Kipling held what Kyle termed Saskatchewan’s Biggest Housewarming Party Ever, about 2000 strong. Corbin Bernsen was there, holding an audition for his movie, as were 12 of the 14 traders.
At the party, Kyle borrowed the original red paperclip from Corinna Haight, bent it into a ring, then got down on one knee and proposed to his French Canadian girlfriend, Dominique Dupuis, who replied, “I guess I have to say oui.”
By the time it was over, Kyle’s site had over seven million hits, and he had a book contract and a deal for a movie.
Looking back, Kyle says the best part of the whole project was the pure fun of it. “Everyone asks what was your favourite trade. The one red paperclip for the fish pen. That’s it,” he says softly. “There’s no argument.”