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 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 thing."
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 US$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 favourite 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 website 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 seeming flaky.
While he was visiting his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, two women gave him a fish-shaped pen for the paper clip.
MacDonald ended up with a van, which he gave 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 duplex.
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 unusual 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 help you."