Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review: Lobster Network

Have you ever bought an item, whether for your homeschool or just your home, only to have a friend find out and say, "I wish I had known you were looking for that. I have one that you could have borrowed." It has happened to me on more than one occasion. I often borrow and loan items to friends, but I don't always know what goodies they have available. Wouldn't it be nice to search the inventories of your friends virtually?

Lobster Network is a new one-of-a-kind internet tool that helps communities buy, sell, trade, or give away items. It can also be used as a way to a personal inventory management. Essentially, it takes the concepts of popular sites like Craig's List, Paperback Swap, and eBay, and combines them into one tool.

Why is it called Lobster Network? I initially wondered too! While I love a nice lobster dinner, the name of this review item has nothing to do with food. The name Lobster Network is an acronym reflecting the versatility of the tool.

Signing up is easy... and FREE! Once you are registered, you have several options for adding your items. The system is categorized for easier browsing. The listings currently available are: Audio, Household Items, Print, Video, Video Games, Other.

You can list your items under a personal inventory, visible only to you. Or, you can have your items visible to others as well under several categories - Lend, For Sale, For Trade, Wanted, or Free. Once your items are entered, you have control over exactly who can see your items.

You have four choices for viewing:

Inventory - items listed as Inventory are only visible by you
Marketplace - items under Marketplace are visible to everyone, even non-members
Communities - these items are visible only to certain communities of people
Friends - items listed for friends can only be viewed by individuals you have "friended"

There are two types of communities, public and private. Public communities can be joined by anyone at any time. They usually center around a common interest or location. Private communities are joined by invitation only.

As you can see, it is a pretty flexible tool. I found listing items pretty easy. At first, the browsing function didn't seem as intuitive as other sites I've seen, but I figured it out soon enough. Those on the TOS Crew created their own private community and we were able to see items listed by the other members. Once you find something you would like, your request can be submitted through the Lobster Network site. You can also send messages if you have questions about the item.

With the exception of the added control on who sees your posting, the buy/sell/want features are similar to other sites . The member lists his or her item and those interested make contact through the system. Because it is a new website, the buying and selling feature is not as active as other sites, but that will change as membership grows. However, the Lobster Network feature that I found most unique is the virtual lending library of items available among a larger group of people.

Once items for loan and listed and an exchange is agreed upon, Lobster Network helps make it a smooth transaction. When you loan an item out, the system will keep track of where your items went and allow you to make them available again when they return. It will also send out reminder notices to those who have your borrowed items. This addresses two major issues I have had in the past with loaning items out - forgetting who borrowed my item and the person who borrowed it forgetting they had it.

I'll admit that I have a very selective list of people who I will let borrow my items. I have simply had too many things go missing. I also tend to not like to borrow a lot of items, either for fear of damaging it or simply because I like to own our items for the flexibility to use them whenever I want. Even though Lobster Network allows viewing of your inventory by just a select few, in my case it is almost easier to just call or send a quick email to those on my swap list to inquire about items. However, there are several specific circumstances where I can see real advantages to using Lobster Network as a lending library.

1) Close-knit virtual communities for easy-to-ship items that are cost prohibitive to purchase
2) Geographically close groups that have a similar interest
3) Neighborhoods or church communities for items that are needed only occasionally for projects

As an example for the first case, I belong to an online community where many of the members enjoy courses by The Teaching Company. These courses are on the pricier side and not always available at libraries. Several members agreed to make the courses they owned available for loan, with the benefit of being able to borrow titles from other members. It took awhile to figure out how to share the inventory lists among each other. Utilizing something like Lobster Network would easily allow each member to better see the inventory of others, request items, and track the transaction without having to create a custom system.

Homeschool groups would fall under the second case, as would other interest-based groups where similar items would be used among the group. I often have homeschooling items on my shelves that one child has moved beyond, but that I'm holding on to until the next child in line reaches that level. I also often have other homeschoolers ask if they can borrow an item for a short time just so they can see if it might work well for their family before making a purchase. I can see how this would also work with other interest-based groups, for example, photographers for equipment, backdrops, and props.

Lastly, have you ever been looking for a tool for a project and wondered who in your neighborhood might have it sitting in his garage? Those expensive home projects could be much easier on the budget without needingi to rent or purchase costly tools.

With the flexibility Lobster Network offers, I am sure there are many other uses I haven't thought of that would help save budgets, either through selling and buying used items or through sharing what we own. In the current economy, I think that is something we can all appreciate. In that same spirit, Lobster Network is a FREE to join, use, and enjoy. Visit the FAQ page on the website to find out more about the service or the registration page to join.

Visit the TOS Homeschool Crew's blog to read more reviews on this product and others.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.

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